Masturbatory metafiction in Jack of Fables

ImageOver the summer I learned that consuming too much metafiction, as with chocolate, wine, margaritas, cheese, berries of any kind, coffee, tea, cake, cookies, candy or anything else delicious and edible, can lead to headaches, indigestion and temporary loss of taste for that food.

I’m not saying Jack of Fables is a bad series. In fact, it does something completely brilliant by making the writing/illustrating process a kind of character in the books. I’m just saying that it’s a very bad idea to read eight volumes of it right in a row. This comic by Bill Willingham is a spinoff of one of my all-time favorite comics, ever, Fables. The books follow our favorite fairytale characters in their lives in New York City after they were run out of their homelands by the Adversary. And then other stuff happens. Jack of Fables spins off fairly early in the series, and follows a separate timeline.

The best way for me to describe the metafiction contained within is this:

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Photo by Celeste Hutchins. Used under Creative Commons.

Many jokes are made about the authors creating the characters (and Jack actually turns fat and ugly and then into a dragon for making fun of the authors—see, the writing/illustrating process has agency in this text! Fracking brilliant!). Literary terms, genres and plot devices like science fiction, fantasy, literary, the fourth wall, the other three walls, deus ex machina, etc. become characters. In every issue (so several times a volume), Babe the Blue Ox gets a page or two to look out at the audience and make jokes.

For the first few volumes the story revolves around the Literals, a family of powerful individuals who created all the Fables. One of them tries to write the Fables and all magic out of existence, and so the Fables must prevent this from happening. The Literals are another way Willingham has characterized the writing process, and made it both hero and villain as certain members of the family fight for the Fables, and others against.

All of it is brilliant, and delicious, and if you read it all at once, thoroughly nauseating. Most of the devices and techniques Willingham uses here are fairly obvious, though the effects of those techniques are varied and as I said earlier, brilliant. My first reaction to this was to roll my eyes and say something to the effect of, “Cervantes was never THIS obvious,” but I was missing the point.

Jack is a self-absorbed prick. Under normal circumstances, only other self-absorbed pricks would have any interest in reading an entire comic book series about such a douche bag. So by making the writing process itself a character, I could stomach Jack’s self absorption and laugh about it. It was especially funny to me as a writer, because sometimes your characters turn into assholes when you want them to be nice, and you’ve got to do horrible things like turn them into dragons in order to make them nice again.

Willingham obviously has a lot of fun with this series, and it’s a lot of fun to read.

That being said, don’t read it all at once.

A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.

What do you think?