The folks behind the astounding The Walking Dead games kick-off a new serialised adventure tomorrow with The Wolf Among Us, based on an award-winning comic book about fairy tale characters. If that sounds childish and prosaic to you, you've been reading the wrong fairy tales.
Strewn about the stories crafted to entertain us as children are the seeds of all manner of mature tales. They may be aimed at younger, more innocent ears, but fairytales come from minds awash with darker adult impulses, which manifest themselves as subtle undertones. To those gifted enough to interpret those undertones, these whimsical fairy tale yarns are murder mysteries, ghost stories, romance novels, spy thrillers, political dramas and more.
Bill Willingham and regular artist Mark Buckingham bring those undertones to the fore and share them with the world on a monthly basis in Fables.
So Fables is a comic book then, like Iron Man?
In that both tell stories through sequential art and word balloons printed on paper, yes. This is no superhero comic. You won't see storybook characters suiting up and fighting crime, at least not until issues 102 through 106.
No, this is a mature readers' book under DC Comics' Vertigo imprint, which makes it special.
The Vertigo line is where non-traditional adult-aimed comic books go to either fade away after a handful of issues or become legendary. Formed during the height of the British comics invasion in 1993, Vertigo's back catalogue is largely comprised of must-read material. Sandman, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, The Books of Magic, DMZ, Transmetropolitan — it's enough to make a guy want to stop writing an explainer and curl up with several hundred good books.
With 133 issues released to date since its 2002 debut, Fables is one of the imprint's longest-running series.
133 issues worth of fairy tales?
133 issues, two spin-offs, three mini-series, a pair of original graphic novels and an illustrated novel to be exact — look, you really need to stop harping on the whole fairy tale thing. The characters in Fables are familiar, but the setting, circumstances and situations are completely original. For starters, it's based in New York City.
New York City!?
It's a horrible place to make salsa, but when you're a massive group of storybook characters trying to lay low several hundred years after being exiled from your various homelands by a powerful conqueror known only as "The Adversary", it has its charms. I can't really think of a more appropriate place for an entire street worth of fictional beings to go unnoticed for a century or three, especially when there's powerful spells in place to repel mundys.
Slang for mundanes. People born in the boring real world, AKA us. The Fables of Fabletown — that's what they call their little community — can usually pass for human. Thing is it only takes one real human catching Beauty's Beast on a bad day or stepping into a store that stocks working magic items for the questions to start. There'd be inquiries, accusations, and eventually we'd blow up Bullfinch Street. Humans are jerks.
As for the Fables who can't pass for human — talking cutlery, giants, the cast of Jungle Book, the Three Little Pigs and many more — they all live on the Farm upstate. It's a fun place.
OK, so if we're Mundys, what does that make them? Magical?
There seems to be power in popularity with the human population — the more widespread and beloved the tale a Fable springs from, the more resilient they are, at least early on in the series. A character like Snow White can take a great deal of punishment, simply because she's such an iconic character, while more forgettable Fables can (and often do) die easily. Well, entirely-ish.
Though the effectiveness of this faith-based magical resilience is questioned later in the series, at one point a particularly dickish character buys a movie studio and produces a trilogy of blockbuster Hollywood action films about his own adventures, seemingly rendering himself immortal. Clever.
As for magical powers, certain Fables do have distinct abilities based on who they were pre-exile. Beast of "Beauty and the..." fame sometimes loses control and goes all animalistic. The fairies, wizards and witches residing on the 13th floor of Fabletown's Woodlands building generate magic for the community. Rapunzel has to get her hair cut every day to function in the mundane world. Magical-realm problems.
So there's a hidden community of storybook characters living in New York City. What do they do there?
There are eight million stories in the naked city, and Fabletown is most of them. Fairy tales are fanciful, whimsical affairs when taking place in magical fantasy realms. Strip away the fantasy setting, and you've got the same stories you get in any big, crowded city, only worse, because all of these clashing personalities and motives are crammed into one city block.
The series opens with a murder mystery. Bigby "The Big Bad" Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown, is investigating the murder of one Rose Red, twin sister to Snow White, the current assistant to town mayor Old King Cole. Everyone is a suspect, from here ne'er do well boyfriend, Jack Horner, to her own sister, still bitter about the affair between her sister and now ex-husband, Prince Charming.
That sounds ridiculous.
It does. I have to admit that, based on story synopses like that one, I didn't get into the series until it was well into the 70s, and only then because there was a sale at InStockTrades. After reading through the first three trades, covering that murder mystery, a tale of political uprising and a very odd love story, I was hooked.
I envy anyone just getting into the series, really. There's so much good reading ahead of you.
Wait, I have to read all of this before playing The Wolf Among Us?
Oh no. Not at all. In fact, Telltale's story is the perfect jumping-on point for the series, taking place prior to the comic's first story arc. You play as Sheriff Bigby Wolf investigating a bloody murder — that sounds familiar. The choice-based system used in The Walking Dead returns, only now it's not just about making choices, it's when you make them. Bigby has the power to shapeshift from human to wolf form, and only one of those makes for a level-headed detective-type.
Bigby makes the most sense as the playable character in this initial series. At this point in the series (the game is canon in the comic universe) he's still a bit of an outsider, still earning back the trust lost during ages of blowing down houses and devouring grandmothers.
I'll miss some of the development the character goes through later in the comic series, but in a way it's a chance to see him grow all over again.
So I should read the comic books after I play the game?
Well, no — you should have read them already, but also yes. If Telltale worked the same magic on Fables as they did on The Walking Dead, you'll jump at the chance once the credits roll.
And the spin-offs and limited series?
Cinderella as a super spy should not be missed, so definitely check out her two limiteds, From Fabletown with Love and Fables are Forever.
Jack of Fables all depends on your arsehole tolerance, because there is no bigger arsehole in all creation than Jack Horner. He's sitting in the corner of the universe, sticking his thumb in places it should not go, and no matter how horrible he is, it's always coming up plums. I hate him. I love him. I don't know. Read the main series first, see how you feel about him.
I've not yet read Fairest. I am a horrible person.
So we're all set for The Wolf Among Us then?
Sure, why not? I've only blown the dust off the cover of an expansive story here, one that carries countless characters through the streets of our own world to the realms of fantasy and beyond. There's sex, drugs, war, death, comedy, depression, love — it's a magic mirror peering into our own world, showing us what we look like at our best and worst.
You mean like Once Upon a Time, Sundays on ABC?
I mean like shut up.