Fables: Cubs In Toyland (Vol. 18) by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham – A Book Review

Perhaps the most satisfying Fables volume I’ve read in some time, Cubs In Toyland is also the most emotionally potent.

In this edition, Bigby and Snow White’s child, Therese, travels to Toyland in search of adventure after she missed being named the North Wind. When first she arrives, the toys treat her as royalty, and she revels in it. However, the rude, insufferable child soon learns that Toyland is not all that it seems, and that the toys there are the cast-offs, unwanted, perpetrators of horrendous deeds. Therese is foretold to be their savior, but it soon becomes evident that she has no hope of survival in this land and no way to return.

One of her numerous siblings, Dare, takes it upon himself to find and rescue Therese because he’s always considered himself the leader of the pack. He does indeed find her, but Cubs in Toyland ends in a heartbreaking, unexpected tragedy.

I am a loyal Fables reader, and though the series has lost some steam in my opinion, Cubs in Toyland hearkens back to everything that first won me over.




Werewolves Of the Heartland by Bill Willingham – A Book Review

A stand-alone graphic novel from the Fables universe, Werewolves Of the Heartland features Bigby Wolf as he wanders across America looking for a new city to call home.  He comes across Story City, and, as fate would have it, it bears an inextricable link to our favorite Fable.

Regular readers of Fables know that Bigby Wolf saw action during World War II, and this graphic novel spends a small amount of time reliving some of those moments.  However, the majority of the story takes place in Story City, and it involves, as the name would suggest, a society of werewolves against which Bigby must take action.

I love the Fables series, and it usually doesn’t miss, but Werewolves Of the Heartland is nonessential reading and, frankly, moves rather slowly as though trying to fill space.  The storyline is not especially engaging, nor are the characters particularly dynamic.  In fact, without his usually supporting characters, Bigby himself falls flat in this work.

Furthermore, be warned, there is a lot of nudity in this book, both men and women alike.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s photorealistic, but the men and women remove their clothing before turning into werewolves, and the artists made sure to render them anatomically correct.  There are also a few moments of seduction that include nudity as well.  I’ll be honest, like the story itself, much of the nudity felt unnecessary.

As apparent, I don’t recommend Werewolves Of the Heartland.  As an avid reader of Fables, I believe you can bypass this work and still understand the main storyline just fine.

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham – A Book Review

Though Down the Mysterly River is written primarily for middle-graders, the fact that it is scribed by Bill Willingham proved irresistible.  You may know Willingham as the creator and author of the Vertigo series entitled Fables.  He won me over long ago, and I don’t mind admitting that I’ll give anything he writes a chance.

Down the Mysterly River proved an enjoyable read, even for an old man such as me.  It is the story of Max the Wolf, a twelve-year-old Boy Scout who awakens upon an otherworldly planet much like his own except for the fact that this one has talking animals.  He soon befriends three such animals – a warrior badger named Banderbrock; a hellcat conqueror called McTavish; and a sheriff bear that answers to Walden.  Their adventure beings almost immediately as they are pursued by the Blue Cutters, a self-righteous group of huntsmen who will use their magic swords to cut all of the “bad” out of their quarry.

The quest for safety begins, and as any story such as this should, the group is told to seek out a wizard that shall protect them.  However, the tale takes a decidedly interesting turn, one that I’ve seen before, but that made it no less enticing.  And quite frankly, for most middle-school students, the big reveal will likely be the first time they’ve experienced such a thing and I can only guess at the explosion it will cause within their young imaginations.

Down the Mystery River is not without some issues.  My biggest objection is with the main character, Max the Wolf.  Though the boy be only twelve, he is written to employ the dialogue of a forty-year-old.  Now, Willingham cleverly addresses this issue, but the explanation did not settle well with me even though it did not contract the plot.  I also found the story a little too tethered to the “quest” formula.  Granted, the book was not written for me, it was written for those half my age, and I have no qualms stating that I’m certain the “quest” will be right up most young people’s alley.

