Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales
By Kate Ashwin, Kory Bing, Mary Cagle, K.C. Green, Kel McDonald, Joe Pimenta, Katie and Shaggy Shanahan, and Lin Visel
Self-published; available from the book’s website
Anthologies can be as tricky as Rumpelstiltskin. They’re usually such a mixed bag in terms of quality that I know I’m taking my chances when I open one up. I can hedge my bets if the collection has an interesting theme, known creators, or both, but it’s still a gamble. For me though, the risk was pretty reasonable with Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales. I’m a big fan of folk stories, but even if the rest of the book was no good, I knew that I’d enjoy the contribution by Katie Shanahan and her brother, Shaggy. I loved Katie Shanahan’s work in the Flight anthologies and after seeing a preview of the story she illustrated for this volume, I wanted a copy of it.
There are some very familiar stories in Cautionary Fables, but “Tatterhood” is one I hadn’t heard before. That might be why it’s my favorite in the book, though the Shanahans’ sense of humor plays a role that’s impossible to overstate. It begins – as these things often do – with a barren queen who wants a child, and the tone of the story is set quickly when the king tells her to “go grab some kids from the neighbors. They probably have a few extra running about.” Long story short, there’s of course a magic solution with rules that the queen ignores and she ends up with two kids: one lovely and well behaved; the other ugly and unruly.
Without knowing how the official story plays out, I love the Shanahans’ version in which Tatterhood – the ugly and unruly princess – arms herself with a giant spoon to save her sister from trolls. It’s hilarious and awesome and I want an entire series of Tatterhood stories by these two.
Even though “Tatterhood” is my favorite, to my surprise there’s not a stinker in the book. K.C. Green tells another story that was new to me: the horrifying fable, “The Singing Bone.” Using an art style that’s simultaneously cute and grotesque (I know it’s a contradiction, but think Ren and Stimpy), Green presents a couple of traitorous bunnies to whom things happen that would be right at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Kory Bing’s “Nixie of the Mill Pond,” meanwhile, features a very stupid miller who makes a bad deal with a creepy water spirit.
Kel McDonald’s “Bisclavret” is probably my new favorite werewolf story because it’s not only about a wolf-man, but is also – shocking! – a cautionary tale. It turns out that I really like stories that illustrate the dangers of negative traits like dishonesty, stupidity, and unfaithfulness. Especially when they’re warning you not to be disloyal to noble werewolves.
I wasn’t familiar with any of those stories and got a kick out of hearing them for the first time, but I also looked forward to the more recognizable tales. They don’t disappoint either. Mary Cagle’s “Jack and the Bean Stalk” leaves intact the moral ambiguity of the main character but also increases his likeability by toning down some of his most selfish actions from the original version. Kate Ashwin’s “Puss in Boots” is more or less how I remember the story playing out, as sort of creepy as it is. I’m very fond of Ashwin’s webcomic Widdershins, so it was a pleasure to see her adapt the story of one of my favorite tricksters.
Joe Pimenta’s wordless “Pied Piper” is great partly because wordless comics are awesome, but also because the story is so well known that it doesn’t need narration or dialogue. Also, the silence gives it a horrifying, otherworldly quality. It creates a barrier between reader and characters and it made me feel especially helpless as I watched the familiar events unfold on the page without being able to stop their inevitable, gruesome progress.
Finally, there’s Lin Visel’s “Rapunzel,” a very dark take on the story that I’m tempted to call non-traditional, except that its most terrible details come straight from the Brothers Grimm. Visel has simply rearranged them a little and cut off the story before it has a chance at a happy ending. Which, I suppose, is what makes it a cautionary tale.
For similar reasons, very few of the stories in Cautionary Fables have happy endings. That “Tatterhood” does is one of the things that makes it stand out and is part of why I love it, but really, the anthology’s overall tone is right there in the title. For the most part, these are stories about people getting their comeuppance, not their Happily Ever After. It probably says bad things about me though that I found that just as satisfying. Maybe that should give me caution.