Vertigo’s Fables: Fate, Duty, and Redemption in the Modern World
This past month marked the end of an era for fans of the long running comic series Fables. After a hundred and fifty issues and thirteen long adventure filled years, Fables tells its last tale. The series has been both a critical and commercial success earning fourteen Eisner awards and supporting several spin offs and even a prose novel. And a Telltale video game entitled The Wolf Among Us was produced in 2014. To put it simply, the series concerns a community of characters from fairy tales and folklore, who calls themselves Fables, exiled to our world after they were chased out of their magical homelands. Living out in the mundane world proves to be a greater challenge than initially believed, as those who cannot pass for human are forced to live on a farm, far away from the non magical folks called mundies. The series chronicles their fight to stick together, protect their new home, and live out the rest of their existence how they please.
Part epic fantasy, part political thriller, and part war story the series covers a variety of themes and ideas. The chief of which concerns morality and humanity. At its essence Fables is about fate, duty, and redemption in our modern world. By examining its chief players we can pinpoint how these themes are explored and perhaps gain a new appreciation for this beloved series. This article will include spoilers for the last issue, as a warning for those not caught up.
Fables kicks off its first issue with a murder mystery. The “victim” is Rose Red, of Snow White and Rose Red fame, who is found missing from her apartment with blood caking the walls. Sheriff Bigby Wolf, known as the Big Bad Wolf back in the homelands but now in human form, alerts Rose’s sister Snow White, the deputy of mayor of Fabletown, of the crime scene. Snow and Bigby have run Fabletown, home of human looking Fables, for 400 years and although they have difficulty showing it; they care deeply for the fellow Fables. It is revealed that Rose and her on-and-off again boyfriend Jack, faked her murder to get rich and get Rose out of marriage contract with the villain Bluebeard. This first arc set up the world in which these characters inhabited and served as a small introduction to its many characters. Although Fables shifts its focus between many characters throughout the years, Bigby and Snow are often the primary focus.
Snow White, of both Snow White and Rose Red and Seven Dwarves fame, is not the typical Snow White archetype. Often called the ice queen by citizens of Fabletown, Snow has been through a lot back in the homelands. After rescuing a prince from a magical spell with her sister Rose, Snow is shipped off to live with her stepmother by her mother to avoid a terrible fate. What follows are years of abuse and neglect by those very people who were supposed to love her. Eventually she is awoken from an enchanted sleep by Prince Charming but that marriage is short-lived.
With her sister at her side, she escapes the homelands after the Adversary’s forces take over and helps create Fabletown. She asks Bigby Wolf to become the Sheriff of Fabletown and the two form a partnership the lasts 400 years before it becomes something more. Snow and Bigby fall in love, marry, and have seven children over the course of series. Towards the end, it is revealed that Snow and Rose have powerful magic passed down from their mother. As fate would have it their family line will only produce daughters and the daughters must kill each other off to gain that magic.
As deputy mayor, Snow is willing to make sacrifices for Fabletown. She serves her fellow Fables loyally, even after she is forced to step down from office after the birth of her children. In the days before that, Snow served as ambassador for Fabletown, stopped a revolution at the Farm, prepared them for war with the Adversary, and led the Fables against an army of wooden soldiers while pregnant. Raising seven children who can shape shift from wolf to human among many other abilities, does not leave Snow out of the loop of Fabletown business. She serves as an advisor and war planner when the Fables finally face the Adversary.
Throughout the series, Snow strives to never be overcome by anything. She commands her own fate the best she can and never goes down without a fight. This is why she decided to help run Fabletown in first place to gain back the control she had lost back in the homelands. Back home she was often cast aside to be a sort of damsel in distress, as fate or her story dictated. When her story comes to end or at least as the mundies know it, Snow vows revenge against those who have harmed her. The dwarves who took advantage of her and forced her into servitude are slain by her hand. As she sees it, she is reclaiming her fate, reclaiming who she was. Fortunately, Snow learns that revenge did not at all do what she hoped and she is left feeling worse then ever. To redeem herself she founded Fabletown and vowed to serve her fellow Fables dutifully.
