Fables debuts in a novel that caters to mundys and longtime Fabletown residents alike.
by Joey Esposito
Even sixteen years after its inception, Vertigo is still pushing the boundaries of comic book publishing, and this time they did it by not publishing a comic at all. The highly promoted debut of Fabletown's residents in prose-form is upon us, as Bill Willingham ventures to bring his characters into a brand new medium with Peter & Max: A Fables Novel. It's an interesting experiment that deserves to be held on a pedestal for its clever accessibility, but will it deliver to those who can't get enough Fables in their lives?
I would say the answer is a resounding "yes". The biggest draw here is not the fact that the story is in the novel format; rather that the story explores new characters and territories that were previously unknown or peripheral characters in the monthly series. Peter & Max is a family tragi-drama at heart, telling the tale of the Piper family, of which the titular characters are a part, and how one brother's diluted jealousy of the other forms their paths in life, both in the Homeworlds and the mundy world alike. The Pipers are essentially a traveling musical act, with Peter Piper being their premiere musician. Max Piper, the elder brother, is not only severely jealous, but quite simply, mad. The tale that Willingham weaves astutely mends a selection of fairy tales together, tying them together quite securely for so little to go on, the most effective of which is depicting Max's decline into becoming the legendary Pied Piper.
The key component to Peter & Max is that it does not resemble the structure or pacing of a comic book. While that might seem like an obvious observation, it was certainly a concern of mine that Willingham, though abundantly talented, might make the mistake of telling a tale in prose that could more effectively be told in the monthly series. To my delight, the story of the Piper brothers is such that I can't even imagine it as a comic book story arc, and doing so with as much detail and backstory that is provided would surely take upwards of 12 heavy-text issues. Willingham travels back and forth between the modern day Fables continuity and that of the past, taking place in the Piper's homeland. Doing so at times makes some transitions feel disjointed rather than moving smoothly from one time period to another, but as the book wears on you'll realize that the author is slowly building up to a final confrontation between the Piper brothers, revealing key details and story beats at very specific times.
I admit not being the most experienced Fables reader, only beginning my journey with the release of last month's Fables Deluxe Edition Volume 1 hardcover, but even the n00bs can recognize the novel's place within Fables lore. More interestingly, a particular favorite aspect of the novel for me was Willingham's focus on the old lives of these characters, resulting in what essentially becomes an embellishment of these old nursery rhymes and fairy tales that we recall from our childhood. For example, by building up Max's downfall as he transforms into the Pied Piper of legend, the scenes depicting his extermination of Hamelin's rats and luring of their children feels new, given a rejuvinating skin of importance. By attaching the personal meaning it has on the characters we've come to know over the course of the book, the centuries old story loses the youthful detachment of a fairy tale, becoming part of the history of these characters rather than mundy folklore.
One of the few detractions of my reading experience was how quickly things seemed to move. With important happenings like Max's transition from jealous elder brother to murderous lunatic occurring in the space of mere pages, I wouldn't have been adverse to a bit more elaboration on such details. Though the way Willingham presents the evolution is shocking and effective, my inclinations as a reader favor those subtle character transitions that slowly lead you in a new direction. Perhaps this is the one aspect of pacing that Willingham retained from comics storytelling, as such events could be well served from a lengthier presentation. This certainly isn't an overbearing problem, but particular conflicts and resolutions seem rather restricted.
Though this is indeed a prose novel, I'm not sure Fables can appear in any format without some semblance of iconic imagery. Longtime Fables inker Steve Leialoha takes front row center on art duties, providing scattered compositions and chapter headers throughout the book. Every image is wonderfully rendered in black and white, and retain the sensibilities that have been established in the art style of the Fables monthly.
Peter & Max is a surefire hit for pre-established fans of Fables. Whether or not in can be relied upon for drawing in new readers remains to be seen. It is certainly accessible enough to be adequate for readers completely unfamiliar with Fables, or even comic books in general. This is the only detriment to being published by Vertigo, I think, as I fear the book will be relegated to the infinitely lackluster graphic novel sections of major booksellers like Barnes & Noble. With their Vertigo Crime line, Vertigo had intended for the books to be sold alongside other crime novels, yet in every B&N I've gone into, there they are shoved in deep amongst Crisis on Infinite Earths and Iron Man, perhaps lost to discovery by crime fiction purists.
In fact, upon my asking a clerk about the placement of the Vertigo Crime books, he simply replied with the brush-off "It's Vertigo, they are comics", and walked off. Saying nothing of B&N's top-notch staffers, this instills the fear in me that Peter & Max will be relegated to a similar fate, never having the chance to capture the attention of the regular fantasy/science fiction section perusers. But as I said, Vertigo is known for nothing if not trying new things and taking risks.
Regardless of the outcome in sales, Fables fans can rest easy knowing that Bill Willingham has once again added a great new addition to the universe he created. Peter & Max hits comic shops today and major bookstores next Tuesday, so be sure to go out and yell at your friendly-neighborhood B&N employee for filing it in the wrong spot.
A preview of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is currently available in PDF form at Vertigo's website.