How long can a long-running series retain its magic? In my experience, it’s rare for a series not to stumble a few times if it goes into the double digits. A good writer will change direction to keep the series fresh while also retaining at least some of the essential qualities that made people love the series in the first place.
Shortly after Bill Willingham’s comic series Fables reached the double digits in trade paperback, Willingham made the risky decision to abandon the ongoing story arc that had been central to the series and end the war with the Adversary who had forced the characters into exile from their homeland before the series began. Ending the war was probably a good move, but after reading the trade paperbacks that take place after the war, I’m worried that the loss of that storyline has brought with it a loss of a lot of what made the series so compelling. The storylines now feel slight, and most of the characters who are claiming the spotlight don’t yet have the dimensions that I came to love in characters like Bigby, Cinderella, and Pinocchio.
When I reviewed The Dark Ages, the first post-War Fables volume, I noted that it felt like a transitional book. I figured that the next volumes (after number 13, which I skipped) would develop the storylines that were just hinted at, and we’d end up with a multilayered storyline that delves into the challenges of peacetime governance and the rise of a new enemy. All of these elements do appear in volumes 14–16, but they’re handled shallowly and sometimes much too swiftly. A humorous arc involving the winged monkey Bufkin gets almost as much page time as the balance of power at the Farm. And the new villain, Mister Dark, doesn’t come anywhere near the Adversary.
The only storyline that really lived up to its potential was the one involving Rose Red, and what I liked about that was the extended flashback that reimagined the Snow White story. What happens in the present is predictable, and the most intriguing elements, such as Rose Red’s handling of Geppetto, are not adequately followed up on–although the follow-up may yet come in a future volume.
I know I’m being all complainy about these three volumes. My problem is not that these are terrible but that they don’t live up to the high standard set in the previous books. There were good moments in these books, especially in the Rose Red flashbacks, but the balance of good moments to moments I didn’t care much about was off. The earlier books had moments I didn’t care about (basically everything involving Jack), but a string of books with so few great moments was unusual in the first 11 trade paperbacks.
All in all, I’m not sure I’m going to continue with the new volumes. I’m only mildly curious about the threads that are still hanging. I have issues with the depiction of the remaining Fabletown villain, Nurse Spratt, and I don’t care that much which cub gets the big inheritance mentioned toward the end of volume 16. (I’m pretty sure who it will be anyway.) The only character I have feelings about now is Rose Red. Everyone else, even my beloved Ambrose, has gone bland.
It’s disappointing to see a great series flounder after years of success. I’m going to hope that Fables recovers its footing–and that some of you will let me know if it does.