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Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham

Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham
Book Name: Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile
Author: Bill Willingham
Publisher(s): Vertigo
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Comic Book
Release Date: April 25, 2003

Inspired by the post about graphic novels and fantasy from a few weeks ago, I thought it would be good to revisit the beginnings of a series I started reading a while back, one which came to an end last year. Fables, written by Bill Willingham, told the tale of our favourite fairy tale characters – Snow White, Rose Red, The Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, to name just a few – in Fabletown, a borough of New York.

Legends in Exile (cover 2)Legends In Exile is the first graphic novel of the series, collecting the first five individual issues of Fables, which premiered in 2002. Released by DC’s Vertigo imprint, it swiftly joined the likes of Hellblazer (featuring occult detective John Constantine) and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as one of the publisher’s must read comics. I confess, I came to Fables very late, after being given Legends In Exile as a gift three or four years ago, and have only read four of the twenty or so volumes that now compromise the entire collection.

Legends In Exile, as the title suggests, sees these characters living in modern New York. They’ve had to leave their fairy tale lands, moving into our world to escape a great evil that is corrupting their own. In this first volume, little is mentioned of who, or indeed what, that evil is, although this is gradually revealed as the story progresses. What Legends In Exile does, however, is introduce the reader to characters both well-known and possibly unfamiliar, placing them in a murder mystery scenario that Agatha Christie would have been proud of.

Willingham plays on our pre-conceptions of these characters with great effect. Snow White is Director of Operations, a corporate type responsible for keeping the Fabletown community together. Her head of security is one Bigby Wolf, a hard-drinking and chain-smoking detective in charge of investigating the case. Other characters include Bluebeard, Prince Charming (who often isn’t) and Rose Red, who is in the unfortunate position of having been murdered. As Bigby’s investigation gathers further suspects, Snow must keep the repercussions from destroying her beloved community, while keeping herself together as she deals with the loss of her sister.

Legends in Exile (art 1)

That’s enough of the story I dare mention without giving away any spoilers. It’s enough to say that, while the plot does follow a certain formula, it does so with great relish. Often, clichés are as such because they work so well within a particular format or genre, and the writer respectfully manipulates his characters and readers down many a blind alley. The final revelation as the crime is solved comes as a surprise, but it is a fitting and rewarding finale.

Art duties fall to Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton, who bring all the characters to vivid life, imbuing each of them with their own unique personality. Even the backgrounds are important; one single-page panel of Snow White’s office has it filled with enough objects to keep the reader fixed on the scene for a long time, and there are embellishments around panel and page edges that really capture the spirit of the story. And, like any good detective story, the clues are often lurking in darker corners. Colouring is cleverly done, too, especially in flashback sequences where the tone varies depending on who is telling the story.

Legends in Exile (cover)Comics can be much-maligned, misunderstood to be the medium for telling tales of men and women in capes and cowls. Back when it was created in the late 1980s, the Vertigo range was ‘suggested for mature readers’ and this remains the case. Our cast may be from fairy tales, but they’re foul-mouthed and as violent as the Grimm tales themselves once were before they were toned down for younger readers. Willingham takes chances and pulls no punches, making for fascinating – and sometimes twisted – reading, often with a moral message.

Legends In Exile was a great read the first time, arguably one of the stories that got me back into reading comics over the last few years. Its traditional fantasy at its finest, blended in with other genres and the modern day to create a unique and outstanding vision. It has lost none of its impact after time; in fact, it’s actually better than I’d remembered, both clever and entertaining. For anyone thinking of picking up comics, this would be a great place to begin, a triumph of the medium and a compelling scenario that will stay with the reader for a long time.


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