For much of human history, group morals have been passed between generations through the telling of stories. Over and over again, these fables, folktales, and fairy tales are recounted. Like a centuries-long game of Telephone, however, these tales can shift dramatically throughout these various retellings. Jump to the modern day, and so many reinterpretations exist that the tales in their original forms have lost much of their relevance. They have given way to the many Disney-style reinterpretations that our society has accepted as canon. Disney movies are written for modern children, though, and our views about exposing our kids to violence and dark themes have drastically evolved.

If you’re a fan of stories like ONCE UPON A TIME or The Looking Glass Wars, you know that several writers are attempting to reflect the original tones of the source material. In 2002, writer Bill Willingham began working with DC’s Vertigo imprint to develop his own take on the modern fairy tale with FABLES. Focusing on a group of popular folktale characters like Snow White, Prince Charming, and the Big Bad Wolf, Willingham crafted a new world set amidst the modern New York City. After being forced from their magical Homelands centuries ago by the mysterious Adversary, the mostly immortal Fables formed Fabletown. This apartment building acts as a safe haven for this group as they rebuild their lives under the direction of Old King Cole.

What’s drawn readers into the FABLES world is the depth of its characterization. While the original stories are formative for many, the characters were little more than puppets to enact a moral. FABLES took characters like Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf and made them more than a victim and a monster. Willingham made things complicated, and that makes for a better story. Yet, the source tales still have merit, especially in analyzing how unique this particular interpretation happens to be. Step into Fabletown. It is time to meet the residents.

READ: FABLES isn’t the only Vertigo tale worth exploring. See how SANDMAN breaks conventions of Campbell’s hero’s journey!

Snow White and Rose Red: Sisters from Two Tales

FABLES Rose Red and Snow White
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

While Snow White’s adventures are well-known, many won’t recognize her sister. In FABLES, Snow White and Rose Red have a contentious relationship. Exhibit A: Rose seduced Snow’s husband, Prince Charming. Rose grew up forgotten. While pretty, she never warranted an evil queen’s attentions. Upon arriving in the Mundane World, Rose Red turned to sex and assorted drugs to make her name. She even started a relationship with the rebel Jack Horner (of Beanstalk fame). Snow White, on the other hand, had grown used to life as royalty. Beloved, she was even elected deputy mayor.

Looking into these characters’ tales, Snow White is actually built from two separate stories. In the German folklore gathered by the Brothers Grimm, writers use the name for two separate characters. Modern creators retell Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to death. Snow White and Rose Red hasn’t received the same fame. In this tale, Snow White and her sister Rose invite a bear into their home every night through the winter. The story is about kindness, as helping the bear and an ungrateful dwarf breaks a curse. This transforms the bear into a sweet prince, who has a brother. Both sisters are married, and they lived happily ever after.

Rose Red’s characterization in the story takes much of its inspiration from the source. While unmotivated and uncertain in her role, Rose finds her own when brought to the Farm. Set in the northern New York countryside, this particular off-shoot of Fabletown houses those characters that can’t pass for mundanes. This can include bears, tigers, goblins, or the famous Tom Thumb. Much like in the story, Rose grows tender and protective around the Farm characters. Much like with the bear in her own story, Rose becomes a caretaker.

A Dwarf Slave turned Hero

Fables
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

It’s interesting to note that these characters draw influences from both stories. While Rose Red never appeared in the Seven Dwarves story, her role as Snow’s sister references the story of the bear and the dwarf. Snow did face an evil queen and found true love’s kiss. Yet, the influences stop here. While Disney and the Brothers Grimm show caring and protective dwarves, Willingham reveals that she was a slave. Late in the series, Charming reveals that a series of dwarf murders occurred in his kingdom. Snow killed her former captors, who abused her totally during her capture.

While this may seem like senseless harm to a beloved character, I actually see it as another fusion of the source story. In Snow White and Rose Red, the dwarf the pair encounter is nasty. Every time they help him or save him, he taunts and scolds the pair ungratefully. While the new incarnation is extreme, his evil may well have seeped into Willingham’s interpretation of Snow’s character.

While no one deserves the treatment she underwent, Snow becomes one of the most interesting and complex characters in FABLES. Willingham characterizes her as the ultimate hero. A capable warrior, a loving mother, and an accomplished politician, Snow becomes a role-model for the entire Fable community. She also becomes one of the greatest defenders against the Adversary’s forces. This isn’t Disney’s frail princess, but a learned and powerful queen.

