The charm of Bill Willingham’s Fables comics series is that it makes old, familiar characters feel new. Willingham has spun fresh lives for Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, and dozens of other characters, turning simple children’s stories into a series populated with complex beings. So it’s disappointing that after 279 pages, the title characters of Willingham’s debut novel, the Fables tie-in Peter & Max, still seem two-dimensional. The book fails to go beyond a simple tale of good vs. evil, a standard dark fairy tale.
The story is set in the world of Fables some time after the events of the compilation Wolves. But the protagonists of Willingham’s series are relegated to supporting characters and occasional antagonists. Just enough explanation is given to bring readers unfamiliar with the series up to speed without bogging fans down. There are certainly a few nods for dedicated Fables readers, including one fairly significant new truth about Fabletown.
But most of the action surrounds two new characters for Willingham, Peter Piper and his brother Max, also known as the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Divided between the modern day and Peter and Max’s past, the narrative follows the conflict between the brothers as Max’s jealousy toward his younger, more talented sibling transforms him into a murderous monster.
While he continues to slide further into darkness and depravity as the story goes on, Max’s turn to evil is comically abrupt. It’s as if a switch was flipped to prevent a bitter, self-absorbed 14-year-old from simply growing out of his adolescent sulk, causing him to see himself as a beast capable of doing anything to survive. On the other hand, Peter learns plenty of new tricks over the years, but he remains personally static, a kind-hearted boy who just wants his brother back.
The flashes of potential are possibly the most disappointing part of Peter & Max. Another new character, Bo Peep, is given relatively little page time, but what’s there reveals actual depth. The story of how a little sheep-loving girl survives the Empire’s takeover of her family home seems like it could be more interesting than all Max’s self-aggrandizing and Peter’s moping combined. Peter & Max isn’t a bad book, it just isn’t a good one, either. It’s a fast read with just enough substance to appeal to dedicated Fables fans, but it isn’t satisfying enough to recommend to anyone else.