Not With a Bang But a Whimper: A Look at the Fables Finale

We review Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham's oversized conclusion to their long-running Vertigo title

Ending any story with a real sense of finality is perhaps the most difficult task for storytellers, especially the longer one runs. The further and further you move along the more that is expected from you at the close. It’s part of the reason why endings in fiction are almost never beloved or even well-liked. You can find examples of this across varying mediums, from Lost’s polarizing close to JK Rowling’s insistence to include Harry and the gang as adults at the end of the Harry Potter series. While some loved those, many responded with scrunched faces and questions in mind. It’s a tough act. I don’t envy those who are trying to please their long-time audience while delivering on what they’ve been building the whole time.

This goes doubly for a series like Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s Fables, a book that could have ended 75 issues previous in satisfying fashion when the original overarching plot came to a close. But it kept going, and it was uneven in a way the series hadn’t been before. Like a gallon of milk that stayed in your fridge well past its sell-by date, it looked like Fables and seemed like Fables, but in a lot of ways, the elements we originally loved about the book only appeared for fleeting moments. Was it still a well-crafted comic? Yes. But it was having an issue maintaining momentum in the face of losing the tension that drove so much of the early series. As the finale approached, one had to admit that Fables had an even trickier time than most in delivering a satisfying conclusion to what had at times been a classic comic series.

Even with that in mind, the way that Fables closed – with a convenient deus ex machina entering the picture to quickly resolve the main storyline and make way for a litany of nostalgia driven bookends to varying characters tales – was less a story and more of a celebration of the series as it was actively being told. It was as if the book and its creators were saying to the readers, “weren’t the past 150 issues a magical experience?”

And they were at times. They definitely were. As a celebration of everything Fables, its final chapter was satisfactory. For many, that’s all they wanted. A time to say goodbye to their favorites. As that type of story, it succeeded. As the coda to a long-running narrative, however? It was much less than that, and left this fan with the worst response anyone could ask for: apathy. That’s the last thing you want as a reader. Whether you are reacting positively or negatively, at least you are feeling something. Yet upon closing the final pages of the book, the words “that was okay” escaped my mouth, and I carried on from there reading what was next in my pile.

That was the last thing I expected or wanted from this book. At the end of favorites like Scalped or Y the Last Man, my immediate reaction wasn’t to put the book down and move on. It was to reopen page one and start again. To dig back in because I so desperately didn’t want to leave the world that these creators had made. To hold onto the magic of the comic book brilliance they created. But with this comic I felt little, and contemplating the twelve years of reading it made me question what had changed more: the comic or myself?

That’s not to say this comic was completely without merit. While the way the main thread played out was dissatisfying – especially given that it was built on a convenient last arc heel turn by Rose Red that felt more Highlander than Fables – there were elements that impressed. Most of them were built on the characters that the comic always thrived with, like Flycatcher, Cinderella, Frau Totenkinder and one character who returned as the aforementioned deus ex machina. When those characters were in play, the book shined, and Buckingham’s art especially soared in sequences like the showdown in the castle.

Buckingham has always been the metronome of the book, and no matter where the book turned, he was its constant. His art was superb throughout this finale, making every bit work as well as he possibly could and making moments resonate to a far greater level than they would have in the hands of any other artist. He could wring emotion out of two completely wooden characters having a conversation – and he literally did at times in this series – but he’s given a lot more to do than that here.

Willingham delivered satisfying in-story moments for several characters beyond the ones I mentioned, notably the pitch perfect ending of Prince Brandish and Grimble’s role in the mix. There was payoff for some characters in big ways at the close, and it still felt like Fables in the script in a good way. However, there was a fair amount of reliance on convenient bits of plot mechanics beyond the last minute save a lost character provided, including an all-too-easy solution to the Bigby problem. In all, that was my largest issue with the main narrative. Too much felt as if it was built on convenient solutions to complicated problems rather than something earned.

The “Last Day of” back-up stories the comic closed with had some winners, especially the Pinocchio tale. That one has the most perfect ending for any character in the book. Lake’s finale was also splendid, especially in how it dovetailed into a Christmas story about the children she and Ambrose had. Maddy and King Cole opening a wizarding school for the Mundy community was top notch. Clara’s finale was also lovely, as she found a potential mate (and dinner!) in an unexpected place. That this bird centric tale was drawn by perhaps the comic industry’s preeminent animal artist David Petersen helped enormously, of course.

And what a list of talents that worked on the book. Beyond the typical team of Willingham, Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Lee Loughridge and Todd Klein, artists like Gene Ha, Mike Allred, Joelle Jones, Neal Adams, and even original series artist Lan Medina joined the fray, and it gave the book a cool jam feel to its finale. It was an impressive way to bring the book to a close in sheer magnitude.

Where the back-up stories struggled was with how lightweight several were. Given that it was the finale, you would think they would have saved the best characters for last. While we did get many major players here, there were several that left me searching the deep recesses of my brain to remind myself of who these people even were. Blossom Wolf’s story – who completely escaped my mind – managed to take up more pages in the book than her parents’ goodbye. While the Christmas tale was a nice one, it carried limited weight due to the confusion Ambrose and Lake’s marriage inspired. When did that happen? Had they even met before? Others inspired more questions for me than warm and fuzzy feelings like that one did.

Ultimately, my biggest issue with this book was its inherently navel-gazing nature. To me, Fables #150 read more as a comic focused on nostalgia rather than one interested in telling an engaging story or wrapping the narrative in an impactful fashion. That can work, and we saw it a few months ago in Parks & Recreation’s wondrous finale that played out the cast’s lives and let us know everything was okay in the end. But that worked because it felt organic and because it was never defined by any real “plot” of significance.

Fables garnered much of its audience because of the story of its cast attempting to take their homelands back from the dreaded Adversary. It’s where the tension came from, and from which the passion of its audience was derived before we fell in love with the characters. Once that central narrative was completed, the book suffered from a wayward existence. For me, this issue is the culmination of that despite its high points. In a conclusion that spent much of its time saying goodbye to its cast and the worlds they inhabited, Fables and its celebratory finale was a story that made me miss the tales from the early days more than it made me enjoy the one I had just read. As much as I loved the title once upon a time, that may have been the most fitting way to close of all.