Friday, April 1, 2011

Jack of Fables 46-50 "The end"


After prolonged delays, this Wednesday brought the last issue of "Jack of Fables", which doubles not only as the finale of the "Fables"' spin-off, but the ending of it's last story arc as well. Writers Willingham and Sturges have spent five years working on solo adventures of Jack of stories, foreshadowing both the long time in planning "Great Fables crossover", as well as laying the seeds for this final storyline, which sees the ending on their satirical take on the character, at least for the moment.

The majority of the run has been illustrated by Tony Akins, a capable cartoonist who gave the title a distinctively manic look, that much better to differentiate it from the main "Fables" esthetic. Where in Marc Buckingham's hands the parent book sports a urban fantasy look, "Jack of Fables" was made to give off a more lurid atmosphere, mirroring the constant pattern of a never ending dirty joke that the writers strived for. Essentially, for all intents and purposes Jack of Fables had it's own tone, which is paramount for a successful spin-off. Even then, it was always a part of the broader Fables setting, even if purposely working in opposition to the more successful title.

A lot of the main Willingham/Sturges themes were resolved during the crossover, which was the first time the book close to matching the sales of the main title, but the writers were determined to continue for one more year of Jack's adventures. The sales swiftly returned to their previous levels, with the usual trend of continual decline, coming to roughly the half of monthly number of "Fables" copies sold in the Direct market (at least judging from the ICV2's estimates, which can be used to somewhat accurately describe the trends in American comic book publishing). At the time of cancellation, this was still a much higher average than that of a lot of Vertigo's ongoing series, but the creators are reportedly content with the decision, having already told all of the stories they wanted to tell with the character.


In any event, their last story arc serves as the finale to their work on the book, tying up all of the plot threads that weren't directly resolved during the "Great Fables crossover". Willingham and Sturges slyly start off with the spotlight on the three page sisters, and setting up their current agenda. Basically, the feisty librarians are trying to rebuild the Great library by tracking down the specific books they need to reinstate their Literal status. This is more or less typical Jack of Fables storytelling, serving to slowly reintroduce the reader to the status quo. The first sign of something unorthodox comes with the reintroduction of Jack and Gary, whose current predicament is illustrated in the manner of a Sunday page retro comic strip. And while the jokes told using this rigid layout are refreshingly straight forward, the context behind the change in Tony Akins' style is much more interesting.

Namely, there is a sense of a long time having passed between the story arcs which is finally made apparent by switching to Jack Frost's current whereabouts. Namely, that the de facto usurper of the book's previous two arcs is now relegated to a mere subplot should by itself be notable. Furthermore, seeing Akins' redesign of the character, who has transformed from the slender well-meaning fantasy protagonist to a full blown universe wide hero, further cements his companion, talking owl MacDuff's, 's endless prattling of their noble exploits. To put it bluntly, Jack Frost now looks like "Escape from New York"'s Snake Plissken, and his writers finally have him reconnect with the title's previous continuity. By giving the eye patch wearing, hyper muscled veteran one last mission in which he is to confront his father, now a caricature of a fairy tale dragon, Willingham and Struges are at first glance transparent about their motivations.

But it's only when the story continues, by shifting back to (present day?) Earth, and the rest of the supporting cast stuck working in a diner, that the full scope of their plans become revealed. That is, not only are Raven and his troop of runaway Fables also coming to the foot of Jack the dragon's cave, which is predictably where the Page sisters also find themselves going to, but that almost a decade has passed while the writers stubbornly kept the focus on his heroic son. This is no doubt the effect the creative team was going for, as the number of people finding their path leads them to Canadian countryside starts increasing, from every which way they are coming, all unaware of the company of the others.

