An Introduction To The Fairy Tale Comic-Book Series Fables

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Launched by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint in 2002, Fables has gone on to become one of the most respected comics titles in existence. Sprawling and complicated, sexy and weird, it’s naturally attracted the attention of both TV networks and film studios through the years. But no-one has quite been able to crack it, largely due to competition and its own knotty storytelling. Now, as Jane Goldman takes over trying to turn it into a script, we invite you to visit Fabletown, New York...


American writer-artist Bill Willingham began the story of Fables in 2002, making use of characters from fairy tales and other folklore and using them to weave his own, original tale. Sticking with characters in the public domain – including those from the Grimm brothers’ tales – means he can pretty much do what he likes with them. Which is good for us as readers, as Willingham has quite the imagination. The basic story of Fables follows a group of these fantastical characters in the years since they were driven from their storybook lives by a powerful, mysterious enemy known only as “The Adversary”.

Relocated to New York in its earliest years, they’ve largely disguised themselves as humans and attempted to blend into the city’s melting pot, though they stick to a magically protected borough known as Fabletown. Interactions with humans tend to be as limited as possible, and the Fables take care of their own governmental affairs, nominally – initially, at least – taken care of by King Cole, but really run by Snow White. And those who can’t blend in with humanity, either because they can’t afford the “glamour” to pass as humans or they choose to live as monsters or anthropomorphic animals such as the Three Little Pigs, live in upstate New York on a secluded farm. This causes some tensions between the two communities. Willingham has written all the stories, and the artwork is by a variety of people including Mark Buckingham, Lan Medina, Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton. The series is set to finish in June this year.


There are many characters in the series – too many to list completely after 13 years and 150 issues, but Willingham and his artist collaborators are equal opportunity storytellers, giving good plotlines to a wide variety of heroes, villains, creatures and forces. Fables Cover

As for Snow, she’s the real power behind the Fabletown throne, the deputy mayor and a tough nut to boot. Dealing with the thorny politics of the place and trouble with the farm, she ends up leaving Fabletown and moving to the farm to be with her children.

Other characters include Prince Charming, Snow’s conniving, smarmy ex-husband, a man more in love with himself than anyone else who still went on to marry both Cinderella and Briar Rose (AKA Sleeping Beauty). More conflicted is Rose Red, Snow’s sister, who loves her sibling but can’t help fighting for others, and starts an uprising among the farm folk. Then there’s Bufkin, a flying monkey who works – in his own bumbling way – as an assistant in the mayor’s office. Rapunzel is cursed to need constant haircuts, lest she seem unusual to humans with her endlessly growing hair.

Later in the series, The Adversary sends dark allies to invade and corrupt Fabletown and its people. With the final stories on the way, Willingham has said to expect a lot of death…


Though television might seem to be Fables’ other natural home, neither attempt to bring the stories to that format have worked out. The first was in 2005, when US network NBC began development on a potential series for the 2006-2007 season. Though Craig Silverstein, previously writer on Stephen King's Dead Zone, began work on a script, the project didn’t make it beyond that. Interestingly, although coincidentally, NBC currently has a series called Grimm that features a man dealing with folkloric creatures.

The idea rose again at ABC in 2008. Elektra screenwriters Stu Zicherman and Raven Metzner were reportedly attached, with veteran TV helmer David Semel as a director for the pilot. But the news went awfully quiet after that. In a 2010 interview, Willingham, who admitted he hadn’t been kept in the loop, said, “The TV show that was prematurely announced is probably dead.” In yet another startling coincidence, ABC launched Once Upon A Time in 2011, created by Tron Legacy writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, which features fairy-tale folk forced into our world and adapting to life in a small New England town. The show has since gone on to be successful, and most recently used the characters from Frozen for a story arc.


The most direct adaptation of Fables to date is The Wolf Among Us, a video game by Telltale Games. Given Willingham’s full blessing, it serves as a prequel to the graphic novel run, is set decades before the story starts and is spread across five episodes. In the game, the player, controlling Bigby Wolf, investigates a murder and discovers a bigger conspiracy. The game has since been adapted into its own comic series by Vertigo, running first as a digital edition, with a traditional release promised later this year.


Warner Bros. has been interested in Fables for more than a decade, originally trying to figure something out with the help of the Jim Henson company in 2004. But with the TV versions seemingly lost in development hell, it was natural that the studio might try again, even though Willingham’s layered stories will be tough to condense into two-hour tales. Since at least 2010, the studio has been trying to make a movie from at least the initial stories thanks to its renewed rights via DC/Vertigo.

Director Nikolaj Arcel

Harry Potter veteran David Yates was briefly linked with the director’s job, but he’s long since committed to other things, including Tarzan. Potter’s David Heyman is still attached to produce and A Royal Affair’s Nikolaj Arcel is the man in the director’s chair right now. Jeremy Slater was, until recently, working on the script, but now Jane Goldman – she of Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class fame – will be tackling that challenge. She feels like the right person to finally crack this particularly troublesome project, but given the progress so far, we’ll be waiting for this one to arrive for a while yet.