What Makes Literature Great?

20 March 2008

A Contribution from Comicdom

Book of Hours, by Jeff Tabaco, with Creative Commons licenceSometimes the writing that affects us most is simpler than we’d like to admit. Occasionally, context outweighs convention and the comic book can offer more of substance to mull over than a dozen learned tomes. Right, you’re thinking, as if . . . But consider for a while Bill Willingham’s comic masterpiece, Fables.

Now in its seventy-first issue, Fables has scooped Willingham and his main artist Mark Buckingham numerous Eisner Awards, the American comic industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. It’s one of the more successful titles managed by Vertigo, the ever so slightly avant-garde imprint of DC Comics. The Fables community here on the Internet is very active, and as Kieran Bennett made obvious in a blog post recently, ever ready to stamp on perceived deviations from the quality it expects.

Beauty, Prince Charming, Flying Monkey and Flycatcher, Fables 53, copyright Bill Willingham & DC ComicsBut what makes Fables particularly worth our attention is more than success or failure in a fanboy popularity contest. The series speaks to childhood and adult days alike, combining the rigour of contemporary life with the lackadaisical fantasy of stories read a lifetime ago, cast in new shapes and given new meaning.

Willingham carries with him the central tradition of fantasy writing, casting about for old archetypes with which to people his tales. Dark days have fallen on the many worlds of story; the rise of a crushing empire has pushed the best figures of the old fables and some of the new into our world. No less than in an upmarket New York neighbourhood.

So we have exiles from tales you might remember – Cinderella, Sindbad, the Arabian Nights, Little Red Riding Hood and a wealth of others – cut adrift in our mundane world, straining to cope with displacement and the disappointment of the ‘mundy’ lives we lead more comfortably. Their community, too, is more like our own than the benevolent autocracies they were forced to leave behind. Its creaky but barely democratic form of government, its security concerns, the way its citizens are disciplined and punished all point toward our own ways.

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