The Joker’s Last Laugh #1-6 (2001)

“Didn’t figure you for the prayin’ type, boss.”

“Why? Because I kill people and do really rotten things to puppies and kittens?”

My first digital comics read on my new tablet is this six part series from DC. The series writers were Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty. There were numerous artists on the series: Pete Woods; Andrew Pepoy; Marcos Martin; Mark Farmer; Alvaro Lopez; Walter McDaniel; Andy Kuhn; Ron Randall; Rick Burchett; Mark Lipka; Dan Davis.

While incarcerated at the Slabside Penitentiary, the Joker is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. He reacts by inciting a riot and using the prison’s own defences to “jokerize” the other inmates – may of whom are super-villains. Having created his own super-army, the Joker escapes and lets them loose upon the world hoping that he will be killed by an old friend before he dies.

The annoying thing about this series is that it is not self contained. And for a series featuring the Joker there is not nearly enough scenes in which he appears. The chaos caused by the Joker ripples throughout the DC Universe and some of the action takes place in other comics. This would be fine if the main series told its own story consistently but instead there are scene and plot changes between issues that are just not explained and so the story has unsatisfying holes in it. This is the reason I tend to avoid crossover events, and don’t read too many modern Marvel books where there constantly seems to a crossover happening. I hate the presumption of publishers that either readers are reading all their books or that they will stump up the extra to follow the story beyond a central series.

As I have already stated, the story is less a story about the Joker than it is about the victims of his cruelty. Oracle and Nightwing are the ones to suffer most throughout the story. Their moral stance on the Joker and his continued existence testing them and their relationship to the limit. This could have been a great story in the vein of The Killing Joke or A Death in the Family if it had been allowed to develop within its own pages with a consistent art team but the disjointed nature of the series ruins its emotional impact for me.

As I said at the start, this is my experience of digital comics and using a tablet to read them. In general my experience has been positive. I bought a 10″ Samsung tablet and the size of the visible screen is only slightly smaller than a standard comic page – which is important as I don’t like the directed zoom way of reading comics that can divorce the words from the images. A big plus is the regular sales on Comixology and Dark Horse Digital and, as there is a lot of old stuff I have still to pick up, I can wait for issues to be bundled or sold for 99 cents an issue. For example, the collection for this series is out of print and  I picked it up for $5.94 rather than the $30 which is the cheapest second hand copy on Amazon UK or Abe Books (once shipping is included). The only downside is the price of new comics that tend to be same price as the print version which has never seemed right to me for any digital media.

Fairest #1-6 (2012)

 

Quote:
“I smell a rat! No, I smell whatever sort of vermin a rat smells when he smells a rat!”

 

The recent publication of issue 6 of Fairest marks the end of the first story. Fairest is the latest spinoff from Fables and will focus on the female characters in the original series. This first story was written by the main man himself, Fables creator Bill Willingham. The truly fabulous interior art was pencilled by Phil Jimenez and inked mainly by Andy Lanning with some help along the way from Mark Farmer and Andrew Pepoy. The fantastic covers were by Adam Hughes. The wraparound cover to issue 1 shown above features mainly easily recognisable characters to regular readers of Fables but there were a few I did not recognise.

The story follows on from the abduction of the Snow Queen and Briar Rose by a goblin army from the Empire’s capital city in Fables #107. Ali Baba is looting the city when he comes across a minor bottle imp in a bottle. Although not able to grant him three wishes, the bottle imp promises to use his skills to guide him to vast wealth. He is led to the goblin camp where he frees Briar Rose with a kiss and both find that true love is hard to find and hold on to – even with seven fairy godmothers on your side.

This is an excellent start to the new series. Willingham has produced yet another fabulous tale from his winning formula of retelling classic fairy tales and updating the characters involved. This story focuses on true love and loss but is also a tale of revenge and redemption and is bound to be an instant hit with fans of the main series. It is also the perfect introduction for those who have missed out on Fables and don’t want to play catch-up or commit to the longer story arcs.

With the conclusion of the first arc, the series is being opened out to other creators for their take on these characters. The proposed format reminds me of the Legends of the Dark Knight comic that also featured standalone tales from different creative teams. Issue 7 is to be a single issue story by Matthew Sturges and Shawn McManus which is to be followed by another six issue story featuring Rapunzel by Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda. While I am excited about some of the new writers and artists involved – I am looking forward to seeing more of Inaki Miranda’s work after Fables #99 – I am slightly worried that the quality may vary with the introduction of writers new to the characters.