Willingham and Struges seem to be saying that all of the characters previously encountered by Jack cannot move forward even after all these years of him going into retirement, and are seeking some kind of a resolution by confronting the reclusive anti-hero. The clever twist is that some of the foretold intruders upon Jack's soil never actually show up, but the sheer number of the ones that do more than dwarf them. Most importantly, Jack Frost, himself on the verge of retirement, rushes to meet the hideous dragon, one last act he needs to prove himself a true hero, even though MacDuff serves to remind the reader that his owner has done just this time after time, and across the whole galaxy. This is important on a metafictional level, as following the "Great Fables crossover", the book has basically jettisoned it's original, heavily flawed protagonist, in order to spotlight his estranged son, who as proven himself a hero without peer in the two story arcs preceding this last one.

Willingham and Struges went purposely so over the top with depicting a scenario that was the anti-thesis of their heavily post-modern parody of typical male, that they predict that the original "Jack of Fables" reader has by now found himself missing the original Jack. Horner's sexist power play and selfishness turned him into no less then a literal dragon, lying on the heap of the riches accumulated by tricking the other characters and thinking only of himself, but seeing his perfect son get all the glory since, it makes sense that two would go head to head for the book to return to it's meandering metafictional exploits.


Only, this confrontation is designed for the precise purpose of ending the book. The controversial choice actually makes sense on some level. "Fables" was always the more optimistic book, designed to find a place for fairy tale characters in the modern day and validate the struggles of fantasy authors trying to marry the two in literature. On the other hand, "Jack of Fables" from the start took to the negative of just this approach, singling out the various twist and turns the original fairy tales have taken in lesser hands, and trying to breathe some life in seemingly empty husks of Alice of Wonderland and Paul Bunyan, driven bland and lifeless after numerous revisions and adaptations. It was the book written by two people who admit that they have read a lot of bad writing in their decades long love of the genre, and are not afraid to call upon it.

By using this basic principle, Willingham and Sturges have created a very strange and obtuse storyline that kept hinting at it's most interesting parts, before being derailed by one or the other of Jack's completely unsympathetic schemes. Still, where it breaks off from "Fables" and establishes it's own take is that the role of characters in fiction still managed to be a central theme. The parent book launched from this premise and proceeded in world building, with the idea of contrasting the comparative fairy tales and making a coherent setting to place the fantasy adventures of lovable characters in. To it's credit, "Jack of Fables" never had such aspirations. It delighted in contradictions, and while being tangentially related to the overall Fables universe, the creative team insisted in telling a very particular story.

It was an exercise in using the least likable Fables character, and turning him into something even more monstrous, a horrible parody of manhood, while leisurely making their wider point. Meanwhile, the plots that were to further all these ideas were increasingly offbeat and manic, a far cry from the tongue in cheek romanticism of the parent book. Yet, that they were serious about their intentions, and that all of these ideas fed into the overall direction of the brand was clear during the "Great Fables crossover", that drew heavily on "Jack of Fables" plot lines.

Still, it's clear that, as imagined, the solo Jack book was never going to find the praise of the broader audience, and frankly, it's mainly on the strength of the franchise's overall popularity that it managed to survive as long as it did in the market notorious for it's resistance to new and experimental work. Willingham and Sturges actually make all of this a story point, stipulating that it was Jack Horner's sheer notoriety that kept the title from winning over new fans.


Still, by devoting two whole arcs to little more than a standard genre storytelling in order to subvert the expectations found little echo in industry. The joke seemingly fell flat, and thus a regular reader had every right to look forward to bringing back the rest of the supporting cast (along with the former protagonist), in what seemed the return to tackling the more nuanced stories a little more directly. Yet, the elegiac tone emanating from the surprised looks on the familiar faces, now supposedly several years older, preceded the official confirmation of the #50 being the book's conclusion.

Even then, the final storyline was plagued by delays and art assists (by Russ Braun), as well as the ink assists, that resulted in some of the pages sporting a hurried look, but did little to hinder the excitement of the fandom. Namely, the major comic book websites and it's devoted blogosphere took little note of the title's existence, and where likewise neutral to it's passing. Which is not to say that Jack of Fables#50 isn't an extra sized final issue precisely targeting a certain type of comic book fan.

