Bill Willingham: “Peter & Max”

11/21/2011 § Leave a comment

“Write what you know,” goes the old saying, but what happens when what you “know” — or what you’ve experienced — is the net worth of all the culture you’ve absorbed from other writers? Does the fact that there are supposedly only four stories out there in the world prevent anyone from coming up with new ones? Does an architect — and what is a writer but an architect of ideas — choose to create not just a building, but the materials? I ask from the perspective of a struggling fiction writer given new hope by Bill Willingham, who, for years has been dutifully penning Fables, a series of new adventures for old (fairy tale) characters. What he’s done is to appropriate the creatures we grew up with, and mature them for new audiences. Little Boy Blue became a mystical knight; after the loss of his wife, Ambrose (the Frog Prince) used powerful magic to create a peaceful land for all creatures; and Snow White married Bigby Wolf (the human form of The Big, Bad — Reformed — Wolf). He’s used our familiarity with the subjects to draw us in and his imagination to keep us there; it’s quite good. And as it turns out, it’s big enough for more than one writer to play in, with Jasper Fforde spinning his own Nursery Crimes series, and now two television shows (only one of which was once remotely based on an optioned Fables) are merging Disney with reality: Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The long-winded point I’m attempting to make is that writing is, and always has been, about ideas. The characters are a means to get us there, the descriptions are a way to make the journey seem more real, and even the plot is ultimately just a device. It’s nice to see that new works can be produced from the old, even if copyrights are keeping many realms out of the public domain. (One of the best-selling video game series of the last decade is Kingdom Hearts, which allowed Square Enix to merge their properties with Disney’s; we build upon what we know.) And Peter & Max is a novel of ideas, one that offers us a new interpretation of Peter Piper (who does indeed pick a pickled pepper) and his villainous brother, Max, who we know better as the Pied Piper. The tale of a brother driven mad by his jealousy of his more-talented younger brother isn’t new, either, but in Willingham’s hands, he embellishes, he crafts, and he polishes it into something new.

In the present, Peter is married to Bo (no longer little, no longer just a Peep), their happiness marred only by the grave injuries Max has caused Bo, which have horribly disfigured the lower half of her body. To set things right, Peter sets off to kill his powerful brother, even though all others, including Frau Totenkinder (the Witch of the Black Forest, a k a, the one from Hansel and Gretel) have failed. As he heads to Hamelin, the tale flashes back to the acts that set this conflict in motion: Max’s greed to own Frost, the family’s magical flute, and Peter’s inheritance of it. Along the way, Willingham weaves in other classic fables, such as the confrontation between Peter and the Wolf, and new ones, in which Max finds a flute of his own (he names it Fire), or in which a separated Peter and Bo reunite upon finding that he’s been sent by the Brotherhood of Thieves to steal an object, whereas Bo has been sent by the Assassin’s Guild to kill the object’s owner. It’s fun to have our cultural expectations up-ended, and if Willingham’s prose sounds a bit like Neil Gaiman’s, that’s as it should be. After all, what is Gaiman’s revered DC comic series Sandman but an anthology of dream worlds, and what is his novel American Gods but a mash-up that gives mythology a place in the modern world?

Peter & Max has some flaws: Willingham over-explains himself in prose and his focus is so strongly on Peter and Max that their characters are more thinly and archetypically drawn than when they’re allowed — as in the comics — to interact with a wider variety of people. This occasionally throws off the pacing — we get it already, we get it! — particularly in the exposition-filled modern-day scenes, which mainly involve descriptions of Peter traveling to the actual showdown, but there’s enough cleverness that one keeps turning the page, eager to see what comes next. The twist ending — in which Peter, the trickster, finds a way to at last appease Max — is just what you’d expect from a fairy tale, modern or otherwise. Now I’m not saying that Peter & Max is better than a fully original work, like The Last Unicorn, or original characters in a familiar framework (The Princess Bride or The Magicians), but it’s nice to see all the options for a writer being laid out on the table. We all borrow (and beg, and steal); some of us just don’t bother to hide from it.

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