Loyal readers of the Vertigo comic Fables are used to their stories being a little outside the box.
Over the last seven years since the award-winning, best-selling series began, Fables has broken a lot of the unwritten rules of ongoing comic book series. Readers have seen characters evolve and change, the series premise completely turned upside-down, its main setting destroyed and some of the most beloved characters die.
Now the rulebook gets tossed out altogether as series writer Bill Willingham has written his newest Fables story in a novel published by DC's Vertigo imprint. Peter & Max, a 389-page hardcover book, is being released this week with the subtitle: "A Fables Novel." Although there are a smattering of illustrations by Steve Leialoha running through the book and an eight-page mini-comic in the back, the main story itself is written entirely in prose.
It's not the first time Willingham has written prose stories about these characters, including the short stories in the 1001 Nights of Snowfall book released in 2006. But the release of Peter & Max marks a first for the series as it introduces new novel readers to the vast world of Fables and can be read entirely separately from the comic book.
Taking place in "Fables continuity" before the war, with the back-up story linking the novel with the comic's current timeline, Peter & Max tells the story of the Piper brothers, and how one became the famed Pied Piper. The novel begins in modern Fables time, with Peter living on The Farm with his wife Bo Peep, but flashes back to the origins of the Piper and Peep families in the Homelands. Readers get to see the characters encounter the Empire's armies for the first time, and meet a lot of familiar Fables characters along the way.
In the first installment of a two-part interview with the writer, Newsarama talked to Willingham about the choice to write a Fables novel, who might be showing up in the story, and whether or not he thinks the idea worked.
Newsarama: Bill, although you've written short stories set in the Fables universe before, this is quite a difference. Is this just a case of you wanting to try your hand at writing a longer Fables story in prose, or was it that the story demanded it?
Bill Willingham: Well, I wanted to try a novel. Also, the story constructed, had it been done as a comic thing, would have – at least had it been done as richly as I wanted to do it, would have taken about 20 issues of the comics. At 10 issues, people thought that "The Good Prince" story was dragging a bit, so I’m not entirely sure they would have sat still for 20 issues of comic. Plus, some stories just appeal to me in different mediums. I saw this as a prose story, not a comic story.
Nrama: Did you have a tough time convincing Vertigo to publish a Fables novel? After all, they usually publish comics.
Willingham: No. As a matter of fact, the way the contract was written, I could have taken a novelized version of Fables to any publisher, but I thought it best to offer it to Vertigo first. Part of me thought it was only going to be a courtesy, that they don’t want to do novels and they’re not in the novel publishing business, but they accepted it, so we went from there.
Nrama: Let’s talk about the story. What can you tell potential readers about Peter & Max?
Willingham: The story is about, first of all, the Piper family. The Piper family is a wandering troupe of minstrels named Piper, just the way in olden times you tended to get last names based upon professions, like Millers mill and Fletchers fletch, and so the Piper family were a family of musicians. They’re a wandering troupe.
There’s the father, the mother, and the two kids, Peter and Max. Max is the older brother, and it just follows their story. As the brothers get older, the sibling rivalry starts, as it often does, and some other things happen to exacerbate it. This is during way back in the time of the expansion of the Adversary’s Empire; that enters into it, and some terrible things happen. When terrible things happen, that’s a good time to have a good cauldron in which characters show what they’re made of.
The younger brother, Peter, shows what he’s made of; the older brother, Max, shows what he’s made of; and they get separated and become the adults they will eventually become. So it’s kind of a story of the two of them spread over the thousands of years, because, of course, we’ve established in Fables that these Fables are essentially immortal characters. And it's about how they come into contact with each other from time to time, and how for the most part that’s not a good thing.
Nrama: What other characters do we meet outside the Pipers?
Willingham: We meet Bo Peep and her extended family. We find out why a little girl is named Bo. We meet some old favorites, like Bigby Wolf and the Witch, Frau Totenkinder, and get a lot of her background as far as the process that made her want to do evil things to the town of Hamelin and such, and a few other tertiary Fables characters as well.
Nrama: Since you're exploring a lot of the same characters and concepts you've already written in comic book form, how different was it to tell these same stories, but in a novel?
Willingham: Well, it was very different. I mean, writing comics and writing prose are two completely different kettles of fish. Not that I’ve ever seen fish arrive in kettles, but the modern of equivalent of saying it’s two different Saran-wrapped bits of nicely dressed fish on some kind of Styrofoam plate just doesn’t sound very good. So yeah, it was completely different.
One of the struggles, of course, was to find the voices of the characters, the ones that the readers already knew, and make them sound in prose much like they do in comics, without trying to duplicate comics. A piece of advice I got early on when I was starting this was don’t try to make the prose story sound like a comic, because that just seldom works. Make sure you understand that it’s its own piece.
So yeah, there were lots of struggles, plus the whole idea of finishing a novel to begin with – a novel about anything, much less Fables.
Nrama: So has this been in the works for a while? I mean, how long did it take you?
Willingham: It, well, writing time, it probably took about seven months, but that was spread over a couple of years. I did one-third of it, the first third of it, in a rush when I’d rented Kipling’s cabin or cabin/mansion over in Vermont to write in. That went pretty well. I think I had some pretty good inspirations, very good ghosts working for me there. Then I set it aside to get to other things, because with comics, my deadlines never stop. And I picked it up again almost a year later and finished it. So yeah, about seven months, spread over a couple years’ time.
