Fables volume 1: Legends in Exile
Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Lan Medina and Steve Leialoha
Lettered by Todd Klein
2003 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story
2003 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2003 Eisner Winner for Best Lettering
I suppose I should be up front about this: I'm about to say some nasty things about this book. Not Fables in general, mind you; I've come to love the series. It's just that my appreciation of the series is in spite of this first volume rather than because of it. This first volume spends far too much time hitting the reader over the head with the concept for the series and fails to tell an interesting story. My dislike for the first book was the reason I avoided reading the series for a long time.
The premise of Fables is that characters from folk lore and nursery rhymes are real people who are refugees from their own stories. They were chased out by a dark lord type known as "the Adversary" and have been living in the real world. The story in question, "Legends in Exile" introduces the reader to their community hiding in Manhattan where Rose Red has disappeared. Her apartment is covered in blood and it is up to her sister Snow White and the fable community's only detective Bigby Wolf to find if she is alive and who did it.
Fairy tales being "real" is an old plot that takes a deft touch to pull off well. To use my previous review as an example Linda Medley brought a unique storytelling style to "Sleeping Beauty". Willingham eventually finds a niche in this with an interesting take on the integration of old world stories and the modern world along with their conflict with the Adversary. Unfortunately in this volume that isn't present. Instead Willingham relies on name dropping and dirtying up the characters.
A perfect example is Prince Charming who is charming but also a womanizing sleazeball. The reader is intended to go, "Oh my! A fairy tale character who is a jerk! My childhood illusions are shattered!" Since I've seen this kind of thing over and over before my reaction was, "That's it?" He might be the most extreme example of this but there's a certain amount of it in all the characters. How about Pinocchio as a real boy who never grows up? Or Beauty and the Beast having marital troubles? Or Jack the Giant Killer as a scuzzy con artist? There's nothing particularly clever or interesting about the portrayal of the traditional characters here and yet Willingham keeps dropping them in shooting the references past the reader as fast as he can go.
The mystery at the center of this book isn't a particularly compelling one either. Since the reader never gets to know Rose Red the question of if she's dead or alive that occupies much of plot doesn't matter beyond the folk lore connection. When the solution is revealed Bigby Wolf mentions that he worked out the bulk of the mystery immediately which meant that most of his investigation was essentially there to jerk the reader around for two-thirds of the book's length. He mentions doing this to arrange a solution where nothing bad happens but since it hinges on a wildly improbable turn of luck that he didn't foresee it comes across as an after the fact justification by Willingham. The mystery plods along to a weak, overlong conclusion.
There are good moments in the story but they're just fleeting moments where Willingham forgets about the plot or throwing another version of a fairy tale character at us. These are usually the quiet character moments for Snow and Bigby as the only characters to really get some texture in Legends in Exile. It's glimpses of what Fables would become but they're few and far between.
Lan Medina does a respectable but not brilliant job with the artwork. The design is never muddled and the storytelling is straightforward; the layouts are never spectacular however. The facial expressions are good that you can almost read the story just in those but at the same time I'm a bit put off by how he draws some of his figures. Characters often come across as very stocky and some of the exotic shapes (like when Bigby Wolf reverts to a more natural state for him) are strangely formed.
For a person who has never read Fables I'd recommend skipping this volume and go straight to the second one. The one paragraph summary is all you really need to know to enjoy the book so there's no harm in skipping straight to the second book where instead of just name dropping Willingham starts developing his versions of the characters. The fact that they have much better stories doesn't hurt either. The series has won many Eisners and I'll get to what I like in the series eventually but I can't recommend reading Fables Volume 1: Legends in Exile.