Recently, I started reading FABLES by Bill Willingham. The DC series places classic fairy tale characters in modern day New York City. And of course, they get up to all manner of hijinks in their new setting. When I told my partner about the series, she aptly responded, “Isn’t that a bit cliché?” It’s true. We’ve been rehashing fairy tales since their beginning. Again and again, fairy tales appear in film (SHREK, HOODWINKED!, everything Disney), television (ONCE UPON A TIME), and comics. There is almost always some fairy tale renaissance within the spheres of popular culture. As Marina Warner (author of From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellersputs it, fairy tales “are stories with staying power.” No matter how cliché the retellings get, fairy tales aren’t going anywhere. 

fairy tales FABLES #1
Image courtesy of DC Vertigo.

Metamorphosis and Adaptability

But why do fairy tales have staying power? Some, like Sigmund Freud and Bruno Bettelheim, argue that fairy tales speak to the anxieties of our unconscious mind. Others believe you can always find moral truth within these tales. Regardless, the enduring popularity of the genre is undeniable. According to Warner, “Shape-shifting is one of fairy tales’ dominant characteristic wonders.” She also says, “Metamorphosis defines the fairy tale.” The fairy tale’s mutable structure makes it a prime genre for adaptation. Its willingness to shift in meaning and form makes the fairy tale usable for other creators’ agendas. For example, Walt Disney’s 1950 interpretation of CINDERELLA, complete with happy ending, saved his company by appealing to moderate values. On the other side of the coin, many comic versions of fairy tales challenge tradition by posing sharp cultural critiques.

Both fairy tales and comics engage in critiques of social systems. The traditional fairy tale includes a moral lesson on good behavior. Fairy tale characters often break rules in order to demonstrate the perils of bad behavior. Warner points out, “This very boundlessness serves the moral purpose of tales, which is precisely to teach where boundaries lie.” In Graphic Women, Hillary Chute writes that the comic is a “visual-verbal exploration in which taboos… could be explored.” Comics’ disdain for social norms stems from a tradition of showing what is socially unacceptable. Comics have everything from monsters to empowered women to homosexual relationships, oh my! Indeed, the medium pushes the limits of representation. Thus, the familiarity of fairy tale structure becomes a tool for comics. By using fairy tale motifs, plots, and themes, comics have a backdrop on which established boundaries can be transgressed.

Lacking Moral and Intellectual Fibre?

While critics suggest fairy tales are too childish, they also claim comics are too adult in the sense that they might corrupt children. Interestingly, in many instances, both receive criticism for being immoral and anti-intellectual. Warner describes, “The taste for [fairy tales] revealed a lack of intellectual – and possibly moral fibre.” Fredric Wertham’s oft-cited Seduction of the Innocent claims that comics promote “cruelty,” “unwholesome fantasies,” and “criminal or sexually abnormal ideas.” Of course, “childish” fairy tales are gruesome too, with young girls being eaten alive by wolves and murderous blue-bearded husbands. Thus, it is no wonder depraved comics are drawn (no pun intended) directly to such beastly tales.

I do wonder, though, if comics are better interpreters of fairy tales than the overly optimistic Disney versions? Warner maintains that “heroic optimism” defines fairy tales. The triumph of good over evil gives fairy tales their “optimism” despite their tendencies to have a dark edge. Modern interpretations, such as Walt Disney’s films, take optimism to the extreme. Opposing Disney, many comics return to the fairy tale’s darker side. Continuing the medium’s tradition of irreverence, comics often reference fairy tales while brilliantly skewering contemporary cultural issues. In that respect, comics are the heir to the fairy tale throne. Much like Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, modern comics creators do not always go for the happily ever after.

Context Clues?

Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde carefully outlines some of the strong suits of fairy tales and how to approach their study. Importantly, Warner asks readers to examine the context from which fairy tales emerge. When looking at fairy tale adaptations, the question is equally important. What is the purpose of using fairy tales over and over in comics? To answer this, we can explore several recent fairy tale adaptations. In particular, the new Image Comics series COYOTES by Sean Lewis and Caitlin Yarsky, Image’s NORROWAY by Kit and Cat Seaton, and the HarperTeen comic NIMONA by Noelle Stevenson all reference the fairy tale genre. Emily Carroll often categorizes her horror comics as fairy tales due to their sense of fantasy and wonder. And Amélie Fléchais directly takes on the LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD story in her graphic novel THE LITTLE RED WOLF from Lion Forge.   

fairy tales COYOTES #1
Image courtesy of Image Comics.

Little Red Riding Hood Reborn

How is it that a young girl can mistake her own grandmother for a wolf? The perplexing deceit of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD remains central to the story since Charles Perrault adapted it in 1697. As gullible as the girl is, the wolf is just as cunning. Some versions maintain the wolf as a force of nature, beastly and uncivilized. Warner’s chapter on the tale suggests that Perrault’s wolf is instead a figure of modern civilization that traps young women. The Grimm version supplies a masculine hunter to save the day. However, rarely does Little Red Riding Hood save herself.

Feminist readers of comics will likely disapprove of these endings. Refreshingly, Sean Lewis and Caitlin Yarsky’s COYOTES takes a different approach. In Lewis’ retelling, the young woman Red must face the women-eating werewolves and coyotes. These creatures devour women and threaten the matriarchal order of Red’s grandmothers. The key fairy tale elements are there: a young and somewhat naïve girl, her gossipy grandmother, and the frightening men-in-wolves-clothing. In a world where violence against women is prevalent, a comic that challenges this culture is much needed. Moreover, by twisting familiar tropes, Lewis is able to suggest a different outcome, even if the cultural challenges are similar.

Amélie Flechais’ THE LITTLE RED WOLF swaps the roles in order to appeal to an environmentalist viewpoint. Instead of the girl, readers see the story of a young wolf who must deliver a meal to his grandmother. When a human girl leads the pup astray, it is up to his mother to rescue him from certain death. Readers see the power dynamics of the story shift. The threat of human violence against nature is all too real. Human caused climate destruction is harming our livelihoods as well as other animals’. 

fairy tales THE LITTLE RED WOLF
Image courtesy of Lion Forge.

Queer Beasts: Talking Animals in NORROWAY

Talking animals are a staple of mythology, folk tales, fairy tales, and comics. Their presence in these narratives goes without question. In stories like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, the talking animal is in reality a bewitched human. Kit and Cat Seaton’s NORROWAY engages this trope. The comic adapts a strange Scottish fairy tale about a woman forced to marry a bull. However, the retelling queers the story in the sense that it is both strange and that many of the characters are in some way not heterosexual or cisgender. Indeed, the bull fiancé embodies nonconformity and “otherness.”  

Comics have the freedom to picture strange characters whose bodies and identities are at odds with convention. There is no question that the Seaton’s heroine, Sybilla, will eventually wed her bull. But there is equally little question of the other queer characters: the bull’s shapeshifting brother and his pansexual sister. The only question seems to be how many strange transformations the characters must undergo before the story is over.  

fairy tales NORROWAY BOOK ONE: THE BLACK BULL OF NORROWAY
Image courtesy of Image Comics.

These stories force us to consider the point of view of the queer “other.” Indeed, the comic gives voice to many others. As Warner puts it, fairy tales engage “one of the most profound changes in human sensibility in modern time: the re-evaluation of animals.” Indeed, by empowering animals with speech, fairy tales give voice to the animal other whose perspective is frequently ignored. By extension, the shifting boundary between what is human and nonhuman disrupts the boundary between what is and is not “other.” 

