22 February 2011

Bufkin the Bibulous, Bufkin the Brave

From the very first issues of Fables, scripted by Bill Willingham and drawn mainly by Mark Buckingham with Steve Leialoha, L. Frank Baum’s Oz universe has been represented by the character of Bufkin, a winged monkey working in the Fabletown mayor’s office.

As a bibulous office grunt, not to mention a monkey with wings, Bufkin was natural comic relief. Every so often he might show some hidden ambition.
But like so many filing monkeys, it seemed clear that Bufkin wouldn’t actually do anything. (That page of art is by Jim Rugg. Note how it gets away with stacking panels on the left through clever use of text and balloon tails.)

In the issues collected in Witches, Bufkin takes center stage for one plotline. Trapped in the office with the evil witch Baba Yaga and a bunch of disembodied heads, he has to figure out how to survive.

Critics of Fables have pointed out how so many of the series’s stories involve its young male characters turning out to be fearsome warriors and genius tacticians. The first example was Bigby, the Big Bad Wolf—of course, we’d expect him to be sly and bloodthirsty. In fact, Bigby’s character journey over the first volumes was to become a stable husband and father.

But in subsequent issues, we see the deadly skills of Little Boy Blue, carrying the vorpal blade. Then Prince Charming, who’s simply a handsome cad in the first issues. Aladdin, ambassador from the Arabian fairy tales. And even the Frog Prince, a gawky janitor turned warrior-king.

In fact, this repeated plot might be inescapable. Heroic characters are supposed to grow. Adventure comics involve plot twists, surprises, and big ups and downs. The good guys usually win. Fables is essentially a war comic. The comics form puts a premium on working out conflict through dramatic physical action. Put that all together, and you keep coming back to heads being sliced off.

Still, to see Bufkin embark on the hero’s journey in the Witches volume is a surprise. To Willingham’s credit, he writes it as a surprise for Bufkin as well. Our little monkey also ends up with a bit of a swelled head.

Bufkin’s story continues in Fables, #101, which has the additional delight of Eric Shanower as guest penciler. It looks like Vertigo hired him to give Buckingham a bit of a breather after a big anniversary issue. Whatever the backstage story, it’s delightful to see Shanower’s traditional characterizations of Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, and the Glass Cat, and a new version of lunch-bucket trees.

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