Thursday, December 31, 2009
I recently caught up with the last three collections of the DC/Vertigo Jack of Fables series -- written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges, with art primarily by Russ Braun and Tony Akins (plus various inkers and others) -- even though I'd had mixed feelings about the first three volumes. The main problem with the series is that the main character -- the guy who was "Jack" in every traditional story you can think of, one of the "fables"from various parallel worlds -- is a grade-A jerk, as self-centered as it is possible for a human being to be, and not half as smart or savvy as he thinks he is. By definition, he doesn't learn from his mistakes, and is entirely a one-note character. One-note characters can work just fine as part of a larger cast, as Jack did in the parent Fables series, but they're more troublesome at the center of their own stories.
What Willingham and Sturges did to get around that problem was to quickly build a new cast around Jack, primarily from the inmates and warders of the Golden Boughs Retirement Village (created by the fiendish Mr. Revise to leech magical powers from fables and thus slowly turn the world utterly mundane). Thus Jack is the title character, and the central character, but he doesn't have to carry the entire story himself.
And let me digress briefly to poke at Willingham and Sturges's mythology here. Besides "mundanes" -- people like you and me, who are real and have normal lives -- and fables, there are also "literals," who are the personifications of literary techniques. Or something like that; it's not quite clear. To make it more confusing, all of the literals we've met so far are part of one family, which implies that literals are all one family. The oldest member of the family we've met so far -- and this doesn't make much sense, either -- is Gary, the Pathetic Fallacy, who has at least one son, Kevin Thorne. Kevin is possibly the author of all of the fables, or at least of lots of them -- and it's not exactly clear if all of the fables needed Kevin, or someone like him, to write them in the first place. Kevin in turn has at least two sons: Mr. Revise and The Bookburner. There's no explanation as to why the Pathetic Fallacy came first, or why a guy named Kevin would name his sons Revise and Bookburner. There may be a literal world, as there are fable worlds and the mundane world, but we haven't seen that -- and it's hard to picture how it would work, either. If you ask me, there's a definite feeling that W&S are throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, and that there's no long-term plan in place....
In Vol. 4: Americana, two different groups -- on the one hand, Jack, Gary, Jack's Indian sidekick Raven, and a reconstituted Humpty Dumpty; and on the other, Hillary Page (one of Revise's three beautiful librarian daughters), a shrunken Paul Bunyan and his inevitable blue ox Babe -- hop a train to Americana, the land of American Fables, in search of the lost golden city of Cibola. There they discover the Bookburner, who has a somewhat different approach to librarianship than Hillary does, and find themselves having to team up (and incidentally betraying each other in various permutations, since that's what happens when you team up with your enemies).
Then comes Vol. 5: Turning Pages, which has two three-issue stories -- one a flashback to 1883, with Jack as a pistol-packing outlaw pursued by Bigby Wolf from the main Fables series, and the other split evenly between the history of the three Page sisters (including repeatedly confusing information about who is and is not the father of which of them) and the lead-up to the big confrontation between brothers Revise and Bookburner.
Vol. 6: The Big Book of War, Bookburner's forces arrive at Golden Boughs and besiege it, with Jack and his companions on the inside. And so there's a big long fight, with escalating nasties on both sides, until Revise is forced to go against his entire purpose (as of course we all expected). In the end, there's not exactly a winner of the battle, but Jack does walk away (with the usual entourage), which counts as a win for him.
I expect the series is heading off in a different direction at this point, since Revise (the original primary villain) and Bookburner (his replacement in these volumes) are both thoroughly neutralized. Presumably Kevin is the new Big Bad, though it may be difficult to show the fiendish trouble caused by a guy named Kevin with a quill pen. And perhaps W&S will explain more about Literals -- or keep throwing more of them in, willy-nilly, and hope that each reader works out a plausible explanation individually.