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Peter and Max by Bill Willingham

Peter and Max by Bill Willingham
Book Name: Peter and Max
Author: Bill Willingham
Publisher(s): Vertigo
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Fairy Tale / Urban Fantasy
Release Date: October 13, 2009

Fairy tales are growing in popularity once more and looking very different from the Walt Disney versions we have come to expect. This summer two movies, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman, battle it out in the box office to tell the story of a young woman who meets seven very short men in the woods. Later in the year, we will see the release of a Jack The Giant Killer movie. On TV, we have Grimm and Once Upon A Time pulling in viewers week after week. Finally, Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials trilogy, has announced he is writing new, darker versions of such classics as Rapunzel and Cinderella.

But the first person to really modernize the famous tales, first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, was Bill Willingham in his comic series Fables. Launched by Vertigo Comics in 2002, the series is about a community called Fable Town in the Upper West Side of New York City. The people who reside there are refugees, forced out of their own Homelands by the all-conquering Adversary. Snow White, Prince Charming, the Big Bad Wolf, and Beauty and the Beast are among them. The classic characters are put through a very modern lens, so Snow White is divorced from Prince Charming because of his infidelity, Cinderella is a spy who makes James Bond look like an amateur, and Jack, of giant killing and beanstalk fame, is a con man. Beautifully illustrated by Mark Buckingham and a few supporting artists, there are sixteen collections in print, at the moment, of the comics.

Peter and Max is a prose novel set in the world of Fables. It tells the tale of Peter Piper and his brother Max. Stylistically written in an appropriate tone for characters from children’s storybooks and folk tales, the book begins:

“For most of his long years, Peter Piper wanted nothing more than to live a life of peace and safety in some remote cozy cottage, married to his childhood sweetheart, who grew into the only woman he could ever love. Which is pretty much what happened. But there were complications along the way, as there often are, because few love stories are allowed to be that and nothing else.”

One could almost imagine Peter and Max being read aloud at bedtime but, be warned, this is no children’s book. From such innocent beginnings, the tale travels down a much darker path and the complications Peter encounters are some of the most horrific events imaginable.

The tale flits back and forth from the modern day and our world, to the medieval times of the original folk tales, as the brothers are drawn together for one final confrontation. We are introduced to Peter while he is living in seclusion with his wife, Bo Peep, in the remote cozy cottage of his dreams. Word comes from Fable Town that Max has turned up on Earth from the Homelands. However, a warm family reunion isn’t on the cards because Max is evil to the bone. Peter barely escaped their last meeting with his life and Bo was left horribly crippled. Hoping to avert further tragedy, Peter leaves Bo to search for his brother, knowing the price of success may well be his own life.

We learn how the sibling rivalry between Peter and Max went horribly wrong and we see dark magic and revenge wreck havoc in the lives of the Piper family and their good friends, the Peeps. It’s a brutal and graphic tale, epic in scope and worthy of the legendary characters caught up in it. Willingham pulls no punches as one “complication” after another rips poor Peter’s world apart and he struggles to stay true to himself despite all the world throws at him. Max, on the other hand, embraces the chaos around him as he enjoys every opportunity to unleash the evil within him. He even manages to make the most of an encounter with the Wicked Witch of the Black Forest to gain magic powers of his own.

Willingham also skillfully weaves the folk tales and nursery rhymes into the story so we find out how Bo Peep lost her sheep, why Peter ate the Pickled Peppers and what Max did with all the children he took from Hamelin in lieu of payment for ridding the city of all the rats. We even discover the matter of life and death that made Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater put his wife in a pumpkin shell.

Knowledge of the comic series isn’t necessary to understand and enjoy the events in the book but, if you are a fan of the series, the book adds to the mythos of the characters. If you love fairy tales, Peter and Max is a deliciously dark treat to be savored. An adult adventure for the child within all of us who, every once in awhile, still likes to be scared by the things that go bump in the night.



  1. Elfy says:

    Very pleased to see a review for this. I’ve been a big Fables fan for a few years now, and snapped this up as soon as I saw it. It;s a great example of an author transitioning from one form to another. If I could find a copy of Down Mysterly River, which Willingham also wrote some years ago, I’d grab it too. It’s a non Fables concept, though.

  2. I am a huge Fabled fan. I listened to he audiobook version of this, narrated by Wil Wheaton, and loved it.

  3. Zah3212 says:

    Such a great book- thanks for the review!

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