“Max the Wolf was a wolf in exactly the same way that foothills are made up of real feet and a tiger shark is part tiger, which is to say, not at all.”
As a writer, I sometimes find myself insanely jealous of another author’s ability to use words. On the other hand, when I come across an opening line that good, I simply have to buy the book and look for other gems of literary genius. So it was that I found myself buying Down the Mysterly River, a “YA book” by Bill Willingham. (For those not in the know, Willingham is a great spinner of fables. Literally: he is the writer of Fables, the long-running comic series that has won a three-bag-full of Eisner Awards and garnered a Hugo nomination for Best Graphic Novel story (he probably lost to Girl Genius).
Down the Mysterly River is written in YA style; Max the Wolf is a young boyscout who finds himself mysteriously transported into a strange woods with talking animals and homicidal lords and no idea how he got there. Fortunately he’s used to mysterious things–almost preternaturally resourceful, he sets off with his new companions (a brave badger, homicidal barn-cat, and clueless bear) in search of answers and sanctuary. But while it’s written as a YA adventure, DTMR is really about Warning: spoilers alert. Willingham plays his hand fairly early in the story, but don’t read further if you want to retain the option of surprise. Just take it from me that you will enjoy this book. what happens to fictional characters when they die or when an author stops writing about them. Willingham postulates an afterlife for “finished” characters, a place where they go once the story, or their part in it, is done. In the Settings (the various afterlife settings available so that genre characters can fit comfortably), the released fictive characters are given the one thing none of them had before, when they were forced to serve The Plot: free will.
Of course it couldn’t be a restful afterlife, now could it? An adventure story has to have a villain, and here Willingham pulls out a huge axe to grind. The Bad Guys in the story are Blue Cutters. They have magical swords that “cut” pieces out of fictive characters like Max and his friends–and by pieces I mean bits of their character/background/story that the cutters don’t like. For example, the aforementioned cat, an evil, homicidal animal who ruled MacDonald’s farm through terror, could be “cut” into a mischievous but friendly tabby suitable for children’s tender minds.
In other words, the cutters are literary revisionists. In their keep they have a tome called The Book of Better Creation, in which appear the names of characters in need of revision–but the book itself changes in the same way modern critical methods do; characters previously considered ideal types can fall out of fashion or become politically incorrect (or even just irrelevant). All this traces back into Willingham’s own literary experience: Fables is a comic series about the great characters of fables, fairy tales, and myths. In researching them it’s obvious that Willingham has done his homework; they resemble the characters that populate the often dark and bloody original stories instead of the Disneyfied versions today’s children are exposed to.
And, really, if you are a fictive character finally given free will, what could be a worse fate than to be changed into something else, cut to fit an image later critics and revisionists think is more socially responsible? Talk about A Fate Worse Than Death.
So Down the Mysterly River functions as both a straightforward YA adventure story and as a piece of metafiction, and is fun on both levels. I recommend it highly to anyone who has enjoyed Fables–or who would just like to read a fun story about resourceful boyscouts and talking animals. It does make me worry a bit, though; as an author myself, will I someday have to answer to my characters for all the hell I put them through?