“Peter and Max: a Fables Novel” by Bill Willingham

As with The Wild Things, I’m suspicious of novels based on other mediums; I’ve been disappointed too many times. But when I asked C, the second-in-command at Big Brain Comics, what he thought of Peter and Max by Bill Willingham, he replied that he picked it up and a long time later realized he’d been reading one of the best Fables stories in the series, and it wasn’t even the comic book.

Fables is an ongoing monthly comic from DC/Vertigo, written by Bill Willingham and mostly illustrated by Steve Leialoha. It posits a small neighborhood in NYC where storybook characters live in exile, and a farm in upstate New York where the animal and other nonhuman storybook characters live in seclusion. It’s won scads of awards, and is a complex, entertaining series in the tradition of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I recently enjoyed the twelfth graphic novel collection, The Dark Ages.

Peter and Max is a standalone novel about Peter Piper and his brother Max, who live in the land of Hesse:

The caravan belonged to the Piper family who, as their name implied, were traveling musicians., Just as Millers mill and Fletchers fletch, the Pipers piped. At least three out of four of them did. The father, Johannes, and his two sons, Max, the eldest and young Peter, all played the long pipe, which was sometimes called the single pipe, or occasionally even the flute as it was still known back then, before some enterprising soul came along later and decided all true flutes should be turned sideways to play…

The family had no home, except for their wagon. They lived the life of happy vagabonds, traveling here and there, throughout the year, going to festivals and fairs, and every other sort of scheduled celebration, where they’d make their living by letting anyone call the tune, provided they were willing to pay the Pipers. (38-9)

They are staying with their friends the Peeps when Hesse is invaded by the emperor’s goblin troops. The families flee for the town of Hamelin through the black forest, but soon are separated when Max’s jealousy of Peter takes a serious turn.

The novel alternates between modern time and the past as Peter and Max take separate but always intertwined paths. It’s set before the Fables/Empire war in the series’ time line. Both stories have fierce momentum that drive the past and present stories to a satisfying conclusion. The novel is well illustrated by Leialoha in black ink, which adds to the storybook feeling, as does the violent content, consistent with fables of old.

I found this a great addition to the Fables oeuvre, with many takes on legends involving Peter, pipers, and the Peeps. It would also be good for those unfamiliar to the Fables comic-book series, as an introduction to the series, especially for those not yet familiar with the complex literary and visual joys of the comic-book medium. Highly recommended.

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