OPED: FABLES or the 150 Issue How-To on Killing Your Darlings

Thirteen years is a lot of years. One hundred and fifty issues is a lot of issues. Yet somehow, writer Bill Willingham and artist Mark Buckingham make their brilliant series Fables feel too short. By the time you’re turning the final page, possibly after several years of reading about these characters, you already miss the world you’ve inhabited. Willingham and Buckingham made Fables, with 150 issues and a 13-year long run, work by employing one simple concept: kill your darlings.

Writers from all over the world will tell you, one of the greatest tips for writing a good story: be ready to kill your darlings. That means, everything must be expendable in order to move the plot forward. Even the moments and characters that have become the most dear to you as a writer must be sacrificed if they are getting in the way of the narrative. So why did 150 issues work in Fables? Because Willingham and Buckingham never spun their wheels. They were always moving at a breakneck pace.

The Premise

But what is Fables? It’s a series, a long one as we’ve established, about all the storybook characters from famous myths. Everyone from Snow White to Prince Charming (who it turns out is the same guy in each story as he’s not very loyal). These characters fled their fantastical homeland because they were driven out by a mysterious adversary. They now live in New York City in a clandestine community protected by various spells.

Our main players in the story are Snow White and Bigby Wolf. Bigby, formerly the Big Bad Wolf but now in human form, is the sheriff of Fabletown. Snow White, never to be a damsel in distress again, is the mayor’s right-hand woman and the biggest badass in Fabletown borders. But Snow and Bigby remain the main characters for only so long. Willingham is constantly shaking up the status quo. All the most “uninteresting” characters get a shot in the spotlight, and many main characters are disposed of unceremoniously.

A janitor becomes a king, a flying-monkey-secretary becomes a warrior-conqueror, and the mysterious adversary is beaten and brought into the fold before the series is half over. Main characters die by the dozen. The setting of the entire series shifts continuously. From Fabletown to the Farm (where Fables who can’t pass as humans stay), to the Homeland. Ultimately, it is a series that is continually evolving. It treats nothing as holy. No one is untouchable.

Buckingham Borders
FABLES #144. Notice the sword and rose that frame the page. Buckingham frames nearly every page starting in issue 40.

The Art

But it’s not all gloom and doom. The characters of Fables quickly become family. Much of the consistency and familiarity of the series comes from series artist, Mark Buckingham. With few issues in the whole run that weren’t penciled by Buckingham, his style becomes familiar fast. He imbues every character with humanity. No one feels anonymous. After all, you can’t kill your darlings if they don’t feel darling to you.

Buckingham has the uncanny ability to turn three lines into a face full of emotion. His mix of realistic and minimalist styles gives the art, extreme range. At times Buckingham draws like Mike Mignola, with shadows obscuring faces and minimal details somehow coming together to create a brilliant whole. At other times he draws like Alex Ross, where everything seems so lifelike you wonder if you’re looking at a photograph or a drawing. But his transitions between these styles in Fables are seamless.

Buckingham also creates a border for each page. Roses in the margins of pages about Rose Red. Wolves in the margins of pages about Bigby. It’s amazing to become acquainted with his work. He has the power to make the tiniest things seem like a full picture, yet the testament to his love for this series is he often goes above and beyond. Wonderful details and beautiful garnishes are on every page.

13 years later it all comes to a close in their final 150-page issue.

Fables is a world to get lost in. With Willingham’s writing, you have real stakes and movement of plot. And with Buckingham’s art, you get all the right details to feel at home. With 150 issues, Willingham and Buckingham work in tandem. One pushes the plot forward constantly, never letting up on the gas. The other gives us the expressions and physical elements that make these characters feel like family. With the familiar always changing, they create a balanced magnum opus called Fables.

Zac Owens
Zac Owens
A world traveler and all-around nerdy guy, Zac is a DC fan and aspiring comic book writer. When he's not writing and editing for Monkeys Fighting Robots, he's carefully fitting more books onto his already-dangerously-overstuffed bookshelf. He lives in Halifax, NS for the moment. That is, until his Green Lantern ring comes in...