I’d now like to talk about what Willingham got right.  As usual, his sentences are a delight.  And while his characters speak sometimes too similarly, he gave Max, Walden, Banderbrock, and McTavish each a distinctive personality that wins the audience over.  It goes without saying that the devilish McTavish steals the show.  Willingham had me laughing outright at some of the barn cat king’s antics.  Furthermore, near the end of the book, Willingham introduces a plot device that will probably change students’ outlook on literature and its possibilities.  I will forever be grateful to Willingham for taking students to such an imaginative and thought-provoking place.

Down the Mysterly River followed the typical conventions of a “quest” book for the most part, but the climax, as well as truly original, fun, charismatic characters far outshined that adherence to tradition.  This book will spark the imaginations of young men and women everywhere, and I daresay many adults—not just the Willingham fans, either—will have no desire to put it down before completion.

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham – A Book Review

In many cases, novelists have difficulty making the jump to comic book writing just as comic book writers and screenwriters may have a rough time adapting to pure prose writing.  I’m happy to report that Bill Willingham not only made the jump to prose writing well, but he exceeded my already lofty expectations.

Okay, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer full disclosure and admit that I am a huge Fables fan.  That doesn’t mean I automatically give Willingham a free pass, though.  I’ve written some glowing Fables reviews, but I’ve also come down pretty hard on the title every now and again.  I’m simply trying to clarify that while I may not be totally objective with Willingham, I can remain critical.

For those unfamiliar with Fables, the premise is that all of our storybook legends, nursery rhyme characters, and mythological figures are very real and lived in their own worlds.  When their homelands were overrun by an evil overlord, they fled to our dimension just as New York was being founded.  There they have lived among us ever since, always searching for a way to win back their own lands.

Peter & Max is a very well-written, tightly-plotted, astutely-orchestrated novel.  As you know, it focuses upon Peter Piper and his brother, Max, as well as Little Bo Peep.  And in true Fables fashion, Willingham is sure to deliver the scenes we’d expect from such characters, but he also makes them his own and offers some unexpected twists and turns.  I also enjoyed that the chapters alternate – a chapter will focus upon Peter and Max’s past, and then the next will zero in on the present.  This was a great way to build suspense while slowly revealing pertinent plot points.

What I appreciate the most about Peter & Max, though, is the fact that it makes sense.  Willingham lays the groundwork early on and doesn’t throw any last minute plot-changers into the mix.  While he still managed to catch me off guard, none of the resolutions struck me as, “No fair!  That came out of nowhere!”  Too many times an author plays willy-nilly with their climax and resolution, but not Willingham.  He remained consistent throughout, even if we couldn’t guess why he included certain bits of information early on.

Furthermore, while I believe a Fables fan will especially love this novel, by no means is Fables a necessary read in order to enjoy Peter & Max.  If anything, I see the novel as a gateway to the comic book, though I’m certain the comic book fans will be frothing at the mouth to pick up this book, and rightly so.

Willingham has a captivating writing style, and I like the fact that while he gives us nuanced details, he doesn’t go overboard with it.  I really can’t emphasize enough Willingham’s skill as a prose writer.

Well-written, surprising, exciting, and carefully plotted, Peter & Max will impress and delight both Fables fans and those entering the Fables world for the first time.

Fables: War and Pieces – A Graphic Novel Review

In this presupposed crucial volume of Fables, Bill Willingham and company finally bring about the “final” battle between the Adversary and his Empire … but first, we have to muddle through a clichéd and by-the-book tale featuring the unlikely super-spy, Cinderella, and even her two-issue story was preceded by an issue focusing upon Boy Blue and Rose Red’s festering relationship.

So, as you can plainly see, it takes a while for War and Pieces to actually get to the war part of everything.

I’ve waited a long time for this pinnacle battle, and once the battle ensued, I found myself more than frustrated by its brevity and irreverence.  It also seemed a little too formulaic and lacked the usual panache I’ve come to expect from Fables.

So while I still tout Fables as the best comic series currently running to anyone who will listen, War and Pieces proved unimpassioned, hurried, and a bit too unoriginal when compared to earlier volumes.

Fables: The Good Prince (Volume 10) – A Graphic Novel Review

The Good Prince-a more appropriate title for a book has never existed.  Fables is, far and away, the best comic book series running at the moment.  The Good Prince comprises issues 60-69 of the title, and having read the entire run thus far, I can attest that Fables just keeps getting better and better.

