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Fables penultimate storyline is a dense, difficult examination of core series-themes, excellently setting up the finale of Vertigo’s long-running title.

With Fables closing in on its 150th and final issue, creator Bill Willingham has been slowly moving toward what looks to be an epic, and potentially disastrous conclusion to Vertigo’s long-running series.

Fortunately, Willingham is aware that before you lay waste to a fictional universe, it’s helpful to give your audience a breather of sorts. And so it is with Camelot, the penultimate storyline now collected in the 20th Fables trade paperback. Mainly serving to move critical pieces into position for the finale, readers are thankfully spared the bloodbath that has steadily removed beloved characters from the series like an outbreak of Spanish flu. Instead, the story focuses on the relationship that has arguably defined Fables from the very beginning: the Cain and Abel-style conflict between Snow White and her sister, Rose Red.

But the absence of devastating character deaths or a specific disaster by no means makes Camelot a filler episode. Big, challenging ideas are chewed over, among them redemption, whether or not one can fight fate, the nature of evil, the idea of just what ‘home’ actually means. But perhaps most important of all is one that in some ways is a radical departure from the series’ manichean struggle between good and evil: the idea that two people on opposite sides of a conflict can both be right.

Fables Vol. 20: Camelot
Writer: Bill Willingham
Art by: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Russ Braun, Barry Kitson, Anrew Pepoy, and Gary Erskine
Cover art: Todd Klein
Colors: Lee Loughridge
Release Date (Trade Paperback): September 2, 2014
Price: $19.99

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Opening in the aftermath of Snow White’s victorious duel with Prince Brandish (who had just murdered Bigby Wolf), Camelot primarily follows Rose Red, now finally beginning to fulfill her destiny as a servant of the anthropomorphic spirit of Hope. Having spent the previous two storylines dithering, Rose Red has at last decided that she’ll be the embodiment of the hope of redemption, and to that end, she sets about establishing a new order of knighthood. This new round table (and yes, the connection to King Arthur is explicit) is intended to champion the cause of second chances, and thus will be comprised of knights who themselves are in desperate need of their own.

Unfortunately, a serious and perhaps intractable conflict with Snow is provoked when Rose decides to make Brandish, (who survived his duel thanks to what amounts to the Fables equivalent of a horcrux), her personal redemption project. Taking him under her wing for what she describes as a crash course in how to be a decent person, Rose is told by an outraged Snow that if she doesn’t relent and allow Snow to finish off Brandish once and for all, their relationship – which has been slowly and steadily improving throughout the series – is done. But Rose, who has come a long way from the selfish and self-serving wastrel she once was, is now devoted to principle, and a cause she believes in. Her decision severs the two with apparent finality, and sets in motion Fables‘s endgame.

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As dour as all of this sounds the book still contains a lot of positive moments. The formation of Rose’s round table and the resultant tryouts, for instance, are tempered with a sense of good humor that’s more than a bit similar to the Super Team arc from several trades back. Whereas the super team concept petered out and wound up serving as a framing device for another character’s fateful decision, the formation of the round table does equally well at both providing a few laughs and also showcasing Rose’s ascension into a position of power and self-actualization.

Having her rise up and take hold of her fate in such a firm, tangible way is, in turn, just incredibly satisfying. Up until now, Rose Red’s role has been largely limited to that of the perpetual disappointment. There have been persistent hints of her having the inner potential to be much more, but her greatness has manifested far less frequently than her tendencies to give into impulse and despair. Put shortly, the Rose Red in Camelot is a much more vibrant and determined character than she’s been throughout much of Fables long run.

Granted, there is still the downbeat of her conflict with Snow to consider, but even that’s a blessing of sorts. Fables has been an excellent read through and through, but it’s still had its high and low points. The conflict with the Dark Man, for instance, was interesting and tense, but it still arguably came across as something Willingham injected into the plot artificially to make sure the main cast had someone to struggle against. He was never as compelling as the conflicts that developed naturally as a byproduct of the relationships between the main cast. Snow White and Rose Red’s new opposition to each other comparatively feels like a natural (if negative) evolution of their relationship. They love each other, but it makes sense that Snow would go full wolf matriarch on Rose Red over the issue of Prince Brandish. Likewise, it feels appropriate for Rose to hold her ground even if it means losing her family in the process. It never feels like something out of left field and, rather, comes across like more of a reward for readers who have spent years investing their emotions in these two women.

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There is, of course, more going on in Volume 20 than just the conflict with Rose Red and Snow White. The book also touches on the fate of the “deceased” Bigby Wolf and gives us a taste of the difficult road ahead for him. This section was especially interesting in the ways that it further explored things like the idea of there being larger forces governing the world and how Bigby’s turn away from evil could have been an even larger wrench in the machine of fate than anyone could have guessed. We’re also given a glimpse at the continued machinations of Gepetto and Nurse Spratt (forgive me, “Ms. Duglas”), both of whom look to be setting themselves up for moments of wickedness that will likely pay off handsomely as the series draws closer to its finale.

The only thing I would call a misstep in Camelot is a brief is a side story brief story involving Briar Rose as she and the feline fencer Puss in Boots accompany a band of Fables on a quest of righteous revolution to the fairytale version of Scotland. While this section gave a glimpse at one of the more subtle ways that Fabletown might eventually dissipate, the artwork in this section was decidedly less attractive than the rest of the book’s gorgeous illustrations. It was a minor flaw to be certain and it’s not so bad as to being grating on the eyes, but it was a definite low moment for an otherwise fantastic trade collection.

Taken altogether, Camelot exemplifies the qualities that make Fables the required reading that it is. It has countless moving parts, but Willingham uses them in the service of storytelling that’s lofty and complex, but ultimately human and relate-able. Those qualities are at their best here and if you had any doubts as to whether or not Fables twentieth collection was worth reading, you can lay them to rest. Camelot is sublime and well worth the price of admission.

[rating=4.5]

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