Jack of Fables versus Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu meets Fables

By Cory Doctorow

I'm a great fan of Bill Willingham's Fables comics and its numerous spinoffs (nutshell description: all fictional characters, legends, and fables are actually alive, always have been, and are living in secret exile in New York, having been chased out of Fableland by "The Adversary," a rapacious conqueror).

One of the most fun of these is the Jack books, which feature a set of parallel adventures of Jack -- as in "Spratt" and "and the Beanstalk" and many other tales. Jack is handsome, womanizing, preternaturally lucky and cheerfully amoral doofus of a fable who is forever incurring the wrath of the Fable establishment by violating their rules by, say, pursuing a career as a Hollywood executive (he fits right in in Tinseltown, naturally).

In Jack of Fables Vol. 6: The Big Book of War , Jack finds himself heading the Fable/Librarian army against the vicious Bookburner, who would destroy all of fabledom for his own reasons. Jack takes this command with the help of his sidekick and pal The Pathetic Fallacy (AKA "Gary"), an immortal "Literal" who changes the world to suit his moods.

Jack is a terrible commander, but a very funny one, and he doesn't distinguish himself much as a general, but he does an admirable job of evincing yuks from the reader; and Willingham uses the story to make some really thought-provoking points about the dark and primal nature of stories and the danger and blood that lurks in their hearts.

The Big Book of War would probably stand alone reasonably well, but if you just read this volume, you're really missing out. The whole Fables canon deserves your attention (and will reward it handsomely). It is both gripping and thought-provoking; philosophically substantial and sparklingly funny. Jack of Fables Vol. 6: The Big Book of War

Published 6:12 am Fri, Oct 23, 2009

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

14 Responses to “Jack of Fables versus Sun Tzu”

  1. Anonymous says:

    i liked bill willingham’s earlier work, ironwood…

  2. Tynam says:

    OK, I’ll put my Contrary Critic hat on now.

    Personally, I find Jack of Fables has a serious problem: Jack. As of book 2, and particularly again in The Big Book of War, he’s not just amoral, but so utterly, implausibly, unbelievably self-absorbed that it’s impossible to have any sympathy for him. (This is deliberate on Willingham’s part, of course; you’re not supposed to be on Jack’s side). But because all the drama is presented around him and his issues, I lose interest in that too.

    The problem is not that the character thinks he’s the only important thing in the world. The problem is that sometimes, the world acts that way too. (Why exactly is Raven helping Jack? Because The Comic Says So. I’d much rather hear about Raven’s problems.)

    I love Fables. And I love Jack of Fables… except when Jack’s speaking. I care about the plot more the less the protagonist is involved with it. I care about every other character on the page. And I can’t understanding why they’re hanging around with this loser. So I find myself increasingly wishing Willingham would just shoot Jack and write Gary of Fables or, better yet, The Raven and The Pages.

    Jack was a much better character as the limited, shady screwup we first see way back in Fables 1; the so-self-absorbed-he’s-completely-incapable-of-noticing-when-he’s-going-to-die general of this book no longer makes an actual contribution to the narrative.

    Summary: I liked Jack back when he was thoughtless. But now he’s merely stupid.

    Off to reread 1001 Nights of Snow…

  3. Paba says:

    I got suckered into Jack by the Page sisters, and lost interest after a little while. However, it’s still worth a look. All of Fables is. I still pick up the issues in the regular series, and you can get them in a handsome hardcover graphic novel form now.

  4. sebastian6 says:

    nutshell description: all fictional characters, legends, and fables are actually alive, always have been, and are living in secret exile in New York, having been chased out of Fableland by “The Adversary,” a rapacious conqueror

    So he pilfered “American Gods”? Or did his come first?

    • Paba says:

      Not at all. American Gods is based more in mythology, while Fables is based in fairy tales, most having originated in Europe. Correct me if I’m forgetting someone, but in American Gods you have stuff like Thunderbirds, whereas Fables is the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella (who gets her own spinoff soon).

  5. Avram / Moderator says:

    Sebastian6, go for option 3: Neither “pilfered” from the other; both are instead making similar use of an old idea.

  6. LB says:

    Pedant: Gary doesn’t change the world to suit his moods (none of the Literals do, really–they are shaped by the world since they are anthropomorphic personifications of various literary tropes). The pathetic fallacy is when we assign human traits to inanimate objects–Gary takes this to its conclusion by actually making these objects animate and emote.

    It was one of the more clever aspects of the series, I thought.

  7. hail_diskordia says:

    Is it just me, or does that picture look like the evil redneck from “Prison-Break”?

  8. Little John says:

    Cory and/or mods: Totally garfed post with undeleted old post text still visible and dominating the (apparently) pasted-in new text.

  9. igpajo says:

    Yeah, American God’s is about myths, and a few forgotten Gods as well, not fairy tales. Similar character elements but very different works.

  10. Rob Beschizza says:

    Fixed!

  11. knodi says:

    Kif: Sir, they’re headed straight for us.

    Zapp Brannigan: A well calculated move… straight out of Sun Tzu’s ancient text, ‘The Art of War.’ Or my own master work, ‘Zapp Brannigan’s Big Book of War.’ But the one thing their captain doesn’t realize, and never will, is tha–

    Kif: Sir, they’ve docked with us and have come aboard.

    Zapp Brannigan: Then I have risked all and lost. Kiff old man, I’ll be in the escape pod. If that wicker chair I like survives the slaughter, have it sent to my P.O. Box.

  12. ryuthrowsstuff says:

    I think Jack would be quite insulted. He’s actually quite emphatic in a number of issues that is is NOT Jack Spratt.

  13. Daneel says:

    Jack Spratt? Of the Nursery Crime Division? Different person entirely.

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