Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 141 (6/24) -- Peter & Max by Bill Willingham

Some skills transfer easily, some can be worked into new forms, and some just don't translate at all. Writing for comics is usually somewhere in that middle range -- it can lead without much trouble into screenwriting (particularly if the writer has worked extensively in corporate comics, and is used to random diktats and bizarre requirements), but has a much bumpier path moving into pure prose, where every word has to count and there are no collaborators to carry their share of the load.

I suspect this is getting worse, as comics have turned against captions and descriptions of all kinds over the past decade. When Neil Gaiman lept from comics to novels with Neverwhere, over a decade ago, he'd been writing a very heavily narrated comic for a number of years (and, of course, had co-written one novel and done a large pile of journalism as well), and so was used to writing descriptions that would be read as part of the final work. But today's writers produce almost entirely dialogue -- their descriptions are purely for the artists, and so can be as long or short, as convoluted or straightforward, as tedious or exciting as they feel like. That part of their work is essentially an internal memorandum, like an IBM white paper, and has only a tenuous relationship to an entertainment product.

Peter & Max is a novel by a modern comics writer, and, inevitably, the dialogue is the best part of it. Bill Willingham is used to putting word into his characters' mouths, and skilled at moving them through a sequence of scenes, but the words he uses to describe them are clunkier, workmanlike rather than inspired. His plot is not terribly exciting, either -- he mostly alternates present-day chapters with those in the past to disguise the fact that he doesn't have a whole lot of story to tell on either side, and the story he is telling runs entirely along predictable lines.

See, on the world-sized Germany Fable world -- the one a majority of the characters in the Fables comics series seem to have come from, unfortunately -- there was a family of itinerant musicians, the Pipers. They had two sons, Peter and Max. And Peter and Max enacted a very familiar story -- Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Cain and Abel. Peter, our hero, was younger and nicer and more skilled, but Max was more cunning and devious and nasty. And so, while the forces of The Adversary conquered that world, and everything went to hell anyway, Max attempted to take his revenge on his brother for all the perceived slights only a literarily deranged older brother could conjure up. And then, many hundreds of years later, Max found his way to our world to try for that revenge again -- with vastly greater powers and cruelty.

But the reader knows that Peter -- and his love, Bo Peep -- will survive the historical chapters, and make their way to our world, so there's less tension there than there should be. And the reader also can't seriously believe that Max will succeed in killing Peter in the modern timeline, and then use his massive evil powers to wreak havoc on the world, making the tension not much higher in that half of the book. And so all of Willingham's lovingly described squalor and violence and nastiness become just something to be endured, just more pages to turn before we get to the happy ending.

(Max is also a cartoon of evil, practically wringing his hands in glee as to how nasty he is. Willingham never honestly gets into his head, or sufficiently motivates him -- he's jealous of his brother, but that's a slim thing to hang hundreds of years of capital-e Evil Monomania on.)

Peter & Max is an entirely serviceable fantasy novel, my complaints aside. Peter is a somewhat thin character himself, but he's a solid hero, and well worth reading about. And Willingham's dialogue is very good -- his people come alive not in their own heads, but as they talk to each other. And the Fables concept still has power and wonder. But the Fables world isn't unique and special enough to carry it at this point; Willingham would have been better off telling a story much less tied to the main series -- no Bigby, no Adversary, maybe no Fabletown. He has a gigantic concept to work with, and it's disappointing to see him come back again and again to the same narrow piece of it. In a million worlds of stories, I find it hard to believe Peter & Max was the most vital one to tell!
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Indelicates - Jerusalem
via FoxyTunes

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