Thursday, September 22, 2011

Very clever idea, not so clever writing

I've mentioned before how much I loved reading the newspaper comics as a kid but I was also a big fan of comic books, although I usually preferred the ones that were actually "comic" over what are now called "graphic novels." I remember riding my bike to Stimson's market and Earl's Pharmacy to buy them for 35 or 40 cents - my favorites being Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and stuff like that. I still have most of them, too - but unfortunately, the funny ones aren't nearly as valuable or sought after as the serious ones. And the few serious ones I have don't seem to be all that valuable either (especially since I actually read all my comic books - over and over, in fact - as opposed to later kids who stored theirs in plastic).

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel (Fables Series)So maybe I'm not the typical audience for Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham, but still I was intrigued by the idea. Fables is a comic book - err, excuse me - graphic novel series with characters from fairy tales, and this particular story has been written as a novel (I received the audio book on CD, read by Will Wheaton from "Star Trek Next Generation," from Amazon Vine). It turns out that the stories we call fairy tales and nursery rhymes are real events from another world, a world where some animals can talk, wicked witches live in forests and trolls under bridges, Bo Peep is a bratty little girl, and Peter Piper and his family are... well, pipers. It also turns out that their world has, at times, spilled its occupants over into our world (I didn't understand "why" that happened). And those fairy tale people have formed a community near Manhattan which they call Fabletown, as well as a farm in upstate New York for those who can't blend in as easily in our world (like the Big Bad Wolf, now calling himself "Bigby" and working as a private investigator). And Peter & Max, alternating between present and past, tells the story of how Peter Piper and his brother Max Piper went very different ways - Peter marrying Bo Peep and Max becoming the Pied Piper.

I enjoy stories that employ interesting twists on familiar ideas such as the fairy tale folk in this one. And it's very clever and sometimes amusing the way such familiar stories work here (like "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" or "Peter Peter pumpkin eater..."). But I read fairy tales to my kids when they were younger and I'm well aware that some of them are surprisingly dark (Hansel & Gretel, Rumplestiltskin, etc.) and Mr. Willingham puts the "graphic" in his graphic novels - and this text novel is no exception. The violence, in my opinion, makes the book unsuitable for family listening and inappropriate for children (this wasn't clear on the online description). And a few scattered profanities seem unusually harsh with the backdrop of children's stories

But while I found the idea very clever the writing isn't as good. Story flow which might work in art form doesn't flow as well in text, even though I could see in my mind how it would have looked in a comic book. Also, the back and forth between past and present is sometimes maintained with short useless chapters that interrupt more than provide continuity to both halves of the story - again, works fine in a comic book but not here. But the transformation of Max from jealous older son into a cold-blooded murderer was entirely unconvincing in the telling - one moment he's simply a petulant kid and the next a ruthless and brutal killer. So, while part of me kind of enjoyed the story, the other part was disappointed to find out after I'd received it that it's for "mature" readers (you should know by know I'm not all that "mature").  But I thought it deserved a mention even if the writing wasn't as clever as the idea.

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