Monday, March 1, 2010

Darkness on the Edge of Fabletown: Peter and Max

I just finished Peter and Max by Bill Willingham, an extremely well-written tale set in Vertigo Comics' "Fables" universe where fairy-tale characters exist in a sort of vast commune called "Fabletown." Moving, intense and gripping, filled with action and suspense, teen boys will probably love it. But I'm going to go a bit afield and explain why I didn't like it.

You see, it's symptomatic of something that, as a reader, a writer and a parent, both annoys and worries me. It's dark: the kind of trendy Dark Knight-dark that everyone wants now. And truthfully, as a reader, a writer and a parent, I'm worried about, and wearied by, this trend. I mean, if everything is dark, then what is there to see?

Consider the tales of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, Little Bo Peep and Peter Piper, the core stories at the heart of Peter and Max. "Peter Piper" is a pretty innocuous tale, a basic tongue-twister with no real ulterior meaning. "Little Bo Peep" is a simple rhyme about a shepherdess and her lost flock, who will return when they're ready. Not only are they not "dark," they're innocent. They have no ulterior meaning.

"The Pied Piper" is a bit different. Depending on the version, the Pied Piper charms the rats from the city of Hamlin, then when the city refuses to pay, does the same to their children. In some variations, the city repents and the children are returned. In others, the children die as the rats did. Either way, as a story intended for children, the morals are clear: don't go along with the crowd; beware of charming strangers; pay your debts. All important lessons for later in life.

So am I just a cranky old geezer, then? What's my problem?

Simply this: by taking every single goddamned bit of childhood lore and harmless nonsense, and "reimagining" them as "dark" tales for adolescents and adults, we're in danger of giving our kids a literary and emotional future bereft of innocence, delight and hope. Because once the "hard" versions of these stories are out there for you big brothers, what little brother or sister will still want the "soft" ones?

Over-reaction? Maybe. But look at our super-hero movies. The successful ones (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man) are all violence-laden PG-13 epics one "F-bomb" away from an R rating if they weren't major studio productions. Yet each supports a tsunami of marketing aimed at kids both too young to see the movie, and completely unequipped to fully comprehend it. Many of these kids do see them, of course, and what they experience are conflicted, uncertain heroes with barely any moral difference from the villains they pursue. When your own moral sense hasn't had time to fully form, what context can you provide for these things? And what do you take away from them?

Which brings me to Peter and Max, and the plundering of fairy tales.

Disney has received a lot of criticism, some of it justified, for watering down their source material. Yet for years, the name "Disney" told parents that the subject matter would not cross any tacitly-accepted social or moral borders. They would entertain, provide a bit of excitement, and any moments of darkness (i.e., Bambi's mother) would be redeemed by the end. Most crucially, the moral borders would be clear.

So is our world simply too jaded, too cynical, too marinated in its reality-TV/remake-laden navel gazing to have room for this any more? Even for your little brothers and sisters?

Look around. Tim Burton has a new version of Alice in Wonderland, with a grown (i.e., sexy) Alice in place of the innocent little girl. The film version of Where the Wild Things Are expands a simple bedtime story into an elegy for lost childhood. Fairies have gone from Tinkerbells to Jezebels. And for me the worst offender of all is George Lucas, who has an animated TV show to get kids invested in Anakin Skywalker, knowing full well that those same kids will eventually see their beloved hero murder helpless Jedi children.

None of these, individually, are necessarily bad story ideas. A few, in their execution, have been transcendent (Neil Gaiman's work, for instance). Collectively, though, I worry that they indicate we no longer have the capacity as a society to embrace and appreciate the pure innocence of the source stories (not to mention our apparent inability to invent our own, which is a whole other topic). And as a writer, a reader and a parent, that makes me sad. I hope it makes you older brothers a little sad as well.


Colleen said...

Very interesting, Alex - and all of it true. We struggled mightily with "The Clone Wars" around here. My son hates that everyone is going to die at some point and yet he still loves the Jedi. It's all very frustrating for him (and me).

But what the heck happens to Little Bo Peep in this book? I've read Fables from the beginning and don't remember her at all in the stories. How did they twist that one?

Alex Bledsoe said...

Colleen: (and SPOILER ALERT!)

Bo becomes an ass-kicking heroine and love interest to Peter Piper, until a confrontation with Max (i.e., the Pied Piper) burns up her legs and leaves her confined to a wheelchair for all eternity. She's that way for most of the book, since it's told in repeated flashbacks, so you have the additional joy of knowing what's going to happen to her, but not when.

Again, it's not a bad book at all. It's just sad.

Colleen said...

Oh good grief!!! Yeah - that is major dark. The series isn't that dark though (as sad as Fables can be I think it is balanced by fun moments) so I wonder why they went so dark with the first novel?

Poor Bo - I would have loved to see her become powerful like Snow White or even better, Cinderella. It's so nice to turn those old tropes on their heads.

A. Rivera said...

I am not so sure. A lot of fairy tales were adult and dark tales long before Disney and others decided to "sanitize" them for children. If anything, some of this looks more like taking the tales back to where they came from. Various old versions of Cinderella, for instance, are very dark and far from the commonly known Disney. The Pied Piper, as you point out, depending on the version, drowns the town's children (not exactly a bright ending). So I don't see this darkening as something terribly new. Faddish, perhaps, but new, not really. But I do see the point of not leaving some things innocent, so to speak.

Clone Wars I have struggled a bit as well. The series is pretty likable, but like Colleen points out, you know they are all going to die at the end at the hands of the "hero."

In the end, the problem is taking the dark stuff and marketing it to kids. If it is meant to be dark and adult, then it should be marketed accordingly. Otherwise, it's just exploitation for just the mighty buck. Then again, in this society, not much surprises me anymore.

Been reading the Fables, not too far into it, enjoying so far. Then again, I do like my tales a bit on the darker side. Give me Gaiman, so on any day over some cheery too bright nonsense.

Best, and keep on blogging.