Having said that, this first arc has left me excited for the future of the series and it is worth picking up when it is collected – sometime after the publication of issue 7 which will also be included in the TPB.

Fables: Inherit the Wind (2012)

 

Quote:
“That’s the trouble with prophecy. It seldom helps and often harms.”

 

Volume 17 of Fables collects issues 108 – 113. The book was again written by creator Bill Willingham and the four issue main story, and the standalone story following it, was again pencilled by the ever fabulous Mark Buckingham with inking mainly by Steve Leialoha with Andrew Pepoy lending a hand. The final chapter in the book is a collection of short tales from the world of Fables with various guest artists such as P. Craig Russell and Adam Hughes.

Spoiler Alert
The next paragraph contains a possible spoiler if you are a long time reader of Fables and haven’t read up to volume 16. If this is you look away now or skip to the end.

The main story is a continuation of volume 16 that deals with the aftermath of the defeat of Mister Dark and the consequences of the death of the North Wind. His death leaves a void that must be filled and, as Bigby has relinquished any claim to the title, it falls to one of his children to succeed to the title. The story follows the trials and machinations as the children are tested looking for the ideal successor and the other cardinal winds turn up hoping to increase their own power while diminishing that of the North Wind. There is a continuing subplot that follows Bufkin and his attempts to lead a revolt against the new rulers of the Pan Ozian Empire. There is also a Christmas issue that details the gradual return of the Fables from Haven to the Farm before moving on to investigate the state of their New York residence. It heavily features Rose Red in a twisted version of A Christmas Carol where she meets other paladins of hope.

Another great volume in the series though the main story was a bit short for me at four chapters and left a lot open for the future. However not a suitable standalone story or entry point for new readers as it is heavily dependent on what has gone before. If you are new to the world of Fables then it really is worth your while to go way back to the beginning and experience the richness and breadth of the story from the start.

Fables: Super Team (2011)

 

Quote:
So basically, you’ve been wasting my time with nine different costume fittings. Was all this a dodge to watch me undress so often?

 

This is volume 16 of the popular Vertigo series and collects issues 101 – 107. As usual it was written by Bill Willingham and the main story was pencilled by Mark Buckingham. The inking on the main story was done mainly by Steve Leialoha with Andrew Pepoy lending a hand on a few pages. The main story is preceded by a fill-in tale with art by Eric Shanower and Richard Friend and followed by another filler story with art by the great Terry Moore.

The main five part story concerns the Fables latest attempt to rid themselves of Mister Dark. With Bellflower’s scheme to contain Mister Dark failing, the Fables are forced to leave the farm and retreat to Flycatcher’s kingdom of Haven. But Mister Dark is on their tails and there is nowhere else to run. While Flycatcher maintains the wards that are holding Mister Dark at bay, Pinocchio convinces the current leader of the witches, Ozma, to create a super powered group to battle the all-powerful enemy in a scenario inspired by his love of comic books. Ozma agrees and with Pinocchio sets about pulling together the members for an archetypal super group that can hope to gain power from the modern myths of the superhero. But as the group is drawn together another champion steps forth from an unlikely quarter.

The first filler story concerns Bufkin and the aftermath of his battle with Baba Yaga in the business office.Now that the business office is safe he is convinced to go on more heroic quests so that he can become king of the business office. This story sees him escape the office and enlist in a new cause. The second story concerns sleeping beauty and a general who is trying to wake her so that he can access the Emperor’s former administration and sorcerers to forge a new empire. But little does he know that there are rival forces around who will go to any lengths to stop his scheme.

This story sees the resolution of the Mister Dark story line and the death of major character. Despite the cover of the book bringing to mind Superman, the main story is a homage to Marvel comics and Jack Kirby with the design of the characters recalling some classic Marvel characters and the art very reminiscent of Kirby’s work – it seems that it is not just DC characters who wish they were Marvel superheroes. The future is going to be interesting for Bigby and Snow in the aftermath of this story line. Also the return to Fabletown may not go quite as smoothly as everyone thinks with the poisonous nurse Sprat still looking for revenge. The Terry Moore story looks like a set up for Fairest with some of the images resembling some of that new spin-off series. It will be interesting to see if nurse Sprat ends up remaining in the main book or the new one given her new-found status courtesy of Mister Dark.

