This popular post was originally published on January 29, 2011
Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube crackle with the vitriol of students, armchair pundits and alternative culture fans to whom Israel is the apotheosis of hate. The opinions ranged against Israel extend to the world of graphic novels as well, which is what makes Fables, a popular ongoing comics serial, so unique: Fables is an unapologetically pro-Israel comic.
The Eisner Award-winning Fables is already an exceptional series for its clever writing and artistic merits. In Fables, familiar fairy tale characters have been chased out of their homelands by a tyrant known as the Adversary. A band of survivors finds the portal to the “mundane world,” and establishes a self-governing community in New York City. Writer and creator Bill Willingham took a political risk in issue 50 with a chapter titled “The Israel Analogy.” Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown, is on a mission to sabotage the Adversary, the tyrant who has driven his community out of their homelands. Bigby, a Bogart-esque hero, gives the enemy this message:
“Ever hear of a country called Israel? …Israel is a tiny country surrounded by much larger countries dedicated to its eventual total destruction. …they stay alive by being a bunch of tough little bastards who make the other guys pay dearly every time they do anything against Israel. Some in the wider world constantly wail and moan about the endless cycle of violence and reprisal. But since the alternative is non-existence, the Israelis seem determined to keep at it. They have a lot of grit and iron. I’m a big fan of them.”
Willingham told Comics Journal just before issue 50 ran, “[Fables is] not going to be a political tract. It never will be, but at the same time, it’s not going to shy away from the fact that there are characters who have real moral and ethical centers, and we’re not going to apologize for it.” While his characters’ views shouldn’t always be confused with his own, Willingham nonetheless states that he “absorbed his mother’s love for Israel,” and that he had intended it as a metaphor in the series from the start.
Fables began its run in 2002. It is published by DC Comics’ Vertigo, an imprint of off-beat and edgy titles. Despite its connection to a big publisher, Vertigo’s titles are plugged into the alternative and independent scene. These comics feature novelistic stories and high-caliber art that towers above the expectations created by old-fashioned superhero funnies. Alternative culture comes with alternative politics, however; most of Vertigo’s other popular series represent a fatalistic worldview that is reflected in their readership.
Fables isn’t just pro-Israel. It also takes a conservative stand on some hot-button moral issues. In issue 19, when a Fabletown doctor suggests a character terminate her accidental pregnancy, she replies with disdain, “Some of us are still governed more by duty and responsibility.” Later story twists reveal the heroes’ deep aversion to abortion, though no condemnation is explicitly stated.
One story arc tackles issues of moral relativism and democracy in the Middle East. An envoy of Arabian Fables arrives to negotiate relations with the New York community, but they bring with them some disturbing traditional practices, such as slave-holding. After a “bomb” scare with overtones of terrorism, the politically moderate Arabian Fables stand out as responsible leaders. They accept a proposal to maintain peaceful relations with New York Fabletown — as long as they adopt a liberal constitution modeled on that of the New York community, protecting certain inalienable rights.
The attitude represented by Fables is a far cry from that expressed in another Vertigo comic, Y: The Last Man. In this contemporary post-apocalyptic tale, Israelis are pre-packaged bogeymen, cashing in on readers’ existing ideas of the Israeli army as a pack of armed zealots. Motivated by pseudo-mysticism and a lust for world domination, the Israeli soldiers hunt the series’ protagonist, leaving a wide swath of blood in their wake. Israeli soldiers are only humanized after they have shed their allegiance to the Israel portrayed.
One of the most captivating aspects of Willingham’s storytelling is that, while conservative views find expression in the situations and characters, he rarely turns to proselytizing, instead building delicate shades of morality within the broader definitions of right and wrong. “I don’t care what political background you’re coming from, if you get that heavyhanded with your preachifyin’, the results are automatically stupid,” Willingham told Comics Journal.
Willingham also reflected on the conflicting responses to one instance of political commentary in Fables, a vignette in which an urban family compares the Young Republicans to Nazis. The characters’ conversation is scathing, but it also reveals the snobbery of their views. Some readers thought it was too harsh on the Republicans the characters mocked, while others thought it was too harsh on the liberals it parodied, which Willingham thought made it a “perfect scene.”
In the same spirit, Fables is a “perfect scene” for provoking thought while entertaining; insisting there is a right and wrong while shading in the areas between; and providing a much-needed fresh approach to the liberal attitudes of the entertainment industry. No, these aren’t your grandpa’s comics. But he might be willing to get behind them.