Fables #138 steps back from its long-form narrative to deliver a self-contained issue. It functions very well, providing an easily digestible tale that also builds to the greater ongoing narrative. There are two stories told in the issue: the adventure of Gepetto’s last wooden soldier and Gepetto’s plotting for power.
The former functions better than the latter, as it’s a self-sustained narrative. Sir Woldred, equal parts Thumbelina and St. George as a miniaturized knight, must quest into the Sacred Grove in order to help Gepetto regain control of the wood from which he derives his power. Along the way he is confronted by a variety of obstacles, including a frog perceived as a dragon. It’s a straightforward quest narrative, a fairy tale. Although it only takes fourteen pages, Bill Willingham does an excellent job of investing Woldred’s story with meaning. This is largely accomplished through competent pacing and a classical structure. Battles against backyard animals and quests through gigantic blades of grass play to childlike sensibilities of fantasy. It combines a young person’s day dreams with great tales of chivalry, revealing the two are not dissimilar.
Woldred is also surprisingly likable. He may serve the former adversary, but it’s difficult not to admire his loyalty and determination. His devotion to a central cause, even if it runs counter to the heroes of Fables, is so great that his failure is saddening. Like most good fairy tales, though, Woldred’s story ends with a twist. He may not get what he wants, but he gets what he needs. That sort of simple story—so well told—is proof that Willingham not only understands the characters of his own stories, but the great tales from which they originate.
The economy of Woldred’s story is contrasted by the complex nature of Gepetto’s. The story is situated in the past and uses small signifiers from previous issues (more than a year old) in order to establish continuity. This means that some characters only appear in order to weave Fables #138 into the larger narrative. The opening sequence, in which Bigby and Snow White appear, is particularly clunky. Gepetto’s machinations are clever enough to make his portion of the comic still enjoyable. The twist in Woldred’s story plays directly into Gepetto’s characterization, as someone who is implausibly clever and never forthright. He is the scorpion to King Ambrose’s frog; he cannot change his nature and will sting those who gave him a second chance. Even his clever maneuverings rely on events long past to be fully understood. Many readers may not even recall that there is a character named Grandfather Oak, and he is integral to the story’s conclusion.
Said conclusion does do an excellent job of playing against the comics established tone, though, assuming readers recall all the important details. While most of the story plays out as an adventure, the last panel creates a palpable sense of foreboding. The minor tale of Woldred is transformed into an event that threatens not just the fables, but all of Earth. If the reader was successfully lured into rooting for Woldred, they are shaken back to awareness and reminded that Gepetto was The Adversary. The greatest threat ever confronted in Fables has been restored to power and Willingham has tricked the reader into watching happen, just as Gepetto fooled his captors.
This effect is reinforced by Russ Braun’s art. For most of the issue, it plays up the fairy tale tropes of the story it accompanies. Woldred and the “monsters” he confronts are beautifully rendered in a style reminiscent of pages from a modern children’s fairy tale picture book. Some of the panels are evocative of stained glass windows, casting Woldred as St. George and Michael, and a mundane frog as a ferocious dragon. It is impossible to resist the lure of cheering Woldred’s exploits. With assistance from Lee Loughridge’s colors, almost every page bears out the promise of a magical kingdom where good conquers evil.
Yet in the final page of the issue all joy is gone. Gepetto has succeeded in his nefarious plot and a great darkness has returned. Before the little (Woldred) and big (frog) had been in opposition. Now, in the forms of Grandfather Oak and Gepetto, those opposites have combined. In their combination there is only darkness. Where before rich blues and greens lit up the page, blacks and browns bury the characters. It’s a shocking final reveal, which promises only bad things to come.
Fables #138 reminds readers that Willingham is just as capable of crafting short 22-page comics as he is at building eight issue epics. Although continuity confuses the beginning and ending of the issue, the story at its center is wonderfully told. It infuses a classic fairytale narrative with new ideas, and then twists its resolution like a dagger. Those fourteen pages alone make this comic worth the price of admission.