Prince Charming: Husband to Many

Fables Prince Charming
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

While he appears in the first issue of FABLES’ 150 issue run, Prince Charming isn’t a decent person. Born in the Homelands, Charming is one of the few Fables to make a living in the Mundane World. He refused to join Fabletown, deciding instead to tour the various kingdoms of the world. Prince Charming falls into a pattern of seduction and womanizing, never able to understand commitment. He fell under Rose Red’s sway, which ended his marriage to Snow White.

When looking into Charming’s source material, it isn’t enough to simply look at Snow White. Prince Charming is unique in this world. If an unnamed Prince appears in a folktale, Mr. Charming fits the bill. While he may originate as Snow White’s cheating ex, Charming has married two other princesses. This doesn’t count the women he’s seduced for a night. Prince Charming’s source material is difficult because there are three stories.

In the FABLES universe, Charming has married Snow White, Sleeping Beauty (or Briar Rose), and Cinderella. In fact, his marriage to Cinderella most likely kept the man alive. During the war with the Adversary, someone found a gate to the Mundane World. Married couples, children, and other magical creatures unable to participate were the first through it. Charming didn’t have to fight due to his marriage with Cinderella, though this didn’t last long past them landing on the mundane shores. Prince Charming may have a way with words, but his life of leisure and ease only taught him how to attain his goals. He never learned how to keep hold of the rewards. With a history in three separate folktales, Charming’s own source material is muddy at best, but that leads to a unique redemptive hero.

Fables
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Sheriff Bigby Wolf: Blow any houses down?

Fables big Bad Wolf
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Bigby Wolf is Fabletown’s Sheriff, and he fits the stereotypical noir cop. Gruff, constantly smoking, dressed in a messy suit, Bigby is one step away from a monochrome film. While unafraid to verbally spar with Fabletown’s residents, Bigby cares for his charges. Bigby’s their first line of defense, and he gets the job done. In the Homelands, Bigby Wolf made mistakes. Bad decisions defined his life but, during the great war, he led many through portals into the Mundane World. His mistakes make him an interesting hero, and though he may not look the same, most know his name. Meet the Big Bad Wolf, former destroyer of pig houses and feral killer of humans.

Like Prince Charming, Bigby’s history is muddy. There is no single source for Sheriff Wolf. Any representation of a wolf villain feeds into Bigby’s inspirations. Among those mentioned in FABLES; Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, and The Boy who Cried Wolf all influence Bigby’s character. What separates Bigby from Charming, though, is that Bigby draws from modern stories as well.

Fables Bigby
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

In his early days in the Mundane World, Bigby befriended a Transylvanian Count. This Count takes credit for Bigby’s killings in a nearby village, increasing his notoriety. Later, Bigby battled an undead monstrosity created by a scientist named Frankenstein. Bigby is solely unique because he’s also a product of modern storytelling. While others fit with Grimm and Aesop, Bigby steps past that world. As the son of the North Wind, he stems from a time of myth. Having taken human form, he’s a werewolf. He was a villain, but he has been redeemed.

Flycatcher: Turning Tales

Fables Flycatcher
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Among the Fables, Flycatcher is the one that best fits his folktale. Flycatcher had attained his happily ever after. Prince Ambrose is the star of the famous tale The Princess and the Frog. Several cultures, from English to Russian to Korean, have some version of this tale. The most famous, though, comes from German storytellers. In this story, a spoiled princess comes upon a talking frog. This frog, Ambrose, tells the girl that a kiss would indeed transform him into a wealthy prince.

READ: Comic book movies are aiming toward realistic portrayals of our favorite heroes. Yet is that right for the story?

Most modern tales have the princess break the curse through a kiss. In the real ending, though, the princess throws the frog at a wall in disgust. The physical damage kicks the frog out of his cursed form, and he becomes a prince. The pair then live happily ever after. This is where Flycatcher’s story starts. With his unnamed wife, Ambrose had children, wealth, and happiness, even though his curse did have some after-effects. Whenever he grows increasingly nervous or scared, Ambrose transforms back into a frog. He and his family handled it, though.

The Adversary’s invasion changed everything. With plans to join the war effort, Prince Ambrose’s family was ambushed by the invading army. His wife and children were slaughtered in front of him, and Ambrose only escaped because of his curse. Now, in Fabletown, Ambrose has become Flycatcher, the janitor. Flycatcher repressed his trauma at the hands of the Adversary. He still believes his family is alive in the Homelands, so Bigby is forced to “punish” Flycatcher into a job to keep him home. Otherwise, the former prince would find his way back to the Homelands to search for them.