Bigby Wolf shares a similar struggle with fate and destiny as his wife and partner Snow White. Back in the homelands, Bigby was known as an unrepentant and intelligent monster. This wasn’t always the case, for Bigby was once ridiculed by his brothers for his size. He too has powerful origins. His mother, Winter, was a white wolf capable of speech. His father was the North Wind, a god of incalculable power. Mister North fell in love with Winter and took the form of a wolf to seduce her. They spent a wonderful season together before he left her with seven cubs. Bigby and his brothers inherited shape shifting, flight, among other powers from their father. Bigby who loved his mother above all else, refused to be anything other than a wolf to spite his father.
Winter died from a broken heart and no one mourned her but her smallest son. From then on Bigby vowed to be the biggest baddest wolf in all the land. He ate anything and everything and moved from pigs, to little girls, to the Adversary’s armies. One day while invading an enemy camp, Bigby came across Snow White and Rose Red. He fell for Snow right there. He set her free and tried to forget her. Many years later he came across her again, and she offered him the role as Fabletown Sheriff. He took the job along with a new human form.
Whereas Snow was the brains of Fabletown, Bigby was the muscle. As Sheriff, Bigby was tough but fair with a strong focus on justice (for the most part.) Although he came to the mundane world for Snow, he quickly developed life long friendships with many Fabletown residents such as Flycatcher and Boy Blue. He hired special recruits to be his eyes and ears all across the mundane world. He dealt terrible blows to enemies of Fabletown such as the Adversary and his army. He was willing to do what’s best for his people even if it means accusing Snow of murdering her sister. He even protects mundane from run ins with Fables that mean them harm such as Bluebeard and even served the Allied powers in World War II. Bigby is also a devoted father and husband while still serving Fabletown when needed.
In later issues, we learn Bigby almost had a different fate entirely. A woman called Lake, who deals out fates, cursed Bigby with dying at the hands of an enemy a few days after encountering her. Not one to take defeat, Bigby attacks Lake again prompting to change his fate again to what he did not know. Through out the series Bigby is challenging fate, destiny, and perception. He fights to reform himself into a man, someone deserving of Snow and Fabletown’s love and respect. He fights to not be like his father and refuses any title available to him. But he is not always victorious as Brandish defeats him in battle and turns him into glass.
The Wolf family has a whole struggles against fate more than any other characters. Bigby has his fate set out for him the moment he was born. He was meant to be nothing more than a weakling, a creature to be pitied. But his heart was big enough and determined enough to fight this fate. Its only later after becoming a monster that Bigby realizes fate still had a hold on him. He became what his father wanted him to be a powerful and unrelenting god. He then works to undue those monstrosities through Snow and his service to Fabletown. Fate will never control the Big Bad Wolf.
Fabletown has many soliders and one big player is Flycatcher, the former Frog Prince. In the homelands, Flycatcher lived happily with his wife and many children. There was one downside though. Whenever he got nervous or scared he turned back into a frog and only his wife’s kiss could turn him back. When the Adversary’s armies came to his palace, Flycatcher failed his family. He turned into a frog while his wife and eldest daughter were raped and murdered. His other children were killed instantly.
After one last kiss from his wife’s dead lips, he became human again and headed to Fabletown. His guilt and terror were so great that for many years he was in denial. He took up a job as janitor which Bigby gave him, in hopes that he would heal in time. When at last he remembers, Flycatcher, or Ambrose as he was once known, must go on a quest to reclaim a Kingdom in the homelands.
Ambrose is not a fighter and has no experience leading people, but out of duty to Fabletown and duty to his family he will no longer stand aside while the enemy gets stronger. The journey back to the homelands is long and arduous. But with his army by his side ( a rag-tag group of deceased Fables) he can set up Haven. Ambrose welcomes anyone to Haven rather Fable or villain as long as they promise to live peacefully. Geppetto sends army after army to Haven.
The old Ambrose would have quivered in fear. But Haven’s King is willing to put himself on the line for his people. Thanks to the armor of Lancelot, Ambrose is able to best all the armies that come his way. Once defeated the armies come to Haven deciding Ambrose is worth their devotion and not the Adversary. From then on Ambrose is huge defender of Fabletown and is at last able to forgive himself for the loss of his family.