Fables: Rose Red (2011)

 

Quote:
He’s never fought a duel. I’m an expert at it. He’s agreed to a game he barely knows, where I own the game board, the pieces, the dice – everything.

 

This is volume 15 of the ongoing Vertigo series and collects issues 94 – 100. As usual it was superbly written by Bill Willingham and beautifully pencilled (for the most of the book) by Mark Buckingham. The inking was done by a combination of Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy and Dan Green. There was also a chapter with art by Spanish artist Inaki Miranda which was in a very nice manga-lite style.

This volume finally sees Rose Red emerge from the depressive torpor that she had been suffering from since the death of Boy Blue. This is achieved by a mysterious entity who changes form from the pig’s head, who had been trying to talk her round, to her mother and talks to Rose about her childhood and what really happened when Snow White had to leave the family. The book also sees the culmination of the story started in the previous volume with Frau Totenkinder completing her research and returning to do battle with Mister Dark, the mysterious figure who has ousted the Fables from their New York home.

Though it is unfair to judge individual volumes due to the length of some of the story arcs, this volume was far superior to the previous one as it gave us a complete mini-story with the back story of Snow White and Rose Red and the end of the story of Frau Totenkinder’s plan to deal with Mister Dark. I was glad to see Rose revived in this book. Willingham writes a lot of strong female characters in this series and Rose was one of my favourites. So it was sad to see her virtually written out of the book and mistreated by Jack Horner only, I suspect, because it was easier on the writers to have her out of the way for the crossover story. This volume contains the hundredth issue of Fables which had the climax of the Mister Dark/Frau Totenkinder story but as it was a bumper 100 page celebratory issue it also contained some special material such as a prose story from Mark Buckingham that was illustrated by Bill Willingham and a beautifully illustrated story of the the Three Mice from current cover artist Joao Ruas. And I have to say that as much as I love James Jean’s work on the covers, Ruas has created my favourite with this heart achingly beautiful image of Rose:

Jack of Fables: The End (2011)

 

Quote:
What kinds of heroes would we be if we retired having never slain an actual dragon?

 

And so we come to the final collection of the Jack of Fables comics. This is volume 9 and it collects issues 46 – 50. It was again written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges. The art was mainly by Tony Akins and Andrew Pepoy but also with contributions by Dan Green, Russ Braun and Bill Reinhold.

Set an unspecified number of years in the future, this book sees Jack Frost about to retire after years of adventuring and heroic deeds. But just as he is about to call it a day he is hired to slay a fearsome dragon and agrees as it is something he has never done before. However, he finds that he is not the only one to have an interest in this particular dragon.

First of all the best thing about this book is the return of those hot librarians the Page sisters – Priscilla, Robin and Hillary – who are on their own quest to reassemble the Great Library and restore their Literal powers. It is good to see those characters again – possibly for the last time(?). However the book spends too much time reuniting us with characters from Jack’s past for no great reason other than to be cannon fodder in the climax of the book. A disappointing end to what was a good series with no sign of the wicked humour upon which it made its name.

Bill and Matt have more or less stated that they had run of ideas and there was very little room for pushing the boundaries of the character once it had been revealed that he had slept with his sisters. But to take 15 issues to wrap it up in such a way as they have seems like extreme overindulgence to me. I would have much rather his story had come to an end in the crossover storyline. Sadly, this book will not be missed by me – and I never thought I would have said that when it was at its height.

Jack of Fables: The Fulminate Blade (2011)

 

Quote:
I fully intend to kill that giant and ensure that no more virgins are sacrificed!

 

This is volume 8 of the Jack of Fables paperbacks and it collects issues 41 – 45. It was again written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges. The art was by various combinations of Tony Akins, Jim Fern, Andrew Pepoy and Joe Rubinstein.

With Jack Hornet’s transformation complete at the end of the last book, the stage is set for his altruistic and naive son Jack Frost to take centre stage. In this book, Jack sets out to slay the giant that is demanding an annual tribute from the world of Landfall. He soon finds that all is not what it seems and almost everyone he meets has been using him for their own ends.

