This final third of Fables, running from issues #101-150, begins in the wake of Mister Dark’s apparent defeat in issue #100. In fact, Mister Dark was only imprisoned on the Farm, and he’s actually defeated in issue #106. Essentially, the conflict wasn’t settled in issue #100. His presence continues to hang over much of the remainder of the series, particularly in his acolyte, who becomes an antagonist towards the end of the series.
Thereafter, the title’s major storylines focus on Bigby and Snow White, albeit with several B-plots that embrace the ensemble cast. “Inherit the Wind” focuses on which of Bigby and Snow’s children will succeed his father as the North Wind. The brilliant and moving “Cubs in Toyland” focuses on Therese and Darien. “Snow White” focuses on Snow White, when Prince Brandish returns to claim her as his wife, and ends with Bigby’s death. “Camelot” focuses on Rose Red, as she attempts to create a second Camelot, which includes Prince Brandish, in defiance of her sister’s wishes. This leads into “Happily Ever After,” in which Bigby returns, Rose Red learns the truth about her and Snow White’s family history. Everything seems to be building towards war between Snow White and Rose Red, in the final issue.
Along the way, the status quo is changed several times. In the wake of issue #100, Mister Dark is imprisoned on the abandoned Farm, while Fabletown has been destroyed. After an abortive search for a new Fabletown, Mister Dark’s castle in Manhattan is chosen as the new Fabletown, and in the wake of Mister Dark’s defeat, Fables return to the Farm. In the final storyline, Fables begin to abandon Fabletown — a sort of delayed effect of the end of the war with the Adversary, since Fabletown was always a refuge from that war. But the biggest change to the status quo, during this final storyline, is that humans become aware of Fabletown. In the final issue, we get a glimpse of an Earth that is aware of its own magic, and in which humans can visit fairytale lands as tourists.
The main title was augmented, during this period of its history, by spin-offs. The first was a second Cinderella mini-series, subtitled Fables are Forever. A second ongoing title, entitled Fairest, ostensibly focused on female characters, with storylines written by Willingham and by others. While this series only made it through five storylines of varying quality, it was more enjoyable than Jack of Fables and did a better job of tying into the main title. In fact, some Fairest stories are indispensible to the main title. Fables also published a second original graphic novel, subtitled Werewolves of the Heartland. Also, Fairest got its own original graphic novel, titled Fairest in All the Land, which resolved several plots from Fables. Finally, the digital-first Fables: The Wolf Among Us adapted the video game of the same title, serving as another prequel to the series. It lasted 48 issues (each about half as long as a standard issue) and did not conclude until after both Fables and Fairest had ceased publication.
Fables wasn’t cancelled due to low sales. Bill Willingham had long said he didn’t have an endpoint in mind for the series and that it was truly ongoing. But over a year before it concluded, he announced that he intended to end the series with issue #150, with Fairest coming to an end at around the same time. This allowed him — and series artist Mark Buckingham, who also wrote the final extended Fairest storyline — enough time to plan the ending. During the final storyline, back-up features jumped forward in time to offer final stories to several characters. And in the same way that issue #100 was 100 pages long, issue #150 was 150 pages long, with the main story followed by several short stories, in the mold of the previous back-ups. In fact, the final issue was long enough that it was published as the final Fables trade paperback, thus effectively uniting the standard issues and the paperback collection series. (Technically, the final regular issue was #149, and the final paperback volume was an original graphic novel, rather than a collection.)
To some critics, Fables lost steam in its second half, especially since the resolution of the war with the Adversary, which admittedly was the backdrop for the entire series. And there’s no denying that fans most remember stories and situations from the first half of the series. But Willingham showed that he was willing to take chances, break the mold, and find new stories to tell. In super-hero comics — and most serialized fiction, if we’re honest — often seem incapable of finding narrative possibilities in their protagonists, after they have married. Yet Fables saw Bigby and Snow marry and have children, then wove compelling stories about them as parents. Above all, “Cubs in Toyland” is a brilliant work of fantasy writing on par with the best storylines of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But other major storylines are thoroughly enjoyable as well, and Mark Buckingham’s fine work is always a joy to read.
True, not everything comes together at the end. At the time of Bigby’s death, the story prophesied his return, years later — a timetable that seems to have been accelerated, given Willingham’s decision to end the series. Multiple issues teased Geppetto as a future renewed threat, only to have this never materialize outside of the very brief “last” stories. And although Rose Red’s final arc and origin story was compelling, I personally preferred her reconciled with and hugging her sister, as they were when this final third of the series was beginning. And personally, I would have liked a lot more focus on the revelation of the Fables’ existence (and of the reality of magic) to humans. But these kinds of complaints are common to long-running series, whether in comics, on TV, or in movies. And Fables represents a titanic accomplishment, beyond its length. As “Cubs in Toyland” attests, the series was capable of genius long after it had broken its own mold and forced itself to find new pastures.