Today marks the publication of Vertigo’s first prose novel, a stand-alone adventure penned by Bill Willingham and set in his acclaimed Fables universe. It’s called Peter & Max, and it’s about music and wanting to kill your brother really, really badly.
The sibling rivals in question are the legendary Piper brothers: Peter, who picked a peck of piffled…pecked a pick of…picked a pep of…who is most often associated with peppers soaked in brine, and his elder brother Max, known throughout history as the pied piper of Hamelin. Though it’s hardly unusual for the intimacy of sharing blood and bunk beds to result in lifelong feuds, these two take brotherly squabbles to a new level. If this were the 1993 psychological thriller The Good Son, Pete would be Elijah Wood and Max, Macaulay Culkin. Now imagine Macaulay Culkin with a death flute and you’ll understand just how dire Pete’s situation really is.
Of course it wasn’t always so bad, once upon a time. The Piper brothers spent their youth in the fairytale realm of Hesse (think medieval Germany) with their parents as a family of roaming musicians. They were well on their way to their apothecary-prescribed happily-ever-afters. Then a number of truly terrible things happened, all culminating in Max becoming one of the greatest evils in all the many worlds. Now Peter lives a quiet life in the modern sanctuary realm located in upstate New York with his wife Bo Peep, all the while biding his time for one last encounter with Max. This is the story of that encounter and all the terrible events which led to their falling out. Through a parallel narrative, we follow both a centuries-old Peter as he sets out to confront his brother, as well as the boys in their youth as they come of age in the treacherous Black Forest and the rat infested city of Hamelin.
Though Peter & Max is furnished with all the whimsical trappings of a swashbuckling fantasy, it might be better classified as a Black Forest western. As with many westerns, this is a tale of an unsettled score and the long-reaching shadow of the past. It’s a tale of inheritance and a rivalry pitting brother against brother. Perhaps most importantly, the prize at stake is a phallic symbol. See, most boys’ adventure stories are simply pissing matches. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Hollywood western. When Jimmy Stewart scours the old west in Winchester ’73, he’s not just out to get his prized rifle back from his no-good brother. He’s also avenging the murder of their father. It was never really about the gun, just the mantle of manhood it represents. Much the same transpires here, except these brothers are playing reach-around for a flute. There are actually a few flutes for the characters to covet in this story, and they are described in near erotic detail. It makes for a coming of age story that can, at times, feel a bit too on-the-nose. But then, what fairy tale or western isn’t without it’s rampant symbolism and iconography? Even Peter’s call to adventure recalls Eastwood in the first act of Unforgiven. When Rose Red turns up at his homestead with news of his brother’s return, the old man offers his crippled wife a kiss on the cheek and heads out to grapple with a fate he knew had merely been waiting. Make no mistake. This is a showdown. The saloons are just run by goblins.
In terms of the prose itself, I think Willingham succeeds in providing the ideal grandfatherly tone needed for this brand of fairy tale. There are occasional echoes of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride in his parenthetical asides. He seems to take great joy in description, though sometimes the efforts to paint a vivid picture stop the narrative cold, reading more like character or panel descriptions intended as instruction to an artist. And while I did enjoy the parallel narrative, there were times when the pacing moved at a faster clip than I’d have wanted. Just as in the grocery list style character description, there were times when passages devoted to plot read more like a hurried synopsis than a storyteller’s presentation. It’s a sweeping story, so summary was obviously necessary, but some dramatic moments lost a little luster through abbreviation. The most unfortunate example of this is in Max’s initial turn to the dark side. We’re constantly reminded that the boy is to become incredibly evil. but his decisions don’t always feel so organic. Remind yourself that there’s a bit of fairy tale logic at play and you can probably reconcile with the black hat nature of the turn.
As for accessibility, Peter & Max is a thoughtful if breezy read that ought to appeal to both die-hard fans of the Fables comic series as well as newcomers interested in the high concept and themes (such as myself). Though the early chapters, which serve to introduce the reader to the rules and landscape of the universe tend to border on tedious, Willingham eventually finds his rhythm and offers a genuinely suspenseful adventure. I was surprised to find that the Hesse storyline set in the brothers’ youth extended so far into the story, ultimately turning out to be the A-plot, with modern events and the final showdown taking something of a backseat. As it is, there are three climactic encounters involving Max in rapid succession, one for each time line and another in between. This makes the pacing of the final 100 pages a little break-neck and I worry that some readers might feel cheated. I haven’t fully reconciled my admiration for the structural hocus pocus with my own expectations.
Ultimately, Peter & Max fits somewhere in that space between charming bedtime story and sprawling fantasy epic. It offers a stirring revenge tale that’s rife with the magic and big ideas for which the series is so well known, succeeding as it does by taking the form of a novel. With any luck, Willingham will continue to churn out more prose adventures, exploring the full reach of this seemingly limitless universe of tall tales and legends. If not flawless, this was a thrilling first step and I’d be more than happy to pick up any future novels if this went to series.
Paul Montgomery has no musical ability whatsoever, though he can play “Hot Crossed Buns” on the recorder and a strange African instrument his aunt bought for him this one time. He has been told by many people, including Quincy Jones’ secretary, that this does not count. Find him on Twitter or contact him at email@example.com.