Review: Once Upon a Time MachineA comic review article by: Jamil Scalese
The premise of Once Upon a Time Machine is simple -- put a science fiction spin on a classic fairy tale story. The resulting 400-plus-page behemoth contains a variety of reimagining for the most traditional yarns of all time. Thought "Three Little Pigs" and "Humpty Dumpy" were played out? Yeah, me too... until I read this.
The recent re-fascination with fairy tales, from Vertigo's Fables to ABC's Once Upon a Time rockets into the future in this Dark Horse release. The large assemblage of small-to-mid time creators, with names like Khoi Pham, Lee Nording, Brandon Graham, Jill Thompson, Jason Rodriguez and a bevy of others is impressive, and provides a variety of styles and tones for both traditional fairy tales and less known folk lore. Put together through a group at Digital Webbing (which looks run down but actually serves as a decent hub for aspiring creators) the editors of the anthology gave a lot of leeway in terms of topic, length and tone.
Most of the stories take place in a futuristic, hi-tech world, some utopian, some dystopian. For whatever reason the various, unconnected writers of Once Upon of a Time decided to slant this way and it gets a little repetitive. Book editors Andre Carl and Chris Steven did a fabulous job of putting the whole thing together, and they split up the alike stories for a better flow, but the similar settings and repeated tone did bog down my reading somewhat.
As with all anthologies some stories stand above others, although it'd be hard to point out any particular piece that resulted in a total failure. Certain ones really took the concept and spun it sideways like Uranus, though. " The Three Little Pigs," written and drawn by Jamie Roberts, is a social media infused retelling from the wolf's perspective, taking the now formulaic story and updating the setting while messing with perspective. "The Billy Goats Gruff, or the Crossing" by Charles Fetheroff does this too, borrowing core concepts from the original fairy tale about three goats crossing a bridge and making it a post-apocalyptic survivor story that repurposes terms like "gruff" and "troll." Other stories, like Rod Woods' " The Boy Who Cried Wolf; or, The Venusian Shepherd Boy Who Cried Space Wolf" are exactly as you remember, just with sci-fi concepts like aliens and lasers.
The ingenuity of the assorted creators shines in shorts like "Humpty Dumpty" by Justine Postlewaite and Bruno Hiladgo, where the nursery rhyme about a hunchback (probably) is turned into a low-action adventure story about an AI trying to save both itself and the life of a young boy. The finale of collection "Hansel and Gretel; or, Bombus and Vespula" (Josh O'Neil, Senk Chhour, Michelle Madsen) rises as the sneaky pick for best selection. Oddly, it's very faint on the science-fiction, but is so original and creative that it deserves particular mention.
The approach to Once Upon a Time Machine was to let creators create. "Alice in Wonderland," a story still parodied and repacked to this day, reads extremely avant-garde and coded. Even that story is possibly not a "fairy tale" per say, as I view the definition as something closer to "folktale' which nods to a collective origin and no specific story-teller. Still, there are short comics that pay homage of O. Henry and Rudyard Kipling here, and even more, there are tall tales from around the world, like "Three Musketeers" and "The Boy Who Drew Cats," adding to the richness and reach of the book.
The art varies more than the subject material, so it's hard to give it some type of overall critique. The styles shift from gloomy to cartoonish, and everything in-between. For the most part the book is pretty animated, copying the general mood of a fairy tale, but certain stories play off of that for juxtaposition. In addition to the stories there are a dozen or so pin-up type drawings. They're a bit frivolous, but nice to look at.
Once Upon a Time Machine is a hefty collection that works for any age. It's a great read for somebody with interest in either fairy tales or science fiction as it hits all the finer points of both genres adequately. There are stories that don't work fantastically, or fail to impress visually, but those are balanced out by a Santa sack full of smart and artfully depicted reimaginings of timeless and more recent classics.
Jamil Scalese is just like you -- an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.