Frau Totenkinder: A Witch for All Ages

Fables Frau Totenkinder
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

Frau Totenkinder is very similar to Prince Charming and Bigby Wolf, only over many more stories. Her circumstances are unique because she essentially becomes the connecting thread through the entire community. The oldest Fable, Totenkinder dates back to the Paleolithic Era, where scorned love drove her to sacrifice her child for great magical power. Since then, she became the strongest witch and carries the deepest grudge against princes. Totenkinder was responsible for the Beast’s transformation and Prince Ambrose’s amphibious physique. Her definitive role, though, was the attempted cannibalism of Hansel and Gretel.

Many know the story of the children Hansel and Gretel. How they found a home in the woods made from candy. Entering the home, Totenkinder captures and fattens them. The siblings escape and shove the old witch into her own oven to burn. FABLES rarely lets the story end there, and Hansel grew up to despise magic. Though Frau Totenkinder did many horrible things, the Fabletown Amnesty forgave all past crimes. With this new world, Totenkinder has a new lease on life and protects the Fables that she once preyed upon.

While Gretel was able to accept her change of heart (even starting magic lessons with the old witch), Hansel refused to stay in Fabletown, instead moving to a little town called Salem, Massachusetts. There he cleared the town of any supposed witch, but time made this practice immoral and illegal. Forced to leave, Hansel returned to the Homelands. He joined the Adversary and became a villainous tyrant. Hansel and Totenkinder are opposite stories. In one, a villain becomes a great hero. In the other, a hero falls farthest. Though they stay true to the source material, the addition to their story makes them unique.

Geppetto: Spoilers Abound

Fables Gepetto
Image courtesy of Vertigo Comics.

I thought I had found the most unique twist in FABLES during Pinocchio’s introduction. The former puppet turned real boy gets his happily ever after, it seems, and he went through hell to get there. Yet, when he’s reintroduced into the FABLES mythos, he’s still a young boy. While his friends, like Boy Blue, grew up and became adults, his wish from the Blue Fairy was a little too specific. He cannot grow up; he can never go through puberty, making his early happiness a bit moot.

Yet, this isn’t Pinocchio’s story. That honor belongs to Geppetto, his father. In the original story, Geppetto was a lonely old man who wanted a son. He built one, a kind-eyed puppet that partially filled the void. Then the Blue Fairy brought it to life, and all seemed well. Pinocchio even became a real boy, and Geppetto’s wishes became reality. In this Italian folktale, the reader is taught that wishes can become reality, especially if you work for them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality of FABLES.

After Pinocchio’s transformation, Geppetto watched the boy leave to experience adventure and the high seas. Again, the carpenter felt alone. So Geppetto began tinkering, making the next puppets older with hopes for a deeper maturity. The Blue Fairy obliged again, and these boys stood by him, wholly loyal. His magic puppets drew attention. His countrymen asked him to replace their tyrannical leader with a loyal puppet. This kept happening until Geppetto took control of the majority of the Homelands’ governments. With armies under his orders, Geppetto refused to be lonely and powerless again. He set his armies on the world and became the Adversary. Happily ever after may have come for Pinocchio, but Geppetto had to take it.

Final Thoughts: Fables in the Real World

Bill Willingham’s FABLES is expertly researched and beautifully written. While these are only six examples of Willingham’s brilliant characterizations, so many of the other characters included in this 150 issue epic are portrayed with such depth and love for the source material. While many don’t fit the mold of their exact stories, the influences are all there. Some of the strongest characters in this story aren’t simply unique reinterpretations. They are like Prince Charming and Bigby Wolf, representations and discourses on whole literary ideas.

READ: Geppetto isn’t the only example of an unhealthy comic book family. Dig into the different representations of superhero family narratives with ComicsVerse!

Where FABLES succeeds is in its representations of the life after the story. Every child reader of Snow White, Cinderella, or The Three Little Pigs sees “Happily Ever After” as the end of the story. In reality, that’s where the story starts. The Evil Witch turns over a new leaf. The Big Bad Wolf protects his former prey. The kindly old carpenter becomes the greatest villain the Homelands has ever known. I do encourage you to pick up Bill Willingham’s FABLES. Fabletown’s doors are open. You need only walk in.

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