You didn’t have to read “1001 Nights of Snowfall,” the first original graphic novel set in the “Fables” universe, to continue to enjoy the main series. However, the book made a strong case for its inclusion in every fan’s library with stories that not only feature the kind of imaginatively witty storytelling that makes the series so enjoyable, but also fill in key bits of backstory for the main cast. Creator Bill Willingham eventually went on to filter parts of it back into the parent title, but that was just a bonus for those who picked up the graphic novel. It also featured a host of talented artists at the top of their game, making it one of the best looking volumes of the series so far, if not period. “Werewolves of the Heartland” is not an anthology like “Snowfall,” and while I can appreciate the effort that went into trying something different the end result is one of the weakest stories I’ve read from “Fables” in quite some time.
During Mr. Dark’s occupation of Fabletown, Bigby Wolf traveled the country looking for a substitute home for the displaced Fables. While his search ultimately turned out to be unnecessary, it doesn’t mean that it was uneventful as his investigation of a city subsidized by the late Bluebeard soon proves. After encountering a bloodied and desperate mundy outside the limits of Story City, Bigby winds up being captured by its inhabitants but not before his enhanced senses tell him that this is a community of werewolves. It turns out that this community has its origins Bigby’s exploits in WWII (First seen back in vol. 5 true believers!) and he’s seen as a god made flesh by a good deal of the town’s inhabitants as a result. This has led some to believe that a communion of said flesh will lead them to even greater power.
Let’s start with the good parts. Though the main cast of “Fables” is diverse enough that just about anyone can be made into a suitable protagonist for a story, Bigby has always occupied a “first amongst equals” in this area. It could be that he was the focus of the very first story, and several more since then, but there’s also the natural sense of authority and leadership that he commands which lends to his appeal. So, putting him in an environment filled with cheap knockoffs of himself who also want his powers and letting him show them who’s boss... Well, there’s no way that you can’t get at least some entertainment from that.
Problem is that aside from the bits where Bigby is showing the townspeople why he’s the original “Big Bad” the story isn’t all that interesting. We get a lot of backstory fleshing out the WWII story and how the community developed from that. There’s also lots of scheming from some of the townspeople in power, but they’re not fleshed out enough to be interesting as characters. So with a lack of interesting characters besides Bigby, the time the book takes to set up this community really drags until the fighting starts. When it’s over, our protagonist lays down the law and leaves, leaving the reader to wonder just what the hell the point of all this was. It’s not that this is a bad idea for a story, but it reads like this was originally intended to be a short two-issue tale in the main title that was stretched far beyond its limits.
Then there’s the art, which features layouts by Jim Fern, pencils by Fern and Craig Hamilton, and inks by Fern, Hamilton, Ray Snyder and Mark Farmer. I mention all these names because the involvement of so many people gives me the impression that getting this book drawn was not the smooth process that it should’ve been. My fears are borne out through the art itself, which is quite lovely in some parts, and an unfinished trainwreck in others. The opening scenes are the strongest of the book as Bigby wanders through a dense and intricately rendered forest. Things quickly go downhill from there as the level of detail becomes startlingly inconsistent. Some scenes look like they were barely finished before they were rushed off to the printer while others feature some finely tuned linework. There’s a series of three two-page spreads where this is most apparent as the reveal of Bigby’s “full wolf” form is preceded by four pages of quickly bashed-out fighting, followed by an intimidating money shot that’s almost worth framing.
As the title’s main artist, Mark Buckingham may not be the flashiest one, but his consistency and level of craft have defined the overall look of this title and kept it shipping on time. When he’s not providing the art, “Fables” never disappoints with its choice of guest artists. Vertigo regulars like Peter Gross, Shawn McManus and P. Craig Russell have contributed over the years, while others such as Mike Allred, Terry Moore and David Lapham have proved to be surprisingly satisfying given that fantasy isn’t their primary genre. My point is that this title has a high artistic standard to live up to, and this volume fails it miserably. Given that it’s an original graphic novel, there’s no reason they could’ve kept working on this until it was the way it needed to be. We’re all the worse off for having it released in this condition.
It’s not impossible to get some enjoyment from this story, but it’s the first in the main “Fables” line that I think you can safely skip. There may be some significance to this story that will manifest itself down the line, but I doubt that Willingham will make it so that it’s completely inaccessible to people who haven’t read this. The good news is that the first volume of the newest “Fables” spinoff series, “Fairest,” shipped this week. After the artistic debacle that was this volume, I’m looking forward to seeing what the always-fantastic Phil Jimenez does with this universe. Even if it shows him to be having an “off” day, it’ll still be better than what we got here.