Fables: Legends in Exile

by Bill Willingham, et al.

Cover image

Series: Fables #1
Penciller: Lan Medina
Inker: Steve Leialoha
Inker: Craig Hamilton
Colorist: Sherilyn van Valkenburgh
Letterer: Todd Klein
Publisher: Vertigo
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 1-56389-942-6
Format: Graphic novel
Pages: 127

Buy at Powell's Books

The characters of human fairy tales are all real. Real, but hidden: they have been driven from their ancestral homelands by some force referred to here only as the Adversary, and have fled to the mundane world to escape his notice. Specifically, New York, where those characters who can pass as human blend into the streets of New York City, and those who can't (referred to only in passing in this story arc apart from one pig) stay at a farm upstate.

That's the brilliant premise of Fables, an ongoing comic series from Vertigo that's up to 121 issues plus numerous spinoffs as of this writing. This is the first trade paperback, collecting issues 1 through 5 plus a prose story.

Legends in Exile is, in underlying form, a murder mystery. It opens with Jack reporting a murder to Bigby Wolf, who is what passes for law enforcement among the Fables. Rose Red's apartment has been discovered covered in blood, and her body is missing. "No more happily ever after" is written on the wall in blood. Jack, despite being the one to report the crime, is Rose's lover and an obvious suspect. So is Snow White, the effective leader of the Fables (King Cole is a figurehead) and Rose's estranged sister. And, perhaps coincidentally, Prince Charming, Snow White's philandering and stunningly narcissistic ex-husband, has just turned up in town again.

The basic plot plays out like a typical murder mystery, complete with a grand reveal in the last chapter and a reconstruction of events. It's diverting but nothing special in itself; it's primarily a hook on which to hang an introduction to the major characters and an exploration of Fables politics and history. And that part is excellent.

Like most fractured fairy tales, the characters are more complex and nuanced than they are allowed to be in the canonical stories; unlike most fractured fairy tales, nearly all of that development is allowed to happen after the original stories. The original stories happened, largely as we all remember them, but then the characters kept living and changing. Wolf and his relationship with one of the three pigs is one of the highlights, but I think the odious Price Charming is the best bit of characterization. Willingham takes the idea of a charming seducer and layers in the rest of the womanizing associations that come to mind, while retaining a slick surface charm that is hard not to like at some level.

I'm not the best at critiquing art. I read graphic novels for the story, with the art as a nice bonus if it's fairly good. But I can say that Medina's pencils tell the story well, with a few larger panels that were quite impressive. I particularly liked Snow White's office, early in the collection. Detail is reasonably good throughout, there aren't too many panels featuring only talking heads, and Medina does a wonderful job with the pig. (Significant credit probably also goes to Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton, the inkers. I'm not a good enough art critic to distinguish between the quality of the pencil work and what was added by subsequent inking.)

The largest problem for me with Legends in Exile is my standard problem with graphic novels and the reason I don't buy many of them: the cover price is $10 for what is effectively a short story that builds an interesting world. If one really loves art in stories, graphic novels may be a good value. If, like me, one mostly cares about the story and would be almost as happy with straight prose, the value becomes questionable given the brief length of the material.

That said, Legends in Exile does add a quite good prose short story by Willingham, "A Wolf in the Fold," which in several ways is better than the main story of the collection. It tells the story of the original exile and the covenant that settled all past grudges (mostly) from the perspective of the wolf. Willingham does a great job here both striking a more mythic tone than the main story but still tying it back to the sarcastic and practical tone of the rest of the collection.

Although the main story itself is not particularly memorable, the background and concept make this one of the better graphic novels I've read. I can see why it's won so many awards, and I'll probably keep reading, despite the high graphic novel price tag.

Followed by Fables: Animal Farm.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-10-25

Last modified and spun 2017-04-29