Sibling Rivalry: Bill Willingham Talks Peter & Max: A Fables Novel - Part 1

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Bill Willingham has become the standard bearer in comics for what can be accomplished when creators take a chance and create worlds of their own, rather than just playing in the established ones.

For 7 years, Willingham has been building and expanding on the world he created in Fables, a series where fairytale characters come to our world to form a hidden society. And where many new creations peter out over time, Willingham’s universe is exploding, with the Jack of Fables spinoff, the recently completed Literals crossover, and a Cinderella miniseries in the works.

In addition, Fables consistently tops the list of Vertigo properties slated for feature film development, and now, it’s even moving into the world of prose novels, with the upcoming Peter & Max. The story puts the spotlight on two key storybook characters; Peter Piper (of pickled pepper fame) and The Pied Piper of Hamelin, who, as Willingham reveals, are brothers. Broken Frontier queried Willingham about the novel and the Fables universe at large.

BROKEN FRONTIER: What was the genesis of this project?

Pretty simple, really. I wanted to write a novel, having pretty much learned how to do comics, and needing new challenges. Of course that isn’t to say that there are no challenges left in producing good comics. The challenge to tell good stories never ends. But I am no longer faced with the question, “Am I able to do this? Am I actually able to produce a publishable comic book story?”

Now, it can certainly still be fairly argued whether or not I can produce a good comic book story, but the question of whether I can produce a publishable one has been settled. I wanted to face that sort of struggle again and a prose novel, one worth major book publication, seemed the way to go about it.

Since I had an idea for a novel based in my Fables fictional universe, it seemed only fair to offer DC/Vertigo first shot at it, even though they weren’t in the prose novel business. I am quite flattered that they decided to enter the prose novel publication trade in order to do this book. I dearly hope I don’t let them down.

BF: Who are Peter & Max? How would you describe them as individuals?

BW: The Peter of the title is Peter Piper, of pickled pepper fame. He’s ten when the earliest parts of the story begin. Max is his older brother Max Piper, approaching fifteen and beginning to wonder at his rightful place in the world. Peter, on the other hand is still young enough to assume his life will always go on as it always has.

Of course, this being an adventure sort of story, both of those notions are going to be severely tested. Peter and Max are both children in a family of vagabond minstrels – the Piper Family.

BF: What does the story center on?

For the most part it centers on the two title characters. We examine key moments of their lives from medieval days in their Homeland world of the Hesse (think a medieval fantasy version of Germany) to modern times in the mundy world – our world.

BF: Will the book go into why we haven't seen either Peter or Max around the main Fables cast much, aside from some brief cameos, till this point?

Yes. And we’ll explore the interactions they’ve had, for good or ill, with some of our more well known cast of Fables characters.

BF: Not much is known about Peter Piper, aside from the tongue-twister. Did you uncover anything about the roots of the tongue-twister in your research, and did that play any part in how you decided to develop Peter's character?

What I was able to uncover about the Peter Piper of the original tongue twister, is that there’s nothing more to uncover. With the bulk of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, what you see is what you get.

Unlike with Humpty Dumpty, for example, which was originally a name for a giant canon in the Battle of Colchester, there seems to be no interesting back story to the Peter Piper rhyme – or at least none that I was able to unearth.

This was fine with me, because it freed me to craft Peter in just about any way that I liked. All I knew for sure at the beginning was that Peter was a piper from a family of pipers, which is how they got their name.

BF: As for Peter’s brother; in best-known version of the tale of the Pied Piper, the children are led out of Hamelin in revenge for the villagers failing to pay the Piper for ridding them of rats; are you going to attempt to reconcile that version with what we saw of the Piper in 1001 Nights of Snowfall?

Luckily you didn’t see much of the Pied Piper in 1001 Nights of Snowfall – one panel to be exact. The Max Piper who plays such a large part in Peter and Max not only conforms to his one brief appearance in that Fables story, but conforms pretty closely to the traditional character.

BF: In attempting to connect the Pied Piper’s tale with historical fact, some historians have suggested that the Piper is symbolic of a rat-carried plague which might have killed the children of Hamelin.

Others have seen him as a pedophile kidnapper, or even an agent of the aristocracy, who sought to tempt young people away from their homes with the promise of riches. Did any of these takes play into your interpretation?

Yes and no. I did pretty extensive research into the so-called historical Pied Piper, enough to learn that the essence of the tale is: “After all these years, we still have no idea what really happened or why.”

I used the scholarly investigative work: In Search of the Pied Piper (by Radu Florescu, 2005 by Athena Press) as my home base, and wandered to and from other research sources from there. I took a good look at all the myriad theories of what really happened to those children on that night, and then, just as I always do with Fables, I cherry picked what I could make use of and ignored the rest.

BF: Which other characters can we expect to see?

Both Bigby Wolf and Frau Totenkinder, the Black Forest Witch play vital roles in the novel. To a lesser extent we also see Snow White, Rose Red, Sheriff Beast, Ichabod Crain, and scattered others from the Fables series. Plus we also meet other fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters, who’ve yet to play an active part in Fables, such as Little Bo Peep. Plus, one of my favorite, we get to see one of the more important goblins that have made a past appearance in Fables.

To be concluded on Monday.

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  • Eric Lindberg

    Eric Lindberg Sep 12, 2009 at 4:24am

    I'm a huge fan of Fables and I'm curious to see what Willingham does with this novel. I hadn't heard a lot of those theories about the Pied Piper. Very intriguing. That said, I'm not sure it's fair to say that Willingham's not playing in established worlds. Virtually all the Fables characters existed in established stories already. He's created his own unique take on them and a complex history that connects them but it's that initial name recognition that brings a lot of readers in.

  • Matt Adler

    Matt Adler Sep 12, 2009 at 3:55pm

    I don't think there are that many readers itching to buy a comic about Snow White, though. And while Willingham certainly draws on existing elements for his world-building, the world he's created would never be confused for the ones we've seen in the traditional fairytales. Whereas when writers play in the Marvel or DC universes, they are already fully established worlds, and their ability to shape it to their own vision is usually limited.

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