Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: Peter & Max: A Fables Novel

I've been reading BIll Willingham for years, ever since he started putting out the second volume of his comic book series The Elementals back in the late 80's. Since that time he's created and written all the issues of Fables for Vertigo; with 12 Eisner wins, a Hugo nomination and a couple of awards from YALSA's best graphic novels for Young Adults Fables has been one of the more critically successful comic book series of the last decade. Willingham now steps into the world of straight prose with his first novel, a charming fantasy set in his Fables world titled Peter & Max.


For the uninitiated, the Fables series takes characters from fairy tales, folklore and other open properties and– referring to them all as "Fables" – forces them out of their Homeland, a mystical realm that sits parallel to our own. Peter & Max begins in modern Fabletown, a magical village hidden in New York City where many of the immortal Fables now live. Peter Piper---the same Peter who picked a peck of pickled peppers and challenged the great wolf---is warned that his older and very evil brother Max, aka the Pied Piper, has been causing major problems out in the world. Peter heads for Hamelin, Germany to challenge his brother and put a stop to Max's dark ways for good.

Readers then get a series of flashbacks that take things back to medieval times and set the stage for the final conflict. Fiercely jealous when their father gives the Piper family heirloom, a magical flute named Frost, to the younger Peter Max murders his own father and seeks out dark magical secrets to someday take Frost for his own. After wandering for months in the Black Forest Max meets a powerful witch who gives him his own magical flute, which he quickly dubs Fire. Max learns to use the powers of Fire, first using it to enact the his legendary theft of the children of Hamelin and later to spread disease, chaos and fear everywhere he travels. We also get some snippets of Peter's early life as a thief, as well as his marriage to the trained assassin Bo Peep. Yes, I said trained assassin Bo Peep. The flashbacks feed into a nice, albeit somewhat short, final clash between the brothers.

Fantasy readers new to Fables will get a nice a taste of Willingham’s rich and satisfying world while fans of the comic series will find themselves treated to cameo appearances by popular characters like Bigby (aka the Big Bad Wolf), the Beast and Peter’s wife, Bo Peep. Artist Steve Leialoha (Fables, New Mutants) contributes several black-and-white drawings that very smartly enhance the fairy tale feeling of story.

Unfortunately, the early chapters of the novel have some big problems. Readers are given a brief historical tour of Fabletown as Rose Red tracks down Peter Piper to tell him about his brother. These long sections sit mired within a quagmire of exposition explaining the extensive background of Willingham’s inventive world; all written in a faux-Brothers Grimm style they weigh down the early pages of the book and might scare away readers who need to be grabbed right away. While many of the details given are necessary, they would have worked more effectively had they been sprinkled and used throughout the wider narrative. Readers willing to dig past this slow section, though, will find an action-packed fantasy built around two absolutely captivating characters.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Review: McSweeney's 31

The whole concept behind McSweeney's 31 is a pretty fun one: dig up some old forms of literature, toss the ideas to contemporary writers and see what they can come up with.

From an editorial standpoint, I really like the issue. They cover a real wide breadth of styles in a fairly short volume: whore dialogues, Nordic sagas, Socratic Dialogues, pantoums and so on. Each section gives an example, or part of an example for the longer forms, and includes footnotes and marginalia so readers will know what the hell is going on, both formally and culturally.


I don't know if it's because the poems are shorter and didn't have a chance to wear out the gimmick or that poets are just more used to playing with a variety of constraints, but by and large I thought the poets did a better job. From Tony Trigilio's pantoum "Jack Davis"----a wonderful piece on the JFK assasination----to Chris Spurr's funny senryu they are all really strong. The narrative work, by and large, seems to peter out once they get ahold of the form.

But I don't want to make this a bitch session; there were some narrative pieces I liked. Douglas Coupland was a phenomenal choice to play with the Chinese form called Biji. Like a lot of Coupland's normal work "Surrender" mixes narrative, odd facts and rumors into a whole that's both timeless and postmodern. Add to it that it's a parody of reality television, and you have a piece that's not just an experiment in form but also a fun piece of cultural criticism.

David Thomson's stab at Socratic Dialogue by creating a hilarious and philosophical argument between Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway is also fantastic, especially if you have a handle on film criticism. I also wasn't surprised to enjoy Shelley Jackson's take on the Conseutudinary, a unique type of writing for monks that includes instructions on day-to-day activities and religious thought. Jackson's version entitled "Conseutudinary of the Word Church, or the Church of the Dead Letter" is a deep but disturbing examination of semiotics, religion, philosophy and power.

All in all, a fun issue. I look forward to the next one.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Miss L and I are back from our trip through Alaska and Canada, but I will have to write about that stuff later on. Instead this is about something that happened on Monday night, right after we got home. As a warning, although not graphic this post is a bit morbid.

I took our dog Echo out for his late night walk around 11 pm, only to find the cross-street half a block down barricaded by police cars and yellow crime scene tape. It was a little hard to see with the police lights blinding me with the alternating red+blue lights, but I could make out the shadowy outlines of people on the other side of the street, craning their necks around so they could figure out what was going on.

I couldn't get through at all, so I decided to walk around the block the other way, discovering the far end of the same street was taped off as well. At the end of the block sat a large vehicle that looked a lot like an armored car, but was really a crime lab on wheels. I saw police officers going in and out of it, carrying equipment, taking photographs and marking several spots on the black pavement with yellow triangle markers. I flagged down an officer and asked what was happening and was told, "Someone was shot and killed. That's all we know so far."

Not knowing if the shooter was still out and about I decided to cut Echo's walk short and head on home.

The next morning I took Echo out again around 9 am. Normally at this time of the day the street is bustling with people walking dogs, getting their kids off to school or heading in to their jobs. But that morning I found the street deserted, like everyone was avoiding the area. I walked through a touch apprehensive myself, knowing that death had landed so close just the night before.

My morbid curiousity got the better of me, so I started looking around a little. I found some small pieces of paper in the gutter, sticky and stained red with blood and still wet from the morning dew. Labeled at the top as an "Incident Report Form", there wasn't much on it aside from the name of the person who called in the shooting to the police.

sbloody papers

I walked back across the street and looked down at the area where the yellow triangle evidence markers were. The pavement here was lightly stained with a deep, dirty red color; I could only think it was where the victim bled out.


These two little pieces made everything all too real for me. All the odd little things that happen in our little Baltimore neighborhood---people sleeping in cars, freaks stumbling through the neighborhood drunk, drivers blasting down the narrow roads at twice the speed limit late at night----all suddenly fit into a pattern of danger for me. I've been mugged in D.C., I've seen people loaded into body bags from a distance along Route 1 in Alexandria, Va. and I've even been caught between two rival gangs taking pot shots at each other in Staunton, Va. But this really got to me----I guess because it happened so close to where both my wife and I live and sleep.

Today our apartment community held a meeting of sorts. We found out from a detective that this was not a random incident; the victim was apparently targeted. I'm not sure how or why, the police would not say. Although the victim was living in one of the apartments, he was either subletting or sharing an apartment illegally. This helped a bit, knowing that this wasn't just some random thugs rolling through shooting residents.

There was a lot of talk of adding security cameras, increasing the lighting and even starting a neighborhood watch. I hope some or all of these things take off; I really do like where I live and, in general, feel pretty safe. I hope I continue to feel that way.

Hopefully I'll have happier posts up soon.