Shifting Perspectives in NIMONA

Similarly, Noelle Stevenson’s NIMONA tells the story of a villain’s shape-shifting sidekick Nimona. The magical protagonist works to take down the Institution with the help of her “boss” Ballister Blackheart. Stevenson uses many elements of fairy tales, including wayward knights in faraway kingdoms and magical beasts who take on different shapes. However, she turns the fairy tale tradition on its head. Instead of the knight saving the princess from the evil dragon, Nimona (the monster) and Blackheart save the knight from the oppressive society.

fairy tales NIMONA
Image courtesy of HarperTeen.

Stevenson’s fairy tale challenges the idea that the Institution, the culture in which we find ourselves, is always good. Indeed, Nimona and Ballister fill the role of the “bad guys” but are ultimately the story’s heroes. Nimona’s ability to shape shift disrupts our expectations for her behavior. Indeed, her changing form embodies the shifting identities of fairy tales and comics themselves. Once again, the queer landscape of comics gives rise to a fluid space to explore culturally established boundaries.

No Happy Endings in Emily Carroll’s Comics

It is possibly an understatement when Warner declares: “happy endings have also come to be expected of children’s stories.” However, she points out that along with happy endings comes the expectation of good behavior from young women. For example, women who are smart but also know their place and are subservient to the social system are rewarded. Women who are vain or greedy are often punished. 

In many contemporary independent comics, particularly those made by women creators, artists find ways to empower women instead. Even in fairy tale adaptations, they try to sidestep the happy ending or the overly submissive female protagonist. Emily Carroll’s fairy tale comics revel in both the evil and the tragic. With a few exceptions, Carroll’s tales tend to end in death due to her characters’ misdeeds. Carroll’s dark stories appear in intense, beautiful, and uncanny illustrations and bear witness to these experiences from a female perspective. 

Why stray from the path of Happily Ever After? Carroll’s insistence upon the grim reminds readers that happily ever after is not always guaranteed. Warner states that “it helps us to see the actual world to visualize a fantastic one.” But this does not necessarily mean that the fantastic must be happy.   

fairy tales THE THREE SNAKE LEAVES
Image courtesy of Emily Carroll.

The Art of the Tale

Warner describes the core aspects of fairy tales as “pleasure in the fantastic” and “curiosity about the real.” With their irreverent tendencies and hybrid form, comics make a perfect medium for the genre. Moreover, comics visualize as much as they recount the fantastic stories. The visual aspect of comics gives the medium a new source of power. For example, in COYOTES, the wolves are gigantic and overwhelmingly toothy. The better to eat you with! And of course, Flechais’ adorably gentle wolf in LITTLE RED WOLF is just plain cute. The better to win your heart! Thus, the illustrative elements of comics add to the overall tone of any given interpretation. 

Comic art is flexible. It allows creators to picture the dark side of the princess story or the bright side of the evil monster. Moreover, their rebellion against tradition and “high art” allows comics artists to bring any number of marvelous and evil creatures to the page.

Fairy Tale Adaptations: Foolish Stories to Take Seriously

For the most part, however, whether happy or sad, fairy tales tend to enchant audiences. Even author Roxanne Gay writes of fairy tales in her book Bad Feminist, stating “there are often lessons to be learned, and sometimes those lessons are learned the hard way, but in the end, there is happiness, at least in the fairy tales I like best.”

It is possible that the promise of a happy ending isn’t the real reason we repeatedly turn to fairy tales. Certainly the familiar structure of fairy tales and their history of happy endings appeals to our sense of wonder and nostalgia. However, we know from Emily Carroll and other artists that fairy tales do not require a happy ending.

Instead, it is perhaps that fairy tales give audiences a space in which rule breaking and magic are commonplace. Because of the medium’s propensity to flaunt rules and mock established narrative systems, comic adaptations of fairy tales offer a rich approach to the classic stories. Indeed, the medium asserts that these tales hold the power to craft serious cultural critiques. Much like early fairy tales, what is often perceived of as foolish or insignificant is in reality of grave importance.

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