Flycatcher’s story does not revolve around fate, exactly but he does work to become more than what he is. He believed that his story had ended when he met his wife. As he saw it he finally got his happily ever after. When that ending shatters it leads him to do nothing. He forgets who he was and who he could be. He is in some way resigned to his fate. Thankfully, after finally facing the truth Ambrose challenges fate once again. Through his army of deceased Fables he draws a new fate. One that will ensure Fabletown’s victory against the Adversary and of course make his lost family proud of him once again.
Another surprising defender of Fabletown is non other than Cinderella herself. Known as Cindy by those close to her, Cinderella is Charming’s third ex wife. We as readers are not given many details about her past. But we do know her story. She lived with her stepmother and two-step sisters and was treated as a maid. Thanks to her fairy godmother she attended a ball where she met Prince Charming.
As the last of the Fables headed into the mundane world, Cindy stayed with Charming to make sure he got to safety despite the fact their marriage was over. In the mundane world Cinderella runs a small unimpressive shoe store called The Glass Slipper. To most citizens, Cindy is just an airheaded spend thrift, but in reality she is a secret agent and has protected Fabletown for a long time.
For Fabletown, Cindy does assassinations, interrogation, and diplomatic missions throughout the series. She stops Ichabod Crane from contacting the Adversary, she got the Cloud Kingdom to ally with Fabletown, and protected Pinocchio from being kidnapped by Geppetto, among other things. When the powers begin to shift and a civil war is about to erupt in Fabletown, Cinderella puts her loyalty into Snow White who she sees as the true leader of Fabletown.
Unlike other Fables, Cinderella seems to have control over her fate the entire run. Becoming a spy for Fabletown requires Cindy to be active and in control most of time. She must always be one step ahead. This means Cindy makes her up her own fate. She no longer allows her story to be dictated by outside forces. In her original story she had to wait for her fairy godmother. This time there is no waiting around for a signal. Cinderella becomes more than what she is expected to be. She does not allow fate to pigeon hole her and she can redeem herself on her own terms.
Boy Blue on the other hand was a trained solider, who wanted nothing more to be lowly office clerk away from any war. Blue was originally a simple trumpet player in haystack but then joined a force to get his fellow people into the mundane world. Along the way he fell for Little Red Riding Hood, or what he believed was her. The last night in the homelands, Blue was to be hidden under a magical cloak to make sure all the Fables got onto the ship safely. The Riding Hood imposter refused to get on the ship and decided to fight resulting in her death. Blue not only had her death on his hands but the blood of his fellow soldiers he wasn’t able to save. Once in the mundane world, he worked closely with Bigby and Snow. He formed friendships with Flycatcher and Pinocchio.
During the battle with the wooden soldiers, Blue learns the real Riding Hood is alive and enslaved by the Adversary. Determined to save a girl he never met and redeem himself, Blue heads back into the Homelands while stealing Fabletown property. Blue meant to end the Adversary once and for all in a single hit. What he ended up doing is uncovering the true Adversary, Geppetto.
Geppetto has been building armies of wooden soldiers with magic stolen from the Blue Fairy. Blue faced much hardship after that. He is transported to the farm, gets his heart broken by Rose Red, and ends up dying shortly after they win the battle against Geppetto. Blue’s story revolves around duty and redemption. His service to Fabletown like Cinderella’s is worth his life. He sees his service as a sort of redemption, something that is just.
Similar to Blue, Rose Red also seeks redemption and a second chance at being a force for good. After Snow was sent away by their mother, Rose fell into a deep depression. She remained numb for several years until the day Snow married Charming and invited Rose to live in the castle. Rose took every chance she got to make life miserable to anyone who dared to be kind her. She was responsible for the death of an innocent man and eventually slept with Charming. Rose and Snow stuck together through the Adversary seizing control of their kingdom. They met Frau Totenkinder and thanks to Rose she survived her run in with Hansel and Gretel.
