Monday, November 2, 2009

Peter and Max: A Fables Novel

Recently, Mrs. Speculator and I were in an electronic gaming store, buying a gift for our nephew. Mrs. Speculator was wearing her Star Sapphire ( t-shirt, and I was perhaps wearing the latest Comic-Con tee. Since we were buying Batman: Arkham Asylum, the manager of the store logically assumed we were comics fans, and a conversation about comics followed. He was fairly knowledgeable and apparently had few people to talk to, or perhaps he was feeling us out to find out how fanly we really were. I felt like I was back in the local comics store in the late 80s when he asked the second most often-asked comics question (the first being "Who would win in a fight, X or Y?"): "Who's the best writer in comics right now?". Grant Morrison's name was tossed out, and the store manager opined that it was clearly Geoff Johns, if only for quantity. Mrs. Speculator also pointed out that Gail Simone was kicking butt with Wonder Woman and Secret Six. I thought about it as the two of them talked and then suggested that my favorite writer going right now is Bill Willingham. Mrs. Speculator nodded enthusiastically, agreeing readily that he is delightful, but the store manager had no idea who I was talking about. Such is the price you pay when your audience is in their 20s or reads nothing but superhero comics, although since that conversation Willingham has started writing Justice Society of America. Willingham has been writing for more than two decades and just won the prestigious Inkpot award for his career contributions to the industry.

While his earlier work was groundbreaking superhero fare, Willingham's most recent work is far more fascinating and has gotten a great deal more critical acclaim, not only because of the increased critical reception of comics in the mainstream audience, but also because he has taken a relatively simple idea and built a gorgeous multi-faceted universe that is comprised of delightful and compelling story-telling and thick with characterization and tantalizing plots. Fables is an ongoing series from the DC imprint Vertigo, and this month will mark 90 issues, a creditable lifespan in any circumstance and particularly impressive given the current market. The premise behind Fables is that the childhood stories we learned growing up are all true, except that they took place in a parallel universe, such that people like Snow White, Old King Cole, and the Big Bad Wolf (Bigby) really exist. Unfortunately, their home worlds are under attack by an implacable foe, and so the Fables (as they call themselves) have immigrated to Earth, where they live in a section of New York City, their magic spells hiding them from interaction with mundane humans (like you and I). At first, this seems like it could be childish, but Willingham did two remarkable thanks in his creation/re-imagination of the characters: first, he didn't limit the characters to the most famous. Little Boy Blue is joined by others like Mowgli, Sinbad, and Prince Charming in their battle against the Adversary, adding more "mature" characters to the childhood mix (in one of his graphic novels, he used Britomart from The Faerie Queene, so he has cast his net wide). Second, Willingham has based his characterizations on the essence of the stories about the characters, but then gave those characters tremendous depth and, dare it be said, humanity. They remain recognizable, but they are far more than the mono-dimensional characters we loved as children, giving them depths and facets to rival the best written characters in adult literature. In essence, he has created what I believe to be the most immersive comics world I have ever had the privilege of reading. I suspect Willingham would attribute a great deal of his success to the talented crew he has been able to put together (such as Mark Buckingham and James Jean) and how they have all stayed together through most of the issues. Such familiarity has carried over into the creation of a complex and entertaining continuity that draws readers deeply into their shared world. And it is apparent that Willingham and crew have a tremendous fondness not only for the stories but for the characters as well.

Willingham has stated at various conventions that his goal is to do something special each year—a hardback graphic novel or a collection of Jeans's covers. This may not really have been his idea, but given how he presents himself and his obvious pleasure at entertaining his fans, it feels more likely than some sort of marketing ploy. This past year, he announced the first Fables novel, Peter and Max, the story of the Pier Piper of Hamelin and his brother Peter Piper. In this novel, Willingham has offered up to non-comics readers a distillation of what makes Fables such a prototype of not only good comics but decisively great storytelling. If you were to flip through the novel in a bookstore, depending on how you feel about the relatively new genre of young adult (YA) fantasy/sci-fi, you might be put off by the childlike illustrations that grace many of the pages. It seems to say that this is not a book for adults, unless they are adults who have yet to put away "childish things" (as a former professor of mine used to say to me). Similarly, skimming the story, it feels very childlike as well, dealing as it does with fairy tale characters and written with the same sort of voice that fairy tales are told in. But appearances, as usual, are deceptive; the story of Max and Peter Piper involves patricide and worse, dementia and powers as dark as those imagined in the earliest Grimms' fairy tales. It also details love and compassion and what it means to grow up under horrible circumstances.

The result is a compelling story easily as worthy as Gaiman's The Graveyard Book but without nearly the acclaim Gaiman has garnered through continued success. And yet anyone familiar with Willingham's career, especially Fables should not be surprised by the storytelling chops Peter and Max puts on display. Even though many characters are only on stage briefly, they never feel trite. And even though the narrative voice is childlike, it works on an adult level as well, revealing a cynical humor surrounding the things we take for granted as adults that remain new and wonderful to children. And it is the loss of the happy things of our childhood that the novel centers on: the love Peter has for Max is rent by his brother's sociopathy, to be replaced by a different kind of love and understanding for his eventual wife, Bo Peep. The parallel lives that Peter and Max live as they work to survive in their war-torn world and eventually make their way to Earth are fascinating, and not since China Mieville's King Rat has the Pied Piper seemed so terrifying. Unlike the aforementioned The Graveyard Book, however, actions taken in Peter and Max have repercussions that must be dealt with. And perhaps other readers can foretell the climax of the novel, but even though I knew what was going to happen in broad strokes, Willingham took the story to a place I couldn't have imagined, interweaving a horrible fate with dark comedy with the effect that it is only that much more compelling.

The result is that Peter and Max is a tremendously good read. Fans of Fables will enjoy the story as it fills out another corner of the comic series. Fans of good fantasy and good "young adult" writing will appreciate the novel's solid place in those genres, an icon that newer books will have to live up to. To those readers, it also serves as an introduction to the Fables universe, a place I strongly urge people who love to read to visit. And for everyone else, the novel takes characters that are familiar just because of the length of our association with them, turning and twisting them to force light into crevices we might not have considered until now. In other words, Peter and Max is a powerful book, on the exterior simple and childlike but containing depths that show off Willingham's talents and leaving you wanting more.

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