Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers
Written by Bill Willingham; Art by Mark Buckingham, Craig Hamilton, and P. Craig Russell
2005 Eisner Winner for Best Serialized Story
There are some series that won multiple awards that I have talked about in one shot but with Fables I've been spreading things out. There's two reasons for this. The first is that unlike the other lengthy series I spoke about Fables is still ongoing so it is likely to win a few more before it's finished. The second is that the awards have been for specific stories which are conveniently collected in individual books. This is the case with "March of the Wooden Soldiers". The last time I said that I liked Fables but didn't like that initial storyline. At this point twenty issues later in the Fables story it is deep into the intrigue and quality that endeared the series to me when that initial story turned me off.
Fables is about fairy tales living in the real world as refugees who fled their own stories in the face of a conquering army led by someone they only know as "the Adversary". This story opens with a flashback the fall of the last fortress in stories and how it held out for one last group of refugees to escape. Centuries later one of the people who failed to escape from that last stand stumbles into the real world signaling that the war that they had fled has found them. Adding another complication is that in the middle of this crisis a mayoral election threatens to overturn the power structure of their sanctuary.
At this point Willingham has moved beyond his phase where he seemed to think that appropriating existing characters and using them in contrary ways is clever. His characters have developed their own voices so while Prince Charming may be a cad he's also a diabolical, scheming, and extremely charming one who is has appetites for wealth, women, and power and the abilities to gain them. Bigby Wolf isn't just the hard boiled detective; his lupine traits are clashing with his human as he reaches out to Snow White. And she's grown from being the tough woman as she's allowed to have vulnerable moments. Part of this is that Willingham has had twenty issues to build on the character but a lot of it is that he's just gotten a handle on how he wants to develop his versions of these familiar characters.
This story is also works on its own with just a basic understanding of the premise. The stories before it were about establishing the world they live in. "March of the Wooden Soldiers" is when the overarching plot that had been simmering in the background since the beginning finally moved to the foreground. This is the point where Fables stops being about story book characters living in the real world and starts becoming about their war which they stage from the real world against stories. It's kicked into high gear for something that's fast paced and exciting even though action really only bookends it. It's a page turner with plots, counterplots, hints of things to come, and tension that ramps up until it becomes unbearable.
Craig Hamilton and P. Craig Russell handle the art duties on the opening chapter which is stunningly beautiful. They put together scenes of lovely horror, the fairy tale charm running into mass slaughter. It's the last stand for legendary heroic warriors and they capture it with a style that's effective in its contrasts. Mark Buckingham provides the art duties for the rest of the book and while he can't match the other two for style he is great with how characters look. You will never mistake one character for another in Buckingham's art and the facial expressions could almost tell the story with no words at all.
I enjoy Fables as a series a lot and I'd like to say that "March of the Wooden Soldiers" is a high point. I can't do that since in my view everything from the second storyline to the tenth are spectacularly good. I can say that "March of the Wooden Soldiers" is something that anyone can pick up and if they love it then they'll love Fables. And I have a hard time picturing anyone who has ever enjoyed a fairy tale not loving it.