By: Bill Willingham (writer), Mark Buckingham (penciller), Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Dan Green (inkers), Lee Loughridge (colorist)

The Story: Santa, that toy boat better not have my name on it.

The Review: I have quite a few friends of diverse religion and some of no religion at all.  While most of them find the materialistic and holly-jolly parts of Christmas annoying cloying, none of them are untouched by a sincerely given gift, happy holiday wishes, or a good rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  I suspect this holds true for most people; whatever your feelings of the holiday, it’s the time of year when you take comfort in the simple things in life.

So it goes for the exiles of Fabletown, who after a couple years of anxiety and persecution can finally return home and celebrate.  No matter how cynical you may be, I’m sure you can’t begrudge the sweet sight of this motley crew of talking animals and certified weirdos exchanging presents, making merry, and simply enjoying each other’s company.  Seeing them come together like one massive, oddball family reminds you how much they’ve grown over the years.

And speaking of growth, Rose Red does some of that in this issue as she is dragged by a cricket (who remains nameless, so hard to say if he’s the one and only Jiminy) to meet Hope’s other paladins, or at least, the ones who survived.  Seeing the paladins, the hopes they represent, and what they do to enforce them, offers plenty of the clever and compelling interpretations Willingham so excels at.  Santa Claus as the hope for justice?  Brilliant, as is his reasoning: “I reward those who do good punish those who do bad.  That’s the story of justice in a nutshell.”

Not all is fun and games in this Christmas Carol-like journey, however, as you discover that hope isn’t always strictly a positive emotion.  The meeting with the False Bride proves quite grim, a bitter antidote to the silly, even saccharine portions of the issue (including a pretty funny bit where Santa’s reindeer gossip about his having a fling with Rose Red).  Ultimately, the Bride has the most practical advice for Rose’s future career as a paladin, but she also makes it clear that sometimes the most sinister hopes are the ones that have the greatest chance of fulfillment.

Meanwhile, the Wolfs return to their estate for a quiet holiday.  Most of their scenes have all the sentimental family stuff you’d expect from such a spunky bunch (“I got a rock.  Oh, I see.  It goes with my new rock-polishing kit!  Mommy and Daddy are being funny again.”), but you do get a couple important bits of information.  For one, Winter’s proving pretty capable with her new powers, and for another, you have to wonder if the East Wind’s tagging along with the fams means he’s set aside the idea of killing them all, or still plotting beneath his placid expression.

We’ve gotten so little forward movement to Ms. Spratt’s plans of revenge that it’s hard to even care about her anymore.  Every time Willingham spares a page on her, it feels almost like a reminder that she’s still around, posing a minor threat to the Fables whenever they finally meet again.  I happen to share her impatience; I too hope the others will arrive soon and do away with her for a good long while so I won’t have to see her pointlessly plotting and fuming again.

The mix of inkers hurt Buckingham’s simple artwork none, and as usual, he does a fine job.  Only occasionally do we run into an awkwardly drawn panel, like Rose’s tearful expression when she meets the little matchstick girl, which just seems like Buckingham needed to take a second go at it, but was too busy trying to finish this oversized issue.

Conclusion: The issue has more warmth than story, but that’s alright.  Sometimes it’s nice to just take a break and be grateful for the things you have, and I’m grateful this series has some legs left.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Does anybody else want to reach into the comic and punch Darien in the face as much as I do?

– I like the idea that Rose may take a cow’s suggestion for what kind of hope she’ll choose to represent.  Hey, beats the average human’s outlook, I bet.