Funny, smart and full of old-fashioned thrills and spills, Peter & Max: A Fables Novel brings Bill Willingham's long-running comic series to the world of prose in a way that's sure to please old fans and make some new ones.
I admit, I'm biased; I've followed and enjoyed Willingham's Fables since the release of the first collection, way back in 2003 so, in one sense, I was a sitting duck for this new 300+ page adventure set in a world where fairy tales live on in present day New York. On the other hand, having been a fan for so long, the idea of Willingham attempting to spin-off the at-times-very-visual comic (with a lot of credit going to the series' main artist, Mark Buckingham) into prose was worrying: What if the book showed that he was more talented at comics than prose? What if the novel tried too hard to overexplain things for new readers and, in the process, alienated old ones like myself? What if, away from the restrictions of the monthly grind, the novel would become an overindulgent, unsatisfying experience, as previous spin-off graphic novel 1001 Nights of Snowfall seemed at times?
As it turns out, I needn't have worried: Despite a somewhat awkward start (Where, yes, Willingham veers close to killing momentum and interest through world-building for people who've just come in) and seemingly rushed climax, Peter & Max distills all of the charm and sly, subtle invention that Willingham has brought to the familiar characters in the series so far into an all-new story that sidesteps the comic's continuity for the most part, offering something that's familiar enough to reassure old faithfuls, but also unencumbered by a past that would scare off newcomers. The Peter and Max of the title are Peter Piper (who, as we all know, picked a peck of pickled peppers) and his brother, and the novel tells parallel stories of the characters' youth (which includes Little Bo Peep, as well as the Black Forest and the fine town of Hamelin, which may need some help with a rat problem) and the lead-in to their modern day reunion, something that Peter isn't particularly looking forward to. Fans of the comics can expect cameos from Bigby, Rose and other familiar characters, but this is a surprisingly self-contained story, even with the additional comic strip epilogue to place everything in context for those who need to know these things.
(The comic strip is illustrated by Steve Leialoha, who also provides spot-illustrations throughout the book. It's worth taking a minute to point out how lovely these illos are; Leialoha doesn't always get the credit he deserves for his comic book work, but these illustrations are beautifully rendered, with a European-influence that makes them curiously old-fashioned and storybooky, appropriately.)
Where Willingham falls down is pacing; as I said above, the end of the book feels oddly rushed, as if Willingham had a set number of pages for the book and realized too late that he had to get everything tied up and off-stage. It's not that the ending is a letdown, or even disappointing, but there's something... off about it, somehow. It's a minor complaint, and not enough to stop me from eagerly recommending the book. For fans of Fables, it's pretty much the novel you want it to be; for everyone else, if you've ever wanted to read a surprisingly epic story of love, loss and old fairy tales reimagined with more than a little self-awareness about the source material, Peter & Max is just what you're looking for.
Peter & Max: A Fables Novel is available in comic stores now, and released in bookstores next week.