Thursday, April 26, 2007
These are the Fables on My Street
Recently, i've been thinking about the earlier story arcs of Bill Willingham's Fables, the ongoing Vertigo series dealing with the politics and power dynamics within a tight knit community of refugees from the various fairy tale kingdoms. These "legends in exile" (as the title of the first volume calls them) mostly live together within the mystically-protected confines of Fabletown, a block of urban real estate nestled amidst contemporary New York City.
Now, perhaps this is meant to be self-evident, but I rarely see it being discussed -- I can't help but feel that Willingham created the series as a commentary on the experiences of diasporic immigrants, as much as it is an exploration of the various fairy tale mythos.
For starters, without giving too much of the plot away, the Fables have fled their respective Homelands, after they were over-run by the invading forces of the mysterious Adversary. The various characters occupied differing social strata in their previous lives, and indeed many have drastically reinvented themselves upon relocating to our "mundy" world. Financial status and historical legacies have reinforced some of their old social positions, it's true. (For example, a former Princess like Snow White is able to become a ranking government official in Fabletown; while Cinderella and Briar Rose are regarded as socialites.) However, for the most part, the behavior and reputation of most of the series' ensemble cast are regulated by a general Amnesty. This formal teaty absolves them of previous wrong-doings committed in the Homelands (most remarkably in the case of the Big Bad Wolf, the series' occassional protagonist, who has since taken on a magically altered human form, as detective Bigby Wolf).
These reinventions are prefigured by an event-like War or Crisis, just as it happens in so many other comics. But Fables offers no existential reset button to wipe out messy histories and continuities. These characters have vivid memories of their previous lives, which function as a source of both pride and dishonor, often at the same time. They've been transformed by their sojourn and relocation to a new 'host world', but the emotional weight of their former life looms heavy over their psyches. And yet their decision to make nice (or at least remain civil) with former rivals is strengthened by a conscious effort to observe the Amnesty, not by a convenient mind-wipe or reality warp.
In many ways, this echoes the social dynamics within immigrant communities, particularly in America, where employment opportunities (more or less) provide greater wriggle-room to flatten out class stratification that existed among immigrants, in their previous situation. Moreover, despite any tensions arising within immigrant communities (refugees and otherwise), they maintain a fragile sense of solidarity, united by their shared dissatisfaction with the circumstances that led them to take flight from their own Homelands.
Another way that Fables mirrors the stuggles of human immigrant communities lies in the tension between embracing the practices of the host cultures (in this case, our "mundy" society) and the well-established traditions of the Homelands. The characters vary in their degree of xenophobia, and it leads to some very interesting situations, ranging from tragi-comic (Sawyer-esque trickster Jack of Tales embracing online get-rich-quick schemes and Hollywood opportunism) to potentially explosive (the slave-owning Arabian Fables adapting to Fabletown's UN-like view of human rights).
In fact, its these more human dimensions of the series that keep me hooked on Fables, even more than the clever fairy tale deconstruction. I'll take heated inter-personal negotiations and trans-cultural soap operatics over literary wank for its own sake, any day.