This article was originally published at Infinite Comix on September 19, 2014.
This isn’t a fairytale. It’s a horror story.
Fables #144 moves away from the scattered composition of earlier chapters in “Happily Ever After” and focuses almost entirely on a single story. It’s an important focus because the events of that one story are absolutely devastating and deserve the space they are given. What happens in this issue could not have shared much space. The handful of panels that focus elsewhere are quickly dismissed even by Bill Willingham’s prose.
The action and throughline of this story holds together. It’s based on ideas sewn throughout all 144 issues of the series thus far. The inclusion of elements from the “Superhero” arc and a rivalry that has existed ever since “Legends in Exile” (the very first Fables collection) adds weight to what occurs here. Willingham and Mark Buckingham don’t have to explain the conflicts of this issue because they have been set up throughout the series. That long term investment in characters is what makes this issue painful to read, in addition to lending the story weight.
That pain isn’t necessarily a good thing though. There have been deaths that hurt before. Boy Blue and Prince Charming’s deaths during the war with the Homelands were both difficult for fans of the series and characters throughout the narrative. Yet those deaths were earned. They were consequences of a terrible, yet necessary battle with high stakes and difficult odds. What happens in Fables #144 feels wasteful, like characters being tossed into a wood chipper with no chance of success or achievement.
That’s a dramatic tonal shift in the series. Fables has never been an overtly romantic series. Characters have always died, but death has at least held meaning and significance in the past. Here it is nihilistic and cold. The conclusion of Fables #144 feels dark and foreboding in a way no previous issue ever has. So much of the stories leading to this have dealt with the idea of hope, yet everything that occurs here seeks to divorce the word of its meaning. Perhaps that is meaningful to the long-term plans of this finale, but in the context of a single issue it is jarring.
Buckingham portrays these sequences with a patient, but inevitable sequence of panels. There is no fancy composition or stylized twist to help send the terror of these moments home. He realizes that the actions on the page are all that is necessary to shock readers and allows them to speak for themselves. Like the slow, plodding footsteps of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, Buckingham’s pages move to their terrible conclusions.
The truth is that I’m afraid about whatever comes next in Fables. The series has always held consequences for its characters, but only now does it feel as it Willingham and Buckingham are actively punishing them. Fables #144 doesn’t read like a modern fable, it reads like a horror story.