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Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is a 140ish page anthology, a prequel to the acclaimed series, and an opportunity to tell tales of various Fables characters set before the founding of Fabletown, all framed by an Arabian Nights story of Snow White held by the Sultan of the Arabian fables. ("A Most Troublesome Woman", a text piece beautifully illustrated by Michael Wm. Kaluta and Charles Vess, though all the others are in traditional comic form.)

Bill Willingham's prose, as ever, approaches charming but never quite gets past some awkward phrasing. My problems weren't with the prose itself however.

The first tale - "The Fencing Lesson" - tells of Snow White's marriage to Prince Charming and is also a murder mystery. But the murders are never much of a mystery; who-dun-it is all very obvious. John Bolton's art is typically alluring - he's always drawn beautiful women going back to the Marada the She-Wolf days.

Mark Buckingham has always been an artistic chameleon as his bravura run on Miracleman demonstrated, and "The Christmas Pies" shows off his charm (perhaps his most prevailing trait) at its most gorgeous. Appealingly water-coloured like children's book illustrations but with exquisitely nuanced expressions when called for, as in the last panel of the second-last page. "I live to serve" indeed. The story, starring the foxy Reynard, again contains a twist of sorts, but one that is neither surprising nor pointed.

James Jean finally gets a chance to delve beneath the covers in "A Frog's Eye View", a short foray into Flycatcher, the Frog Prince's backstory. It should be touching, so tragic is the fate that befalls him, but instead it's merely awkward. The plot suffers from improbabilities which could have been covered up quite easily: they're not huge plot holes but they're enough to distract. For instance, as prince of the land he wait until the invaders are literally storming the castle before deciding to do something about it - but the fact that they're so close comes as a total surprise, which is at odds with the (mostly) conventional view of warfare presented in Fables. It's not like they teleported past the bastions. Later, he wanders his kingdom addle-minded, but is apparently entirely unrecognised. I think the fact that we never get a chance to get inside his head, that the fable is ostensibly told by someone (ie Snow White) who never experienced the events first-hand, fatally throttles the emotion and dilutes the impact. The art, in detailed in greys and browns, is more than suitably evocative however.

"The Runt", Bigby Wolf's story is also conventionally told, but somewhat more interesting than the others, probably because Bigby himself was always such an intriguing, mysterious character. More-than-adequate art is by Mark Wheatley, whom I don't recall encountering since the days of Epic Illustrated and the memorable Mars (which he created in association with Marc Hempel).

The three-page "A Mother's Love" (art by Derek Kirk Kim, whom I'm unfamiliar with, to my detriment based on this short sample) is a cute reversal on the enchanted prince story, but again somewhat implausible - and I'm not just talking about the name of the protagonist, a rabbit called Thunderfoot. The fact that any hare he encounters flees from his fell beast form (you'll know what I mean when you read it) doesn't make sense given how all manner of man and beast, including former enemies and mass-murderers, mingle in Fabletown.

"Diaspora" is a longer story starring Snow White and Rose Red in a sequel of sorts to Hansel and Gretel. I liked it best of the ten because of the memorable way the witch Frau Totenkinder (German speakers know what's up) is introduced. Also, I have to like any postmodern fairy tale that contains the phrase "Into the woods". And I liked the art by Tara McPherson, which has a retro/modern sheen similar to a lot of James Jean's covers for the series.

"The Witch's Tale" (a story within the Snow White/Rose Red story within the Snow White story ... shades of Sandman's "World's End"?) - with art by Esao Andrews - like "A Frog's Eye View" also contains all manner of foul deeds, but because they're perpetrated by the witch, rather than being inflicted on her, the objective, removed narration works better than in Ambrose's tale. Still, I would have liked the story to have focussed more intensely on some of the events in Totenkinder's life, rather than rushing through them panel-by-panel. Willingham's Totenkinder isn't as cheerfully amoral as his witch Thessaly (whom he inherited from Neil Gaiman in an entertaining Sandman Presents some years back), but is potentially just as fascinating. Many of the witches from various fairy tales are woven into the one figure, just at least three charming princes were in the series' main arc.

Brian Bolland's piece "What You Wish For" features the most conventionally comic-booky art, and (like Glenn Fabry's Destruction story in Endless Nights) thus appears the most visually incongruous, though of course, Bolland is as accomplished as ever. The story however, at two pages, is entirely inconsequential.

The final piece, exploring King Cole's backstory (with Jill Thompson's art taking on a water-coloury finish not unlike Mark Buckingham's, and looking grand for it), also just peters on and peters out. It's not unengaging and Cole is presented in an admirable light, but ultimately "Fair Division" - like every other instalment in 1001 Nights of Snowfall - is less of a story and more of a fragment. It stops at the very panel when things get really interesting.

Willingham only occasionally returns to "A Most Troublesome Woman" - there's no progression to speak of in Snow White's tale of incarceration between the chapters: it's just a framing device and nothing more. The ending also is just a retread of the Scheherazade story with no new twist or insight.

I like Fables a lot, though I certainly wouldn't elevate it to the league of Sandman as some others have done. But 1001 Nights of Snowfall was a letdown. Willingham, I think, is better at writing sprawling, drawn-out tales than the 2 to 30-odd page snippets we get. The problem, I think, is that things mostly just happen to the characters who rarely are forced to make dramatically interesting choices, and the narratives fail to effectively build to climaxes - emotional or otherwise. The stories should be gems, but they're merely pebbles ... or bricks.

I hate so say it, but if you're going to get 1001 Nights of Snowfall, then get it for the same reason you get Playboy: for the pictures. Art-wise, there's not a single disappointment in the volume. Story-wise, the opposite is true.

PS: Just did a trawl of net reviews and - wow - am I in the minority or what?! Normally I'm much more in line with the comic book consensus. Not in this case though.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 17, 2006 12:30 AM.

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