In The Good Prince, Flycatcher takes hold of his lineage and accepts his true name of Prince Ambrose once more.  While Fabletown and the Homelands continue to plan and engage war with one another, Prince Ambrose offers a third refuge, one without violence or political espionage. 

Prince Ambrose is given the armor of the Foresworn Knight who turns out to be a rather famous figure from our favorite legend.  He then uses that armor, as well as a certain well-known sword, to travel through the land of the dead and take up uninvited residence in the Homelands.  Prince Ambrose collects friends and foes who were tossed down the Witching Well while making his way through the land of the dead and offers them a sort of pseudo-life as long as they remain just and true.  For friends, this is not a problem; for foes, well, let’s say that some struggle at being “good” more than others.  But set up his kingdom, and it grows and grows, despite constant attacks from the Adversary.

What I really love about The Good Prince is that Prince Ambrose refuses to kill.  He wants no bloodshed from either his own startup kingdom or the Adversary’s armies.  He is resolute, but he is also noble, kind, virtuous, and admirable.  In today’s comics, we don’t see that very often.

A wonderful subplot in The Good Prince is also the political maneuvering between Fabletown and the Homelands.  Fabletown takes full advantage of Prince Ambrose’s distracting the Adversary and whittling down his armies to prepare an army of their own, one which may be quite capable of making sure all Fables can return to their own homes-not just Prince Ambrose’s kingdom-anew.

Fables is such an imaginative concept, but Bill Willingham really goes above and beyond with intricate plots and charismatic characterizations.  I’ve loved Fables for years now, and I don’t see any signs that Fables will lose my love anytime soon.

Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire – A Graphic Novel Review

What can I say? Fables continues to be the best comic book series out there–period. Sons of Empire maintains the excellent status quo by setting up a major storyline to come, giving us an interesting Christmas tale, and further exploring the relationship between fathers and sons. Most entertaining, though, is a series of “short stories” throughout the volume that fill in some gaps on lesser characters and events.

Really, if you’re not reading Fables, you’re missing out on the best series going.

Fables: The Mean Seasons – A Graphic Novel Review

Once again, I found out about the series Fables from the Eisner Awards list. I’ve yet to be disappointed by my buys from the winners of the Eisner Awards, and Fables is no different.

First of all, let me catch you up to speed. Fables is about a community of exiled Fables who have taken up residence both in New York City and in the upstate New York countryside. Some of them have been there since the colonial days of America. Now, I can hear your first question: What do you mean “exiled Fables?”

We’re talking Snow White, Prince Charming, Little Boy Blue, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, among many, many others. Some evil being called “The Adversary” has taken over all of these characters’ homelands, and so they had to flee to our world in order to escape his mastery. The human looking Fables live in Fabletown, their little neighborhood in NYC that goes unnoticed by the “mundies,” or regular humans. The non-human looking Fables, such as the three little pigs, the three bears, and so on, all must live in the countryside at a community they call The Farm.

I’ve enjoyed all the trade paperbacks from this series, but I most recently read The Mean Seasons, the fifth book in the series. In it, Prince Charming has made a bid to run for Mayor of Fabletown, hoping to remove King Cole from office. Snow White gives birth to a litter of the Big Bad Wolf’s (called Bigby, who is able to take human form) children, and we get to go on a secret mission of Bigby’s during WWII where he fights someone all old horror movies fans will take delight in. As usual, this series is well written with very efficient art. The most amazing part of this series is how credible the writer, Bill Willingham, has made all of these Fables with their day-to-day lives. As you can imagine, the allusions are non-stop, and I must admit I can’t keep up with the majority of them.

If I had heard the pitch for this series in a meeting, I would have passed. But, Willingham as made it work exceptionally. I highly recommend checking it out.

You really need to read them in order to get the full effect. Here’s the list of trade paperbacks so far:

Volume One: Legends in Exile
Volume Two: Animal Farm
Volume Three: A Storybook Love
Volume Four: March of the Wooden Soldiers (very good!)
Volume Five: The Mean Seasons