Bill Willingham, Peter & Max (2009)

I’ve already mentioned that I love Fables, a comic book series by Bill Willingham.

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Fables are real. And, exiled from their worlds by (initially) unknown Adversary, they live in our world. Mainly New York, as usual ;), but not only. Centuries ago a huge army started to conquer one world after another (in a kind of multiverse where every legend has its place, and Earth acts as an Amber of sorts, the core reality where mundane people live, creating and remembering stories*). Many Fables were killed, most subjugated, some serve the new regime, but some escaped to Earth – and dream of regaining what they lost. They formed a government of sorts, with HQ in NY, and they live among us. At least those of them, who can maintain human-like form, the rest live on animal farm in the wilderness of New York State countryside.

*Willingham uses popular system, where the strength of belief in something influences its power. Popular Fables are really powerful, forgotten – decline in time.

Yes, so the comics are great, and I also recommended most of the spin-offs. The novel occupied its place on my shelves for a few years, but I’ve only read it recently. Not that I was worried it would be bad – there just always was something else. Now I’ve read it and I’m quite happy about it, but convinced Willingham should stick to comics.

P1020193You don’t need to read the comics beforehand, but it helps. And I think both versions are similar enough that if you like one, you’ll like the other – and vice versa. Chronologically, graphic novel version is the place to start. But this piece is about the novel, so lets go there.

I have a nice hardback with cover illustration as good as the excellent covers of comic book Fables. On the back of the dust cover we even have a GRRM’s endorsement 😉

As befits a novel written by a graphic novel author, and published by Vertigo, there are many illustrations inside as well. Altogether it is a pretty book.

It tells the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, as it happened in the Fables Universe. The original tale is about a rat-catcher  hired to lure bothersome rats away from the city of Hamelin with his magic pipe. When the city authorities refuse to pay him for his services, he leads the children of Hamelin away as well. There are, predictably, many versions, analysed briefly in a Wikipedia article. In Willingham’s we have a whole family of pipers (called Pipers 😉 ), including two brothers – yes, Peter and Max, the love of Peter’s life – Bo Peep, and cameos from many of the most important Fables.

It is Willingham, so Max becomes a powerful mage (with help of, at this time, young and unreformed, Frau Totenkinder), Peter trains as a thief, and Little Bo Peep… as a very skill assassin. Ultimately, both were participants of Fabletown’s most secret black ops operation.

We learn about the deep past and modern day (the times of the final war with Big Bad) simultaneously, with alternative chapters switching from one timeline to another. It works for me well enough, leading to the final confrontation (and a comic-book epilogue). Overall, it is a rather cliche, predictable story. For fans – more of the same, in slightly different medium. For outsiders – a decent read with pretty pictures. The real strength  of the Fables lies in the comics. There, we would read a fraction of the words of Peter & Max, and the pictures would speak another thousand words and our imaginations thousands more. Text here relies on our knowledge of the series and our love for the greater plots of this universe to get proper depth, without them its a story perhaps too simple. The ending was neat, not a huge surprise, and a bit abrupt, but elegant.

There was a conflict of likeable characters, an adroit subversion of some fairy tale tropes, a distinct feel of Fables that I love, where the magical and mundane mix in interesting ways to deliver fun stories. Just not as well put together as the comics…

Well, my review of the series tells what I want to tell about the franchise, and I would strongly recommend starting with the graphic novels. This is a nice addition, but nothing ground-breaking. Still, a solid…

Score: 6,5/10

And in my private notebook I gave it 7, because I am, after all, a Fables’ fan 🙂

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