The premise of Fables, by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham, is simple: all the storybook/folk tale/fairy tale/public domain characters you know and love—Snow White, Cinderella, Old King Cole, the Big Bad Wolf, Beauty, Beast, Pinocchio, and so on—are real.
And they're living in Manhattan.
They were forced out of the Homelands by the conquering forces of the unnamed Adversary, and they've set up Fabletown inside a Manhattan block. King Cole is mayor, Snow White is deputy mayor, and Bigby Wolf is sheriff. It's a hoot.
Sometimes, I think Bill Willingham is really not that awesome, and he's just coasting on his awesome premise, but I do give him a lot of credit for executing it very well, recognizing when it would be best to adhere to a particular character's characterization and when it's better to subvert it while still staying true to the story. I don't think he would deny that he's lucky to be able to elicit a reaction just by using a known character at all, but he doesn't use that as a crutch. He's created a very diverse, very sprawling world.
What's so great about Fables, then? It's constantly creative and inventive, and after the first couple dozen issues, the story really opens up and starts to expand beyond Fabletown, allowing many more possibilities for stories. It's a hoot, as I said: you can't beat the visceral cool of seeing such well-known characters acting like regular people. There are several strong, badass female characters, including Snow White and perhaps the most badass of them all, Frau Totenkinder (the witch from "Hansel and Gretel" and any other story that had a wicked witch in it). It has a very strong "storybook" sensibility, which obviously appeals to me; chapters often begin with cute little "In which..." epigraphs. The page frame art is something I'm not used to seeing in comics. It's full of surprises and emotionally affecting (the backstories revealed in 1001 Nights of Snowfall especially). Fabletown politics are kind of hilarious. Also, I found it interesting that the series eventually took a pro-Israeli stance, which is not something I expected a series about fairytale characters to deal with.
What's not so great? On rereading, I started to suspect that dialogue was not Willingham's strong suit; it's often a little unnatural and hokey. Because there are so many characters, most characters get painted very lightly, so they're not all as layered as they could be. Also, I've become more sensitive to the treatment of women in fiction since I first started reading the series, so this time around, some things pinged me. It seemed that despite his obvious desire to have strong female characters, Willingham would sometimes fall back on standard tropes (like a woman needing to be saved), which irked me. In addition, I sometimes felt like he relished having misogynist characters say misogynist things a little too much; it's obvious the reader is not supposed to espouse their viewpoints, but I felt like if he was going to be that blatant with the one side, there should be an equivalent and blatant asskicking to go along with it to hammer home the fact that what the character said is a load of crap. It's the little things.
Overall, it's a really great title, although the constant comparisons to Sandman bug me. Sandman is on an entirely different plane altogether. Sandman was consciously epic and layered; Fables is simply a ripping good yarn. Granted, it's become rather epic in scope, plotwise, so bully for Willingham.
If I've convinced you to give it a try, it's collected in nine trades plus 1001 Nights of Snowfall (I suggest reading it after Volume 7), with a tenth on the way in June. But, hey, I know you people want instant gratification: read the first issue for yourself.
The premise of Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, is also simple: all the male creatures on Earth inexplicably die except for Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand. You may have heard of this one before, as it's one of the most acclaimed series in recent years; it would be hard to find someone who doesn't drool over it. One of those droolers is Joss Whedon, for what it's worth. And it's really no surprise that Whedon and Vaughan admire each other's work, since they have a lot of similarities.
The first issue is one of the best first issues I've ever read. It's fast-paced and exciting and tense and bloody and awesome. It introduces all the major characters. Yorick is an unlikely hero, a dorky escape artist who likes magic tricks and making pop-culture references that no one else gets: he's basically John Crichton in his twenties! With a dash of GOB for good measure. He proposes to his girlfriend, Beth, right before all the men die; she's trekking in Australia and therefore has no clue he's alive after the plague hits. Yorick's sister, Hero, is an EMT, and his mother is a Congresswoman. Agent 355 is a badass black secret agent eventually assigned to protect Yorick. Dr. Allison Mann is a Chinese-Japanese scientist who has been studying cloning and thus may be the key to saving the human race. Alter Tse'elon is an Israeli soldier who ends up being one of the many, many people after Yorick and Co. (Dude, he really is like Crichton.) Later, there's also a Russian chick. One of the title's many strengths is its globally diverse cast.