Although the book consists of a perfectly good story set in the Fables homelands, the adventures of Jack Frost are not nearly as exciting, or funny, as those of his father – or at least they are in a more conventional sense. So reading this book I found myself missing the antics of the Jack of old – despite the extreme depths that he sunk to in The Great Fables Crossover. With the next book collecting the last of the series, I am not sure if this is an attempt at a reboot that failed or if this is part of the planned route to the end of the series – to be honest it feels like the latter when taken with volume 7.

Fables: Witches (2010)

 

Quote:
Cry havoc and let slip the woody heads of war!

 

This is volume 14 of the Fables paperbacks and it collects issues 86-93. The volume contains three stories that were again all written by Bill Willingham. The art on the first story was by Jim Fern and Craig Hamilton and on the final story was by David Lapham. But for the main Witches story the pencils were by the ever wonderful Mark Buckingham with inks by various combinations of Steve Leialoha. Andrew Pepoy and Daniel Green.

After the diversion of The Great Fables Crossover it was great to be plunged back into the plotline of the main book. The first single issue story gives some background on Mister Dark (the destroyer of the Fables’ home in New York) and how he was imprisoned. The main (5 issue) story in the book gives some background into the main sources of magical defence for the Fables – the witches – and their response to the new enemy in their old home. Also in the magically protected business office of the Fables, the flying monkey Bufkin assembles a motley crew of allies to battle against the threat of forces let loose by the events of the fall of Bullfinch Street such as the release of the evil witch Baba Yaga. While the witches are left in disarray by the secret departure of the leader Frau Totenkinder, Gepetto makes a bid for power over Fablekind. The last two issue story in the book concerns how the aftermath of a baseball game turns into a crisis that could tear the fledgling kingdom of Haven apart.

Two of the great strengths of this series is the overarching storylines that require a commitment from the reader and the vast cast in scattered locations that keep the series interesting. However, this can sometimes also be a weakness for readers, like me, who are not picking up the comic on a monthly basis but are reading the collections every six months or so, since not all the collections necessarily tell complete tales. This is the problem for me with this book. The plotlines in the witches story are left unresolved and it feels very much like a middle book of a trilogy – with the story starting in The Dark Ages and presumably due to end in the next volume, Rose Red – that will take us up to issue 100 of the series.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this series and I love this book but I think that this is maybe the first one that could not be read a complete story on its own – although all the others, of course, do benefit from also knowing what has gone before. However the old showbiz maxim leave them wanting more applies here – I am definitely looking forward to picking up the next book which is due out this week.

Jack of Fables: The New Adventures of Jack and Jack (2010)

 

Quote:
“Get your paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”

“There’s no need to be rude. It isn’t as if hot baths are easy to come by in the jungle.”

 

This is volume 7 of the Jack of Fables paperbacks and it collects issues 36-40. It was again written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges with a one-off story written by Chris Roberson. The art was by various combinations of Tony Akins, Russ Braun, Andrew Pepoy and Jose Marzan, Jr.

The first story is a filler from Chris Roberson called Jack ‘n’ Apes which is a tale from Jack’s past when he was on the run (again) and pitched up in the jungle of West Africa and ran into a colony of Fable apes. The remaining four installments by the regular writing team pick up the story from the end of The Great Fables Crossover. In it Jack (along with sidekick Gary) head off on the road again without a care in the world looking for the next opportunity to make money but along the way they discover that the choices that Jack has made in the past have consequences that only now make themselves apparent. This volume has two plot lines and the second follows Jack’s son, with the Snow Queen, Jack Frost as he sets out on the road to adventure and being a hero across the Fables Homelands. However he doesn’t find it easy as first real quest – to save a town from rampaging monsters – is further complicated when he has to complete a quest for the monsters in exchange for the release of the townsfolk.

Although only a filler story after the major crossover event, Roberson’s story was everything I love about a Jack of Fables story. It was funny and had Jack furiously trying to work an angle at every opportunity – switching allegiances every couple of pages. The riff on the Tarzan legend was great especially his relationship with Jane.

The main story looks like a change of direction, for now at least, with Jack’s son taking a more prominent role and showing his father how a true hero acts – although Jack, of course, already believes he is the first and greatest hero of them all. Jack is sidelined as, Dorian Gray style, his past actions literally transform him. I will need to see how this change of direction plays out but it could be interesting with Jack Frost travelling between the worlds of the Homelands looking for adventure opens up the book to perhaps more varied and interesting story ideas. My only worry is that it may become too like the main book if they persist with the formula for too long.