Bill Willingham has created a wonderful fantasy world in his comic book Fables, which recounts the lives and adventures of characters from fairy tales and fables and other fictional sources, who have come to live in New York City after fleeing an overwhelming enemy in their native land. Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf (as sheriff Bigby Wolf), Little Boy Blue, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard and Shere Khan are just a few of the famous characters who have wandered through his story. But Bill is not the first to create adventures of characters drawn from other works; he joins a long literary tradition.
First and foremost, of course, is the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, which has also been cited as an inspiration for the Justice League of America. Among the heroes Jason gathered for his quest are Herakles, Atalanta, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux, Nestor, and Theseus. One interesting crew member is Autolycus, son of Hermes and king of thieves. You may remember him from Xena. And two more, that I was unfamiliar with, are Zetes and Calais, sons of the North Wind. I find this interesting because the North Wind is also the father of Bigby Wolf!
Jumping forward to the time of the Victorians, John Kendrick Bangs had a success with his book A Houseboat on the Styx, in which historical personages such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Cassius, Confucius, Shakespeare, Nero, Washington, Noah and P.T. Barnum form a club, the Associated Shades, with a clubhouse on board the Nancy Nox. Charon, boatman of the Styx, becomes their Janitor. It is a club for men only, but the ladies take over, just before the houseboat is stolen by Captain Kidd! So popular was the book that it was followed by a sequel, The Pursuit of the Houseboat, which was led by SHERLOCK HOLMES! It was published in 1897, during that period when Holmes was missing and supposed dead off the Reichenbach Falls, and the book is dedicated to A. Conan Doyle, Esq.
Other forerunners of the Fables phenomenon are the comic book groups such as the Justice Society of America, the All-Winners Squad, the Justice League, the Avengers, the Teen Titans and the Defenders. I omit the Fantastic Four and the Legion of Super-Heroes since their members, for the most part, do not come from previously established histories.
Another example is Neil Simon's play Murder by Death, which gathers several of the great detectives in a country house for a murder. Featuring analogs of Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple and Charlie Chan, it was also made into a movie.
We might also consider as a member of this genre the interesting Tarzan Alive! by Philip Jose Farmer. In it he posits that a strange meteor affected several famous couples, who went on to generate the greatest literary characters there are, including Tarzan. The Duke of Greystoke and his wife, Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Siger Holmes and his wife, and the others become the ancestors of Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, Wolf Larsen (The Sea Wolf), Lord Peter Wimsey, Professor Challenger, Ludwig Horace Holly (She), Leopold Bloom (Joyce's Ulysses), Denis Nayland Smith (Fu Manchu's arch-enemy) and a host of others. They form not so much a group as a lineage.
Farmer scored again in this arena with his Riverworld series, starting with To Your Scattered Bodies Go. In these books Farmer depicted a world in which every person who ever lived on Earth wakes up to find him or herself on the banks of a great winding river. Sir Richard Francis Burton, Mark Twain, Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the original Alice) and Jesus Christ are just a few of the transplanted humans.
A more recent example is the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It features Victorian literary characters Mina Murray (from Dracula), Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde, Alan Quatermaine and the Invisible Man, in opposition to such villains as Prof. Moriarty, Fu Manchu, and the Martians of H. G. Wells. It was made into a movie, rather disappointing, which also included Dorian Grey and an adult Tom Sawyer.
I myself have added to this genre, although not publicly (other than this website). I am currently working on an adventure featuring early comic strip characters, such as Happy Hooligan, Buster Brown and the Katzenjammer Kids. It is, unfortunately, a rip-off of Fables, and probably will never be seen outside my own computer. I also collect action figures, and enjoy creating environments in which the population, gathered from many sources, interact. An example is the 8-inch Mego doll collection, who live in a cylindrical planet called "the Habitat", where Superman, Captain Kirk, Dorothy, Dr Cornelius (Planet of the Apes), Sir Lancelot, and Beau and Luke Duke rub shoulders.
It is probable that this trend will continue into the future, with more unexpected groupings of characters historical and fictional. It will be interesting to see the next raison d'etre for an unusual association of disparate characters. I think characters from the songs of the '60's, such as Big John, the little old lady from Pasadena, Johnny Angel, Eleanor Rigby and Father Mackenzie, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Laura the ghost girl, Madam Rue (the gypsy lady with the gold-capped tooth), and Charlie Brown (not the Peanuts one) would make an interesting line-up. It would also be amusing to see advertising icons such as the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Chicken of the Sea mermaid and Chester Cheetah interact. Of course, one problem is that usually the authors must wait for the characters to enter the public domain to use them freely, and that's not going to happen for a long time, thanks to Sonny Bono's copyright law change. But underestimating the creative imagination is always a mistake, so keep watching.
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