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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Peter and Max: A Fables Novel

Title: Peter & Max: A Fables Novel
Author: Bill Willingham
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Pages: 400
Release Date: October 13, 2009

You don’t need to be a fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables comics to like this book--you don’t even have to know what they are to understand Peter & Max. This is a re-telling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story from a different perspective, one of those “what really happened” kind of tales. For every other character or event that might confuse the reader, Willingham explains the course of the comics in a few words and lines that, if anything, spoil crucial points of suspense that have navigated and pushed Fables over the years. But don’t let that discourage you at all if you’re a new fan. What I like the most about the comics and this book, is Willingham’s grasp of consequence and reality. To validate these fairy tales with contemporary ideas, Willingham is always examining the life of our favorite heroes and heroines in the unwritten pages after their most famous moments. Away from the storybook and our imaginations is a far removed perspective that pulls gently in our direction--here is more, it says to us; the story continues; life goes on.

For the folks in fairy tales--Fables, they call themselves--reality is about as pragmatic and mundane for them as it is for us. Forced to flee their fairy tale homes and find refuge in an enchanted portion of New York City’s Upper West Side, the Fables remind us that we know of only a tiny period in their lives; in our world they must learn to coexist in very human ways, without magic or magical objects that would draw attention to themselves. Yanked out of context of course it’s easy to imagine all sorts of wonderful, magical settings that make romantic adventures out of very real, scary episodes. Despite still writing in “happily ever after” endings, Willingham’s come a long way to revolutionize what’s been handed down to us for so long and in the same form.

Peter & Max is about the Piper family (a band of traveling minstrels), two brothers (Peter and Max), and the innocent Peep family who gets caught in the middle of fraternal jealousy and revenge. Like all such things, a combination of skewed perspective and hurt feelings tips the scales of envy towards violence. What begins as an ominous and mysterious set of flashbacks and present-day events, the story gradually finds promise in its most haunting thread: who is the true Pied Piper? Peter or Max? Peter is a sweet boy, always managing to do what’s right and do it well; Max is his older, but less talented, brother who snaps at the slightest attempt to undermine his authority and right as the eldest Piper child. It’s almost impossible to imagine the sweet-tempered Peter luring unsuspecting children out of their beds and away from their homes, but too predictable to assume the blame lays somewhere outside, somewhere obvious.

Like always, Willingham goes a bit further, beginning and ending the fairy tale after the part we’re familiar with. The Pied Piper doesn’t just disappear mysteriously, taking all of Hamelin’s children with him. When the past and present storylines meet, so too do Peter and Max. The outcome is part of what makes the Fables comics so legendary: Willingham not only recreates fairy tales, he adds another dimension that turns into a brand new one. This revival serves the longevity of an already perpetual existence for fairy tales.

For all that he’s done and all that Peter & Max accomplishes, that’s not to say the book isn’t without its faults, if you want to look critically enough. I really enjoyed everything about it. His writing is very accessible and at times, reminiscent of the simultaneous epic grandeur of the comics and those sprawling opening illustrations with short explanatory notations. It’s also the type of writing I tried to imagine as oral; you can almost hear Willingham sitting by the fireside, reading the book aloud to you in wide range of hushed, reverential, and dramatic tones. I’ll bet you he even does the voices. Peter & Max and the Fables comics fall into the same category of “adult fairy tales” as China MiĆ©ville's King Rat (albeit less gory and graphic), and Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror, Mirror. With Willingham’s version of events beginning after what we already know, it turns his fables into the late night version of the books read to children just before their bedtime. The real stories are filled with divorce, politics, and sex. Turn on your night lights and be ready for something dark and disturbing--what happens to Fables when they have to live side-by-side the rest of us in real life. As for Peter & Max? You’ll have to read that for yourself. Just remember: this is not a comic.

While Steve Leialoha has beautiful illustrations throughout the book--and a mini comic at the end--on the jacket and actual book cover (the first thing you should do if you pick this up, is to remove the jacket and look at the gorgeous cloth cover!), they only serve to tease fans who rely heavily on the colored illustrations that make comics what they are. If you find Willingham’s writing to be less charming and more awkward and grasping in places, try to imagine it as a scene in a comic book and it might help you visualize where he’s coming from. I didn’t read this for the writing and it’s not unpleasant for that, but it’s too easy to critique the book against flat, predictable, and leading descriptions or emotions that are usually better served visually. Read it for the story and you may wind up loving it as much as I did.


Lily Child said...

Sounds interesting. I do rather enjoy the "darker" side of fairy tales and whatnot. I just may have to pick this up on my next outing to the bookstore. Thanks for your review! :)

Erika said...

You're welcome! Have you tried any of Gregory Maguire's books? I recommend Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror, Mirror.

Lily Child said...

I tried reading Wicked. It started off great, but I got sick of it about 2/3 of the way in. Perhaps I'll try one of his other books. Thanks for the rec's! :)

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