A fantasy story featuring a battle to the death featuring the mythic hero and his dragon counterpart, told (mostly) using splash pages is certainly a call back to Thor #380, the high point of Walt Simonson's famous run on the character. Willingham being a creator debuting his own fantasy inspired superhero series at roughly the same time, "the Elementals" creator was surely aware of his colleague's work, that is still remembered favorably to this day. In lieu of the Simonson constructed poem that served to caption that 1987 Marvel comic, the "Jack of Fables" creative team reply by substituting it with color commentary, as if the final battle between their two competing leads was a football game. Likewise, without any kind of explanation one of the journalists is Jack Horner, as originally designed, who does not shy away from gives his own particular take on the proceedings.

What transpires certainly is certainly interesting, as the creative team envelops to tie up all of the multiple going concerns of their rich supporting cast in a huge one sided fight. The results are certainly amusing, and actually line up with the title's underpinnings. With the cancellation of "Jack of Fables", Willingham and Sturges are aware that all of their many problematic side Fables have no place to reside in, and once again directly refer to it in the story. This is done by having Raven, Jack Horner's Indian guide and protector, bring the assortment of escapees from the first story arc's Golden Boughs retirement village to Canada, on pretense of leading them to Fabletown. That none of these many quirky characters with impossibly complicated back story (particularly in relation to the their "Jack of Fables" adventures) seem destined to rejoin the main title seems an afterthought.

Thus the writers happily give them all, for their fate to be sealed, as much as any of the Fables can be effectively written off, at the hands of Tony Akins' wonderfully inventive full page showdowns. That the reader is meant to be caught in the unfairness of all of this is par for the course, but as always with this title, the initial shock is quickly replaced by the sense of elation, as Willingham and Sturges continually insist that these are all fictional characters designed to first and foremost to entertain. And considering "Jack of Fables"' trade record, that usually comes out as a deeply ironic black comedy, best illustrated by the revelation of the fate of tortoise that tried to escape Golden Boughs.

The final scenes show the eventual fate of Jack Horner. This is done by brining up a loose end from early on in the series, that nevertheless echoes a popular "Hellblazer" storyline, which might come at the expense of punchline, considering the potential overlap of the Vertigo imprint's audience. In any event, as the cover promises, the long time misadventures of Jack of stories come full circle, only with the character undergoing an obvious change in the process. Whether this means that following his solo outing Jack will still somehow be reintegrated back into the "Fables" main cast is still to be seen. Story wise, what is promised by creators (albeit in the back matter following the story, and not in any kind of formal epilogue) is that the baby introduced in the beginning of "The end", as well as presumably it's father, were slated to reappear in the Fables universe sometime down the line.


Once again, this ties into the speculation regarding the upcoming "Fables" plot lines. As for the overall strength of the brand, it is important to note that Vertigo is currently publishing the second "Cinderella" mini-series, written by Chris Roberson who penned the canceled title's solo fill-in issue in "Jack of Fables"#35. This not only indicates that DC's imprint is content in producing the material outside of the Fables' creator Bill Willingham's direct involvement, but more importantly, that they might as yet delay in authorizing another ongoing spin-off. This seems to mirror the decision to capitalize on the imprint's other current success, "American vampire", by likewise producing only a related mini-series.

In many ways, such caution is warranted, as the Direct market certainly doesn't seem to be receptive of the new ongoing commitments, even when tied to a more successful existing franchise, which mirrored Willingham and Sturges' experiences in writing the "JSA" and it's "JSA: All stars" spin-off respectively in the main DC Universe. And while the February cancellation of "JSA: All stars" seemingly has little to do with the Sturges co-written "Jack of Fables", it speaks to the same argument - whatever new projects the company plans around it's popular franchises should follow only after a serious rethinking at the company's part. That "Jack of Fables" was as ambitious as it was, and as long lasting, still doesn't guarantee that the potential "Cinderella" ongoing series would have a better chance of winning over the typical "Fables" reader.

At a time when existing comic book readers are already overtaxed with buying too many titles due to sheer loyalty or overblown hype, perhaps the best approach would be to continue with the mini-series until the company is sure exactly what kind of spin-off the majority of their readers are interested in,