Then, something that doesn’t often happen on the comics, because comics is such that you have to get it done now, there was the months of tweaking and rewriting, and just fiddling with this and that, that just seemed to go on forever. Whoever said that novels are not completed so much as abandoned certainly got that right. There was never a point at which I thought, “Well, we’re done,” the way there often is with comics.
Nrama: Peter and Max and most of the characters that you've focused upon in the novel aren’t the main characters from Fables. Why did you pick a new story? Is it because we already know the other ones so well? For example, from a fan’s point of view, there's probably a market for a Boy Blue story, for example. Yet you picked the previously unknown characters of Peter and Max Piper.
Willingham: Well, part of the reason is because even back when I started the novel, I knew Boy Blue was going to be dead by the time this came out, and we were already going to be handling his story in a very detailed way in the comic book.
I wanted the novel to center around some characters we haven’t dealt with before. We wanted the novel to be its own thing, that prose readers who are not necessarily fans of comic books could pick up and enjoy a very self-contained story where they didn’t have to know a lot of different characters.
If we’d used – I keep saying we, but – if I’d used characters that had already appeared often in Fables, I’d either be going over the same ground a lot, to bring the new readers up to speed, or I’d be skipping over things that the new readers needed to know, just so that it wasn’t redundant to the comic readers. So the obvious choice was to use some new characters, and bring in the established characters as was needed or appropriate.
The other thing working is that I knew the novel would be probably centered around the villain in the sense that the villain is the one who starts things in motion. I saved the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who’s been one of my favorite villains of all time in fairy tales and folklore, for a big important project, and this seems to be it. Giving him a brother was just a matter of finding a nice bit of serendipity with the Piper name, and deciding that a good sibling rivalry could be a good motivating force for what set the Pied Piper on the road to becoming such a nasty individual.
Nrama: These illustrations give a flavor of the comic to the book without really distracting from the novel. There are a few multi-page drawings scattered throughout, but the really unifying theme that makes the book reminiscent of the Fables comic is those small, theme drawings that cap each chapter title. How was the decision made to include Steve's beautiful illustrations?
Willingham: These are some wonderful illustrations. The weird thing about getting Steve Leialoha to come on as inker with Fables, and he was there from day one, is that he is such an alarmingly talented penciler as well. So every once in a while, we were looking for opportunities to get him doing that, and this is a special project where – I mean, [Fables penciler] Mark [Buckingham] was not going to be able to do it. He is not allowed, by pain of torture, to leave the regular book for any reason whatsoever.
Steve was just the obvious choice. I’ve been a fan of his work forever. And the illustrations he’s done – they’re just wonderful. Even the chapter titles. One of my favorite of his illustrations is just that little bitty view of one corner of the Woodland building in one of the chapter title beginning illustrations. Just delightful stuff.
Then, from those little chapter title things, we also get the big three-page spreads of the Pied Piper leading the rats out of Hamelin Town, which isn’t a giveaway by the way. I mean, you readers out there, if you don’t know the story of the Pied Piper leading the rats out of Hamelin, then you’ve been living under a rock, so I didn’t spoil something there, I hope.
Nrama: Then for long-time Fables readers, this is probably not germane to the ongoing story of Fables, right? So what do you think this offers to those readers that they might want to stop and read a novel? You mentioned people who only like prose; there’s people that only read comics too.
Willingham: Sure. First and foremost – and I’m going to say it a bit flippantly, but it’s not – no one’s required to read any of this. The nice thing about being in the entertainment industry is it’s not compulsive in any way. If this is your cup of tea, by all means, pick it up; you’re more than welcome. If it’s not, that’s sort of OK too. With that said, I hope the love of the characters that some of our more devoted Fables readers have of the comics will carry over.
You’re going to find a little bit about Big Bad Wolf’s background, you’re going to find out a lot about Frau Totenkinder’s background, and you’re going to find out a lot about early Fabletown, especially some pretty grim aspects of early Fabletown. I think those are things that if even the so-called “I’m not interested in prose” comics reader had nothing other than that motivating them, it might be worth picking it up. Hopefully, we’ve constructed the novel so that it’s not too difficult.
I’m not trying for modern ideas of literature, where we’re kind of striving against the reader’s ability to understand and plow through dense blocks of text seems to be the operating thing these days. We strive for clarity and a fun, fast-paced story. As big as the novel is, it is a fairly fast-paced story, and I think that’s something that’s – one of the few qualities this book will have in common with the comic.
Nrama: As a comparison to this Fables novel, the Queen and Country series comes to mind, where Greg Rucka created a universe that he wrote stories about in both comic books and novels. But other than Greg, who was already a novelist, this pretty unusual. Do you think that this is something you’d recommend to writers, to kind of stretch their writing muscles by writing prose within the universes they’ve already created in comics?
Willingham: Oh, God, I don’t know. I don’t really know if I’m in a position to offer any advice to other writers, other than the very generic, “Figure out what you want to do and do it.” I would certainly say fairly emphatically that, having done this once, that it's a far reach to try to make myself an expert on this. So no, I’m going to punt on that question, and just say that I don’t know.
Nrama: Fair enough, but was it rewarding for you as a writer? And are you pleased with the final product?
Willingham: I’m quite happy with how it turned out. Like all writers, I think I look back through it, read back through it, and wince at everything I wish I’d done a little more cleverly, a little better, but that’s the case with anything. Any written material, any comic books, whatever, I think the person that did it can only see the mistakes and not necessarily the good qualities about it. That said, as near as I have the powers to judge such a thing, I think it’s pretty good.
Check back tomorrow as we talk to Bill about what's happening now in Fables, what's to come in next year's Werewolves mini-series, and what Justice Society readers will see next.