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Review: Peter & Max by Bill Willingham

July 5, 2010

Peter & Max by Bill Willingham

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Set in the imaginative realm of the award-winning comic book series FABLES, PETER and MAX is a stand-alone prose novel – the first ever published starring FABLES characters!

Long ago, in the deepest dark of The Black Forest, two brothers – Peter Piper and his older brother Max – encountered ominous forces that changed them both irreparably. Thus begins an epic tale of sibling rivalry, magic, music and revenge that spans medieval times to the present day, when their deadly conflict surfaces in the placid calm of modern day Fabletown.

What Drew Me to the Book:

Already a huge fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables series at DC Comics (Vertigo imprint) it didn’t take much to sell me on the idea of a prose novel set in the same fascinating Fables world in which Willingham would have hundreds of pages with which to bring these rich characters to life once more, and in an entirely new way.

The Review:

Who doesn’t like the idea of taking an established fairy-tale, and turning it on its head with a clever twist or two? Disney’s Enchanted rocketed to the tops of the box office when it was released several years ago based on such a premise and if the popularity of Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series is any indication there remains an even larger audience just waiting in the wings to eat this kind of thing up. My wife, for example, was intrigued as I explained the premise behind Fables to her a couple of weeks ago. She smiled at the possibilities that lay in store as clever twists are placed on old tales, and she surprised me one night as I arrived home from work with the news that she had devoured Fables Vol. 3: Storybook Love, which I had laid on my nightstand several nights earlier. She was full of all kinds of questions about the Fables and I’m hoping that the series will become something that we can enjoy together as she takes future steps into Fabletown. So, having finished Peter & Max several days ago I can now heartily recommend that she, and other potential fans, try Bill Willingham’s prose novel to that end.

From start to finish the novel cleverly builds on the familiar stories of Peter Piper (who once picked a peck of pickled peppers) and his brother Max, better known as the Pied Piper. The novel follows these two brothers throughout the course of their young lives and into the future as the choices, prejudices and tragedies of their youth threaten the lives of  their family and countless others as they grow into manhood and are forced to confront one another as opposing forces of good and evil. One of the more clever storytelling devices that Willingham employs in Peter & Max is that he alternates chapters between past and  present adventures, following each of the main characters as he does so that we see how past events are driving the modern conflict between the characters. This approach gives the reader that much more to chew on and that’s always a good thing when there’s so much meat to the story.

Seriously, this isn’t your grandfather’s storybook fairy-tale, not when our hero is former member of a thieves guild and expertly trained in the finer points of assassination (as is his wife) but who also has the gentile nature you’d expect from a boy who plays the flute, and is simply known as “Peter.” It’s finding out just how these twists work into the fairy-tale setting we think we know so well that always hooks the reader and helps to make these stories fun to experience, particularly when Willingham has all the room he needs to really open up the story and get at the heart of his characters. Because as fun as the surprises are, and as gripping as the narrative is throughout (I struggle to recall a single lull in the telling)  it’s the characters that you really serve to warm your heart (or in the case of a couple of them, freeze it) and who you’ll remember when you close the final page.

Peter & Max is one of those stories that you’ll read again and again. It’s full of the same magic you find in your favorite fairy-tales of old, but with an added measure of maturity and cleverness that you’ll appreciate as an adult.  And please, don’t be put off in the least by the fact that you may never have read his Fables comic series as it isn’t necessary to have enjoyed those to really get a hold of this one. Willingham gives the new reader everything he or she will need to begin creating his world in their minds, and if by chance you’re already a Fables fan, then you’ll have plenty of additional material to chew on in the newest adventure. There’s something for everyone here and I give Peter & Max my highest recommendation as a result! Here’s hoping that this is one of many Fables novels to come.

If Peter & Max sounds like something you’ll enjoy, you can preview the first two chapters while enjoying the lush illustrations of Fables artist Steve Leialoha here at DC’s Vertigo blog. Now, to print these off for my wife…

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