Thursday 21 July 2011

Book Review | Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

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Max "the Wolf" is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat) - all of whom talk - and who are as clueless as Max.

Before long, Max and his friends are on the run from a relentless group of hunters and their deadly hounds. Armed with powerful blue swords and known as the Blue Cutters, these hunters capture and change the very essence of their prey. For what purpose, Max can’t guess. But unless he can solve the mystery of the strange forested world he’s landed in, Max may find himself and his friends changed beyond recognition, lost in a lost world...


Fables may be among the most successful new comics of the millennium... though we have barely made a dent in it yet. Nevertheless, next year will mark the tenth anniversary of its first issue, and in the mean-spirited climate which has made these past years so dreary, the notion of any comic book lasting so long - never mind maintaining the level of originality and ingenuity Fables demonstrates on a monthly basis - well. That such a quality product can not only survive through these hard years but thrive does much to assuage one's anxiety that the readers of today and tomorrow want little more than the same again... and again... and again.

And again. 

So it should be a matter of some celebration that Fables creator Bill Willingham shows no sign of selling out, stopping, or even slowing down. For that, may he - and all of his - live long and prosper.

Evidently, Willingham had his share of less prosperous times too. Few tend to remember that he worked in the industry for a long while before Fables finally capitalised on his talents, and then, as now - what with last year's lovely Peter and Max prose novel - his scripts proved perfectly transferable. Originally published on the eve of his breakthrough success, to ashamedly little notice I might add, Down the Mysterly River is a short and indelibly sweet fantasy for middle-grade readers, and though I cannot speak to how substantially revised this new edition is, Willingham himself acknowledges the brushing off of a decade's worth of dust and some general "sprucing up" (p.333).

But far and away the single biggest selling point of Starscape's timely reprint of Down the Mysterly River, besides rendering a costly collector's item more readily accessible, is the enlisting of once and future Fables artist Mark Buckingham to provide a striking new cover design and illustrate an array of charming chapter headings. Though I'd have liked to see still more from Buckingham, his part in the success of this new and improved reissue cannot be undervalued.

Down the Mysterly River pre-empts Fables in more ways than one: just as its initial release paved the way for Willingham's eventual success, so too does its text reflect a great many of the themes and fascinations the crossover author would later address in the comic which made him a household name -- among households so inclined, that is. Down the Mysterly River has talking animals, an eternal war with an ominous adversary, some outright meta moments, and the very sense of boundless energy and invention which in time came to typify Fables.

"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. Max was in fact a boy, between twelve and thirteen years old, and entirely human. He was dressed in a Boy Scout uniform." (p.13) So begins this would-be boy detective's latest and greatest adventure. Awakening in a strange land, with no memory of how he got there, or why the perilous forest encroaching on all sides seems to speak, or where he should go to be reunited with his family and friends, Max is lucky to find in the woodland creatures a few unlikely allies: Banderbrock the warrior badger, a flea-bitten monster called McTavish - a cat of course - and last but not least, Walden, a gentle grizzly with the heart of a hero.

Like Max, none of these unlikely acquaintances can recall how they got to the forest, but the mystery must wait, for they are soon set upon by the Cutters: a legion of bandit Lords and Ladies who aim to slice new lives into the essential stuff of Max and his companions... for their own good, needless to say. Being the brains of the bunch, it falls to our Boy Scout to figure out the how, the why and the where of this picturesque place where myth and legend seem to meet -- all the while staying one step ahead of the Cutters, else they bring his desperate quest to an abrupt end.

Redwall by way of The Wizard of Oz, if you will, Bill Willingham fairly wears his inspiration on his sleeves in Down the Mysterly River, and there's no harm in that at all. It may not make for so seamless a hybrid of new and old as Fables came in time to represent, yet it has its charms; for instance its innocence is absolute, and its magic clearly derived from the light side rather than the dark.

In fact, for the first two thirds, Down the Mysterly River is a downright delight. As fine and fairweather a fable as any. However, a dreadful deus ex machina makes short work of the summary conclusion, substituting what seems self-satisfied chortling where there should be closure. So too does Down the Mysterly River seem pitched for a follow-up - or a few - yet in the decade since its small press publication, the further adventures of Max the Wolf and his merry band of animals have not been forthcoming.

Perhaps Starscape's reissue will serve to drum up enough interest in the endearing characters and the weird but wonderful world they find themselves stranded in to justify such a thing. I pray it will, for though Down the Mysterly River certainly has its spoilsport issues - and it is particularly unfortunate that so many of them arise in the narrative's last-most moments, leaving something of a sour taste in their wake - such are its charms, on the other hand, that if Bill Willingham has another tale of Max the Wolf and the Wizard Swift in him, I'd be settled around the the camp-fire to hear it told like the last boy scout on Earth.


Down the Mysterly River
by Bill Willingham

US Publication: September 2011, Starscape Books

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1 comment:

  1. Very good review. I enjoyed this book and found the characters the real delight.