Form: Comic Book (Trade Paperback)
Series: Fairest, Volume 1 (Issues 8-14) – Spinoff from Fables
Writers: Bill Willingham, Lauren Beukes
Artists: Inaki Miranda, Barry Kitson
Colourists: Eva de la Cruz, Andrew Dalhouse
Letterer: Todd Klien
Cover Art: Adam Hughes
Once upon a time, before the FABLES saga began, a war was brewing in the East. At the centre of this conflict stood a single woman – and a whole lot of hair.
Rapunzel’s romantic history is as long and full as her legendary golden locks. Some of its strands, however, are more tangled than others – including the prince she bedded, the witch she infuriated, the children who were stolen from her, and the faraway realm to which she fled to get away from it all.
In that Hidden Kingdom, home to the Fables of Japan, Rapunzel found new love in the arms of a beautiful seductress with a soul of foxfire – and a new enemy in the person of a brutal warlord.
Now, centuries later, the ghosts of her past have returned to haunt her, and Rapunzel must travel to the Land of the Rising Sun to discover the truth about her long-lost children – as well as the fate of those others, loved and hated, that she left behind.
I enjoyed the story of The Hidden Kingdom a lot more than I did the previous volume, Wide Awake, but it still gets three stars from me because I’ve become a much harder marker since then. It avoided a lot of the things I complained about in Wide Awake – Hidden Kingdoms is written by a woman (Bill Willingham is credited as ‘consultant’) and Rapunzel is very much the lead of this book, she has her own agency, and her presentation isn’t filtered to us (much) through the eyes of a male character. She does things for herself and the story can be (and probably should have been) told without the male love interest. But I just couldn’t get into it enough for it to rank in the four stars.
The Hidden Kingdom ties Rapunzel, a very minor player in the main Fables storyline with only one appearance in a single vignette so far, into Japanese mythology and folklore. And here I have to confess that I know very little at all about Japaneese folklore and that almost certainly the significance and nuance of many things were lost on me. The story is set several years ago in universe, with flashbacks going back several hundreds and, with the exception of a couple of plot threads that are left hanging, can easily be read as a stand-alone or out of order, as long as one knows the basics of the Fables universe. Though why it was necessary for Jack to appear in this story I don’t know. He’s not necessary to the story and he’s not been a part of Fabletown for years, there’s no reason for him to be involved apart from Fables bizarre wish to force him not as many cameos as possible and pretend he’s just a harmless trickster rouge rather than a vile rapist shitbag, which is what he actually is.
Aaaanyway, as someone who doesn’t know much Japanese folklore I did feel out of my depth and oddly disconnected while reading this. I could follow the story along just fine (despite a few choppy cuts) but I felt like I was missing key context about certain characters that could have been easily addressed. Without just that little bit of context, some scenes seemed just a barrage of flashy lights and weird monsters, which was a bit hard to get into. Art-wise, though, that makes it pretty great to look at and Rapunzel has some fucking fierce outfits and hairstyles too.
But the love story. Well…nothing against Rapunzel being bisexual (I am all for it!) but the relationship between her and Koi No Yokan never managed to feel like an enduring love story of the ages, neither in the flashbacks nor in the modern timeline. It felt like a lust-fuelled fling (which again is something I’m all for – sex is fun – I just don’t like it to be labeled as ‘love’). The real disappointment though was the unnecessary hetrosexual love story in the present-day time period. I’m tired of guys in stories ‘earning’ the heroine just by existing in their proximity and not being total arsewhipes. You cut her hair, Joel Crow, you’re her hairdresser and her friend but she doesn’t owe you fuck all in terms of romance. No, no matter how long you sit silently by pining in secret you will never have the right to get sulky at her for not somehow knowing and respecting your never-vocalised feelings for her. As a plot thread this romance felt tacked on and underdeveloped. As if it was there purely to go “see! she’s not a lesbian!” or to put an “it was just a phase” filter onto her previous relationship. Both of which are yucky motivations for introducing a love interest.
But, at least, the story wasn’t shown through the male character’s eyes this time. Which, unfortunately, can not be said about the final stand alone issue of this book written by Bill Willingham. It’s pretty much everything I dislike about the treatment of women in the Fables universe – a story about a woman’s life – in this case her love life – told through the eyes of a man who wants to date her. It’s pretty much as skeevy as it sounds. And the ‘joke’ of the story is completely puerile. ‘Hurhur, she’s a dryad. Dryads are trees. Trees ‘eat’ manure. Dryads must eat poo. Hurhur! Dryads have poo breath!’. And that, in a nutshell, was the whole plot. The only part of the story worth reading was the “ominous epilogue” – and that could probably have been squeezed into any number of Fables stories without interrupting anything.
So yeah, three stars. The Rapunzel story was good and a definite improvement in terms of actually doing what this series said it would and showing female characters having their own stories. But the Reynard Fox story was, much like a dryad’s casserole, complete shit.