Monthly Archives: January, 2011

Zombies and Other Strangers: Thoughts on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead

My post on Robert Kirkman’s comic, The Walking Dead, is now up on the blog of the University of Minnesota Press.

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The Truth of Fables

From an entry for an encyclopedia of comics:

Fables concerns a group of characters from legend and folklore who are forced to live in a high-tech modern world. The “Fables,” as they call themselves, have been driven from their magical realms by the armies led by a mysterious enemy known only as the Adversary. The ones who can pass for human occupy a city block in Manhattan, which they call “Fabletown,” while the talking animals and enchanted beasts reside on a farm upstate. The Fables are forced to cope with the annoyances and aggravations of modern society, while having to contend with the pitfalls and disputes that are specific to the lives of quasi-immortal, magical beings. The disparities between long-lived mythical beings and mundane world of ordinary humans are often played for humor, especially whenever the Fables resort to magic to solve their problems, but these supernatural characters clash in deeper ways with their adopted home. Not only are the Fables different from ordinary mortals in being unusually long-lived and possessing supernatural abilities, but their convictions and values also provide a stark contrast with the attitudes and beliefs of modern, mundane people, whom they call, with affection and a touch of disparagement, “mundies.”

Many of the leading Fables are princes who have been forced into poverty by the loss of their lands. Instead of assimilating into the modern world, they tend to cling to aristocratic ways. In the second volume of the series, an adroit reworking of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Snow White and Rose Red visit the Farm, where they stumble into a conspiracy led by Goldilocks and the three bears. The rebels wish to overthrow the rule of the human Fables and then invade the homelands with modern weapons specially modified for use by animals.

After quelling the revolt at the Farm, the perpetrators are put on trial, and the worst of them are executed. Snow White expresses disdain for the “mundy social philosophy” that favors the rights of criminals over those of the law-abiding, dealing out punishments to the rebels without regret. But in the struggle between aristocratic and traditional values that stress duty and obligation and the modern, democratic and secular outlook, it is not always the former that win out. In certain cases, the modern ways prevail, when Fabletown holds its first mayoral election and when the Fables use high tech weapons to attack the Empire. On the other hand, duty overrules individual desire or psychological comfort, such as when Snow White goes through with an unwanted pregnancy or when the Frog Prince Ambrose is forced out of his traumatized stupor to confront the truth about the fate of his family, which was massacred by the forces of the Empire.

After avoiding the truth for centuries, Ambrose becomes the powerful ruler of Haven, the kingdom he founds and defends against repeated assaults from the Empire. The strength of the series derives to a considerable extent from its portrayal of familiar characters undergoing striking transformations. Indeed, Fabletown itself is founded on a compact which provides amnesty for all offenses that the Fables committed before signing the document. Thus, Bigby (aka the Big Bad Wolf) and the Black Forest Witch are able to become vital and important members of the community, having received pardons for the innumerable atrocities they perpetrated in the Homelands. Of course, the covenant does not prevent other characters such as Bluebeard, Goldilocks, Jack Horner, and Prince Charming from scheming to increase their power or plotting to bring about the downfall of the authorities.

The new beginnings for these fairy-tale characters come at the cost of the fairy-tale endings of their respective stories. “No more happily ever after” reads the message written in blood in Rose Red’s apartment. The new lives granted to these familiar and beloved figures are unlike anything from the tales intended for modern children. Marriages come to an end, and new romances flower. Princes and princesses are forced to give up their privileged lives and engage in drudgery and labor. Heroes and heroines, after their triumphs in the Homelands, must make common cause with their enemies and tormentors in order to survive in a new world. That the lives of these characters become even more compelling while remaining faithful to the spirit of the old tales is a testament to Bill Willingham’s extraordinary gifts as a story-teller.

Fables, in its frank exploration of grown-up, literary themes in the fairy-tales, provides arresting and memorable reinterpretations of these stories. The story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is retold as a grim account of sexual slavery and merciless revenge. Frau Totenkinder, recovering from her burns at the hands of Hansel and Gretel, recounts her girlhood as a tribal seer at the end of the Ice Age and the betrayal that led her to sacrifice her own infant son. She embarks thereafter on her lengthy career as a powerful sorceress, helping those who please her and harming those who do not, while stealing children to sacrifice every year to regenerate her magical abilities. The witch is both victim and perpetrator, murderer of children and protector of communities, whose spells save Fabletown on numerous occasions. The complexity of Totenkinder’s characterization is reflected by what she tells Snow White and Rose Red in gratitude for taking care of her: “you deserve to hear my tale. Even the evil parts.”

The Fables are deeply traditional people, clinging to values that seem outmoded and obsolete, yet they are marked by a determination to face the world as it is, and not make excuses for their actions or lapses. They may adhere to old-fashioned values, yet they fully accept the morally ambiguous nature of the choices they make. Beast, the sheriff, is horrified by the methods employed by Frau Totenkinder to increase her magical strength – she ostensibly draws power from the abortions committed by the mundies – yet, he chooses not to banish or otherwise punish her, realizing how vital her powers are for the defense of Fabletown.

The sense of ambiguity extends to the politics of the series. Willingham has come under fire for when Bigby expresses his admiration for willingness of the Israelis to commit harsh acts in self-defense. His portrait of the once humble woodcarver Geppetto as the ruler of an empire that is insatiable in its drive for expansion makes for unsettling parallels with the present-day United States, where many embrace unchecked economic growth as an unmixed social good. In Sons of Empire, a high point of the narrative thus far, the Snow Queen and Pinocchio offer contrasting hypothetical apocalypses. In the first, the sorcerers of the Empire unleash plagues on a mundane world helpless against attacks of a magical nature. The high-tech industrialized world succumbs to further plagues of fire and ice, which wipe out the human population, leaving the planet open for exclusive use as a prison for the Empire. In the second scenario, the modern, mundane world invades the Empire, using advanced technology to overwhelm feudal societies where innovation has been suppressed. The mundy nations send out conquistadors armed with modern weapons to annihilate the denizens of the worlds ruled by Geppetto and carve out private kingdoms in the Homelands.

That’s a tooth with a halo, folks, not a communion wafer.

These divergent scenarios reflect the deep divisions in the US over what constitutes the most pressing problems and greatest dangers: is it climate change, resource depletion, terrorism, economic decline, lone gunmen, the invasion of economic criteria into all spheres of social life, or the spread of fundamentalist faith? It could be said that what is most apocalyptic is the very uncertainty over these questions, especially as society finds itself increasingly less capable of financing the retreat into privatized dream-worlds that could make political solipsism appear a harmless consumer activity. In the most recent issues, the latest adversary of the Fables, Mister Dark, builds a residence on the ruins of Fabletown, served by people his magic has transformed into shambling, zombie-like entities. Unlike Geppetto, who banned all technology from his Empire, Mister Dark avails himself of televisions, computers, and mass media to found his own kingdom of darkness. Thus, the world of the Fables takes a step closer to our own reality.