In the mundane world, Rose was a party girl and mooched over anyone who was kind to her. She and Snow had a falling out when Rose’s partying ways threatened to reveal her magical nature. After Bigby uncovered Rose’s plan to fake her death, Snow and Rose headed to the farm as a punishment. There they discovered a revolution in which Rose took the side of the animals. Snow foiled the plans for revolution and gave Rose a chance to redeem herself, as keeper of the Farm.
For a time Rose did well running things. She was much happier out of Snow’s shadow. When Blue confessed his feelings for her, she broke his heart telling him she did not feel the same way. But when Blue was dying after the battle with the Adversary, Rose told him she loved him. He rebuffed her angrily, accusing her of being cruel to him even when he lay dying. His words stung Rose so deeply that she retreated into herself for many issues.
Rose is one character that often is resigned to her fate. She does not believe in herself that way Snow and Bigby do. Unlike her sister, Rose is not a popular Fable and her story if often untold. For this reason among many other confidence issues, Rose lets fate control her. As she sees it fate has already claimed her as a loser. She will never amount to anything and will always be second fiddle. She does not believe redemption is possible for her. When she becomes of knight of Hope and at last she feels worthy, she allows arrogance to consume her. She thinks I will take people down and then no one will control her ever again. Fate and everyone involved in it becomes meaningless to her.
The final issue of Fables was so large that it got its own trade paperback. The civil war in Fabletown comes to head as Rose, who had become a knight of Hope, has turned to the dark side after discovering that as fate would have it, only Snow or Rose can inherit ancestral magic. The castle of a villain named Mister Dark which had become the new Fabletown crashed before their very eyes. Before the battle between Snow and Rose can start, there are several casualties including Cinderella and Frau Totenkinder. Bigby who came back to life thanks to a dark magic has become a beast once more and Rose has seized control of him. Thankfully, he is able to regain his sanity after speaking with his family. Just as Rose is preparing for battle, Blue or what we readers can infer as Blue speaks to her. He reminds her of all she has gained and what she will lose if she goes through with this fight.
Rose, Snow, and Bigby meet several hours later and Rose promises there will be no battle. Rose points out that the ancestral magic said their line could only produce daughters. But Snow and Bigby had four sons and three daughters. This leads Rose to believe that the ancient magic is broken and there is no need for war after all. To ensure events like these do not happen again Rose vows to keep away from Snow and her family. Fabletown no longer exists and now the wide world knows of its existence. The mundane world has becoming anything but mundane. Fables are no longer restricted to the farm or Fabletown. They can go anywhere they please and that includes any world they imagine. But Bigby and Snow stay where there are, as their family tree grows with each passing decade.
It’s hard to classify Fables into one single theme or story. Its tale was spread through a variety of worlds and years. But certain ideas and themes are present in all the Fables stories. This was a story about a journey, about forgiveness, about morality, and about duty. Fabletown was a community of soldiers, protectors, and agitators with one single goal–to survive in the new world. In the mundane world they were forced to hide and their happily ever afters came and went. Its characters had such simple stories back in the homelands, but those stories became more and more complicated.
Fate which sounds like a simple thing has many facets. As Bigby says fate is not just one single option but a buffet of options open to you. No matter if you come from magical background, a royal background, or even a simple peasant background there is not one single path you must take. Bigby, Snow, and Rose all fought against fate deciding there was more to themselves then just lineage. They had duties to their families, to themselves, and the greater community at large. Fate does not care what those duties are and prefers the characters to simply go along with what is in store. But these duties were worth fighting tooth and nail for, as we’ve seen.
Through duty, characters like Rose, Blue, Bigby, and Flycatcher can redeem themselves. Through the events of the series these characters have faced terrible trials in the mundane world and in the homelands. Through their duty to the community, their families, and themselves they are able to see something new in each other. They see their value when they are working together for a greater purpose. Cinderella who started out as simple shoe clerk blossomed into a hero of Fabletown through her service.
Fables was a comic with intelligence, heart, and rich storytelling. In thirteen years it managed to be political thriller, epic fantasy, and war story. While simultaneously re inventing the characters we thought we knew. Hopefully, a movie or television adaptation will find its way out in the world someday. That way Fables can at last get the wide-spread attention it deserves.
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