Bill Willingham (author), Steve Leialoha (artist), Peter & Max: A Fables Novel (Vertigo, 2009)

Peter & Max is a novel set in Bill Willingham's Fables universe. It's not his first prose effort for the series -- that honor goes to the short piece "A Wolf in the Fold," from the Legends in Exile graphic novel -- but it is the first novel-length Fables work. Previous knowledge of the Fables comics is not necessary for reading Peter & Max, although it would certainly enhance the experience. For long-time readers, Willingham provides a short note at the beginning to set the timing for the modern-day portion of his tale.

The novel starts in the present day (not long before the showdown with the Adversary), with Peter Piper married to a wheelchair-bound Bo Peep and living in upstate New York on the fringes of the Farm. Their isolated lives are disrupted when Bigby Wolf informs Peter that his brother Max is in the mundy world and Peter, against Bo's obvious wishes, prepares to go meet Max . . . and kill him. From there the novel is told in a series of flashbacks -- from both Peter and Max's points of view -- set against Peter's present-day journey to confront his brother. Readers see how the Adversary's war disrupted the lives of the Pipers and the Peeps and drove brother against brother and brought them, and Bo, to this point. Willingham works not only the obvious nursery rhymes and fairy tales into the story, but dips into "Peter and the Wolf," "Pied Piper of Hamlen" and more.

For all that it's fantastic that Willingham is fleshing out his universe -- the tidbits about Frau Totenkinder (and presumably Bigby Wolf) are little gems -- this story falls flat. The main issue are Max, Peter and Bo themselves: none of them is particularly appealing as characters. Max goes from sullen teen to murderous psychopath in record time; he's clever, but a rather single-minded and boring villain. Peter is not much better, going from good-hearted youngest son to expert thief to bland present-day husband. And Bo? She's a non-entity, really. Her point of view could have enhanced the story, but she's mainly around as an object of affection for Peter. There's also such large gaps in the narrative that there's little sense of the passage of time, or character growth; every change seems abrupt. Even the final confrontation fails to live up to expectations -- it's hard not to imagine a magical, musical duel; what actually transpires is surprising, yet abrupt and disappointing.

Though the story itself may not be up to Fables high standards, Steve Leialoha's art is exquisite, from the wild and tangled silhouette of Max atop a tree on the cover to the medallions that open each chapter to the full page illustrations he provides. His black and white line art is clean, well-rendered and very appealing and it's a shame there wasn't more included with this novel.

Peter & Max disappoints, but underscores that Willingham has so much more to share about the Fables, their past lives and uncertain futures. Here's hoping he dips his toes into the prose waters again, but with more engaging characters next time.

[April Gutierrez]

Bill Willingham's Web page is here.
Vertigo's Web page is here.