For my money, Vertigo is the most prestigious, most rewarding label in DC Comics' stable, and FABLES, still the best comic book currently going. FABLES Vol. 15: ROSE RED collects issues #94-100, darkly stirs up the pot, furthers Mr. Dark's incursion into the Mundy world (that's our world, yo!). Where last we left things: In the ruins of Fabletown strides Mr. Dark, one of the Great Powers and the embodiment of shadow and fear and all things creepy crawly. From Fabletown Mr. Dark is systematically expanding his influence, corrupting New York City, amassing (and consuming) precious, tasty teeth ripped from his victims' jaws. The surviving human Fables have fled to the hidden Farm in upstate New York, abode of the beastly Fables who cannot pass for humans. And in the course of things, several factions engage in a power struggle. Geppetto, manipulative old despot that he is, throws his hat in the game. Sly gambits are pitched by Ozma, newly elected head of them witchcrafty folks what used to dwell on the 13th Floor of the old Woodland building. Meanwhile, Brock Blueheart, the newly renamed badger (formerly "Stinky"), pushes on with his newly launched religion promoting Boy Blue as an Arthurian figure.
That insurrection is nigh is due primarily to the inaction of the Farm's director. Red Rose simply won't stir out of bed. Still grieving and remorseful over Boy Blue's death, she languishes in dirt and despondency. And if pep talk from a pig's head affixed on a pole can't rouse you, then it's a truly sad state in which you wallow.
I've pretty much used up all the superlatives in reviewing Willingham's past Fables trades. There are no more words to describe how so very good this guy is writing this comic book. And I'd be remiss if I didn't rave about Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha's clean, evocative art, again the perfect visual complement to Willingham's storytelling. Willingham is a master of pacing, is so expert at constructing a deep sense of anticipation. Several issues in this trade commit to chronicling Snow White and Rose Red's childhoods, and so we get to peek behind-the-scenes of that familiar fairy tale. We learn that Snow White's past is marked with bloody bleak moments, and that those pleasant Disneyfied seven dwarves were actually the vilest of mothereffers. We learn the details behind the falling out of these two previously inseparable sisters.
This volume is titled "Rose Red," so maybe we should talk her up some. This run of issues tells of how Snow White's sister shakes off her malaise and again shoulders her responsibilities. Rose doesn't quite receive the same epic treatment that Willingham graced on Boy Blue and Flycatcher and even on the blue flying monkey, Bufkin. But it's a delight watching Rose so confidently dispense with one crisis after another. Still, I expected her to have a larger role in this arc than she actually did.
But if anyone, it's Frau Totenkinder who is elevated into a character of grander consequence. Not that she needed a boost in street cred. Willingham commemorates the fabulous landmark 100th issue, tracking at one hundred pages, by showcasing the much anticipated duel between Mr. Dark and Frau Totenkinder. I'll say the showdown lived up to my expectations. And I admit that Frau Totenkinder is easier on the eyes now that she's assumed her original form. Other highlights in this issue include the birth of Beauty and the Beast's baby and Snow White's exquisite dressing down of the mean-spirited Mrs. Spratt. And, oh, but this arc has plenty of swerves.
The bonus stuff from the 100th issue is compiled here. I liked the switcheroo piece, "Pinocchio's Army," in which Buckingham writes the prose and writer (and sometime artist) Bill Willingham provides the occasional illustrations. "Pinocchio's Army" follows Pinocchio's attempts to cheer up Geppetto. In the aftermath of the epic duel between Mr. Dark and Totenkinder, we get two short stories: "A Thing With Those Mice" (with art by cover artist Joao Ruas) and "The Perils of Thumbelina." The illustrated Q & A segment features FABLES characters responding to questions by celebrities like Phil LaMarrl, Eddie Cahill, and sexy Cobie Smulders (from HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER). The Fables Paper Puppet Theater allows you to cut out FABLES characters (cut outs of established Fables locations also included). There's the "Escape to Wolf Manor" board game. And, lastly, you can marvel at Buckingham's fine detail work in his eleven-paged sketchbook.
If you're anticipating a resolution to the Mr. Dark dilemma, well, Willingham is stingy on that front. What happens in this "Rose Red" arc closes several doors but opens other avenues. We say goodbye to one of my favorite characters whose parting vow is: "But you'll not see me again." (We'll see.) As our Fables characters endure and move on, Bigby Wolf is deployed on another mission. The threat is very far from ended. Willingham keeps the FABLES engine running, hopefully keeps it running for another few hundred issues.
One question is nagging the hell out of me: Who was that creature, really, that got Rose out of her funk, and got such a reaction from Rose when she found out who it really was?