Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love (Chris Roberson / Shawn McManus) is, to the best of my knowledge, the first Fables spin-off that isn't written by the series' fairy godfather, Bill Willingham. Cinderella's a good character for it, too. As far as most of the Fables are concerned, Cinderella is just another of Prince Charming's spurned ex's - an innocent Fable running a shoe store in New York. However, she's really one of Bigby's "Tourists", a group of Fable super-spies that scamper around the mundane world, protecting Fabletown from threats magical and mundane.
From Fabletown with Love throws Cinderella into a magical-weapon-smuggling conspiracy, one that ties in to the new influx of Arabian Fables and her own lost past. The plot and its many twists are closely tied to the series to date - although the characters are all minor (or new), the locations and major players all stem from the post-Empire, pre-Dark Ages era of the series. And the story is - structurally - almost perfect. In something reminiscent of The Losers, Cinderella and her untrustworthy allies (like Aladdin) work their work further and further into the layers of conspiracy, eventually finding (and defeating) the criminal mastermind.
Cinderella is a fun, twisty little side-quest in the Fables world. It doesn't, however, ever really strike its own path.
Despite the provocatively original covers, the inside of Cinderella is something that both looks and reads like the rest of the series. Cinderella feels like a collection of adventures that would've first been found in the back pages of Fables - a side-quest, but not an experiment. With a series as strong as Fables, this is enough. But I can't help but wish that the gutsy style of the Chrissie Zullo cover art had permeated the entire miniseries.
Northlanders (Brian Wood & Friends) is that rarity in the comic books world - a long-running historical fantasy title. Granted, Northlanders feigns a sort of historical verisimilitude, but the comic's appeal stems more from the ass-kicking, blood-soaked Nordic machismo than the seemingly diligent underlying research.
Sven the Returned, the series' first collection, is the tale of an outcast from his Viking people - a mercenary in the lush Byzantine empire. He returns home to investigate (and perhaps avenge) the death of his father. In true epic fantasy and/or spaghetti Western style, Sven's a bit of a gritty Chosen One figure, heir to the (very tiny) kingdom and capable of making the Tough Call even as he's surrounded by pettiness and deceit. Although he's a familiar archetype, Wood's writing rises above it. There's no mystery, but there is tension - the pages are filled with bleak landscapes, obscure codes of honour and mutually destructive stand-offs. This is what happens when you fill a small snowy chunk of land with a lot of lunatics that don't know how to apologize. Eventually, of course, there's redemption - but again, to Wood's credit, it comes in unexpected ways.
The Cross & The Hammer, Northlanders' second collection, moves the setting to Ireland. In this case, the gritty nutcase hero is Magnus, an Irish native who refuses to submit to his Viking conquerors. Wood borrows heavily from serial killer tropes for this one - the comic is split between Magnus' bloody adventures and those of his pursuer, Ragnar, who blends tracking ability and common sense to pioneer the art of modern forensics. The two eventually, climatically, cross paths. They're both fierce and driven men, so the result is predictably cataclysmic. The story is actually slightly undermined by Magnus' relationship with his daughter, Brigid. She's an eerie figure (for reasons explained at the book's conclusion), but never a very compelling one. Even after her (slightly over-complicated) reveal, Brigid raises more questions than she answers. Alternatively motive and McGuffin, she's never that appealing in her own right. This is a tale about the clash between two capital-M-Men, and the scenes with Brigid merely distract from it.
Blood in the Snow, the third volume in the series, collects a set of four shorter tales. "Sven, The Immortal" returns to the titular character from Sven the Returned. It establishes that years later, he can still kick all our asses. "The Shield Maidens" is the tale of a group of three Danish women, forced to arms to face down a Saxon army - they too can kick all our asses. Although the ending is a bit silly, the art (Danijel Zezelj) is fantastic.
The other two tales merit a little more discussion. "Lindisfarne" is the sort of superbly ambiguous dark tale that really shows what Brian Wood can do. A young boy is unhappy with his lot in life. Spurned by his (Christian) god-fearing father and older brother, he secretly holds himself to the "Northern" gods of fire and war. When Vikings appear to sack the village, the boy sees them as his salvation. Wood doesn't make this a tale of redemption - or even of loss. The lesson is merely that some folks are born "bad" (as we would see it). The boy doesn't belong, his options were horrible, and the Vikings, although a terrible path to follow, at least provide him with an alternative. They aren't James Dean outsider-cool, they're Hell's Angel's scary-cool. Outcast in 793 AD means a very different thing.
The final tale, "The Viking Art of Single Combat" also reinforces the "so bad they're bad" message of the volume. Two warriors, each a champion of their band, fight on the beach. They're fighting for a stupid, trivial reason, but they're both seasoned killers and this is what they do. The closest comparison would be Garth Ennis' MAX series of The Punisher, in which the anti-hero is shown as an inhuman, amoral force - a savage being that, although admirable in its ferocity, has no place in civilisation. In Wood's series, the Vikings are all like that, and this one-issue tale demonstrates their society's self-destructive urge. It is an exceptional comic, well drawn by Vasilis Lolos, and, philosophically, it does a great deal to set up the entirety of the series.