Y is essentially a big road trip. The core trio (quartet, if you count Ampersand) is constantly traveling westward toward their goal, and they have all kinds of wacky adventures on the way where people die a lot. Vaughan really examines what might happen if all the men died and women had to run everything. Some would be distraught at the sons and fathers and husbands they lost. Some would see it as the fiercest form of female empowerment. He explores all sorts of reactions and muses on how the world would keep itself running: that's what science fiction allows you to do, after all.
A quick note: you may think that having one man left in a world of women would lead to fifty-nine issues of porn, but...not so much. This isn't that kind of book. Yorick is determined to reunite with Beth, and he doesn't feel the urge to fuck everyone he meets just because they have no one else to fuck.
What's wonderful about Y is that it's, well, full of strong female characters. All the women in the book feel like real, developed characters, even the very minor ones. I think it's also notable that the artist and co-creator, Pia Guerra, is a woman (a rarity in comics, I imagine), and she draws the women like real people. The art is very accessible and easily draws you in. I also want to give props to letterer Clem Robins, who does a great job of creating emotional moments by reducing the size of the words in a large bubble.
This book has got everything, you guys. Monkeys! Guns! Pirates! Ninjas! Spies! Robots! Lesbians!
Brian K. Vaughan is a masterful plotter, but more importantly, he cares very much about characterization. Each issue drives the narrative forward in some way; characters from previous storylines will often return, and things the trio does in one town can have consequences later on. It's very much One Long Story, and you can go back and see how everything fits together. Several one-shots focus on giving backstories to characters and fleshing them out through flashbacks (a technique he employs throughout, all hail non-linear narrative). Characters are complicated, and their motives aren't always completely clear. And Vaughan is one bad motherfucker when it comes to cliffhangers. There was one issue where I was saying out loud, "Oh fuck, fuck, FUCK!" before I turned the page, and you all know how I love when fiction makes me do that. (Incidentally, the moment I describe turned out to be "just" a reveal with the end of the issue still a few pages away. My mind was blown into a billion pieces by the end.)
As I neared the end of the series, I got the same feeling I had watching the end of Six Feet Under, the realization that I was really going to be saying goodbye to these wonderful characters. Because they all felt like real people I knew and wanted to hang out with. It was lovely to watch Yorick and 355 and Dr. Mann, three very different people from very different backgrounds, bond as a group like Mugen and Jin and Fuu. In the end, when you stripped away the crazy cliffhangers and the sci-fi mumbo-jumbo and the examination of gender politics, it was really just a story about people. And that, I think, is why the series is ultimately so popular and amazing.
Have I convinced you to check out what many people call one of the greatest comic books ever? The series is collected in ten trades, the last to come out in June. That's right, it's over. Vaughan says, "I think finales are what give stories their meaning." (Is it a coincidence that soon after he joined the Lost writing staff, they negotiated themselves an end date?) There is a movie (well, a trilogy, as all things must be trilogies...and you'd be stupid to attempt to condense sixty issues of hardcore story into a two-hour movie anyway) on the horizon, and Shia LaBeouf is rumored to be playing Yorick.
Read the first issue right now! Tell me you're not hooked.
If you've been hesitant to check out comics, these two titles are great to start with, and they will make you instantly cool, as both have won multiple Eisner Awards (the comics equivalent of the Oscars). If there's more interest in comics, I can recommend more titles as I continue to catch up on my favorites. There's a whole wonderful world of storytelling out there, just waiting to be experienced.