Posted by: dougery | February 16, 2009

End of an Era

It’s no secret that I am possibly the biggest Fables fan on Earth. And unless Gorlock has a pull-list at his local comicbook store it’s safe to say I might be the biggest Fables fan in the universe, period. Simply put, in my humble opinion, there is no other serialized fiction out there that is better than Fables, not anything else Vertigo has to offer, or DC as whole, or the big two, or all of comics, hell, not even anything in completely different mediums, not even in, dare I say it, Lost. Unlike nearly everything else I get to ingest one small chapter at a time Fables is the most precious of illicit substances, it is never cut. You are always going to get a pure, unadulterated high.

Which makes issue #81 such a heart-breaker. Here we say goodbye to not one but two Fables legends. After 81 stunning covers (a tenure close to 7 years if my monthly math is right), James Jean is stepping down. Jean is a hero of mine, one of my favorite contemporary artists. Several of his Fables covers grace the walls of my apartment and my wife is awesome enough to purchase one of his original prints as a birthday present for me a few years back. As far as his comic-book work is concerned, I always liked his more understated covers the best. Issue #33 is perhaps my favorite (and mighty also be James’s favorite if what i’ve read is true). It is hanging just outside our kitchen. (spoilers for issue #81 after the jump)

And although this will come as no surprise to anyone reading the comic, #81 marks the death of the beloved character Boy Blue. It is also a singularly amazing piece of writing–death-bed scenes rarely give us this kind of unexpected bitterness and resentment. You see Blue has always been in love with Rose Red, only she has spent her time jumping from Prince Charming to Jack (as in ‘and the beanstalk) to Sinbad. She has been a mess ever since Blue fell ill, and the closer he came to Death, the more she regretted never giving his love a chance. Blue is finally her man, and after she has confessed her ill-founded love for him just seconds from death, he serves up a real doozy of a response. To paraphrase Blue, who can barely whisper at this point, “You only ever wanted to be with the most interesting guy in the room. Right now, I’m that guy.” Like Red, Boy Blue has also come to a long awaited conclusion: he’s always deserved better.

Jean’s cover is a medievalish version of this scene, with Red playing Mary Magdalene pose cradling a fallen Christ/Blue in her arms (image at the top of the article). The posture and style represent the wonderful artistic choices we’ve come to expect from Jean. Look closely and you will see Red tearing something papery from out of his chest and although his horn is at his side, his arm has been torn asunder at the shoulder, sword still grasped tightly. In the comic, Blue did not want to be remembered as a warrior, but as a musician and James has succinctly captured his dying request.

Yet take a step back and a new reading emerges. The sword is really a pencil, and Blue is Jean himself. Exhausted and weary after many adventures, Jean has found himself a reluctant hero of sorts, but that’s all come to a bittersweet end. Is Red now Fables? Has Fables been tearing these covers straight out of his chest? Has Jean all along wanted to be a painter (as Blue humbly wanted to be a musician) but inadvertently became a comic-book cover artist (as Blue reluctantly wielded his sword)? After all, one just does not step away from an enterprise like this for no reason. Jean has won a bevy of awards, and is known throughout the industry as perhaps the greatest cover-artist of his generation. Something must have been causing him pain or discomfort, or perhaps Jean merely wished to exit the stage at the top of his game. As touching as his parting essay is, a florid farewell piece included in the back of the issue, Jean appears to think, like Blue also surely must, that after leaving this particular coil, a more peaceful and idyllic place will draw near.

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