The simplest way to describe the comic series of Peter Panzerfaust would be as a mid-teens Peter Pan, fighting through World War II Europe with a group of French orphans. It’s the kind of thing that makes some people turn away as it seems ridiculous, while others are intrigued by how it could work, putting this classic figure of Peter Pan into a completely different and historically real universe.
And does it work? I think it does, extremely well: Peter Panzerfaust takes the iconic image of the boy who never wants to grow up and turns his mythology on its head to become something else entirely. It’s not about not wanting to grow up, but about keeping a youthful spirit in a situation where you are forced to grow up before you are really even an adult.
The first volume of Peter Panzerfaust (there are only two trade volumes as of now), entitled The Great Escape deals with how a group of young French orphans first meet up with the vivacious figure of Peter. The story is told from the point of view of one of the orphans, Gilbert, who is now an elderly man, as he recalls his stories to a slightly younger gentleman who appears to be very interested in learning more about the character of Peter. While it is unclear what the man is truly searching for, it gives Gilbert the opportunity to explain how Peter had saved him and a number of his friends in an abandoned orphanage in Calais, France when the city was taken German troops. This small group of boys (whose age is not specified, though one does turn 15 during the course of the story, so I’d say they are all around that age) joins up with the mysterious American boy, Peter, who they know hardly anything about, and choose to go with him to the city of Paris. Along they way, the group faces harsh adversaries, meet three more young siblings (the Darling children) who have lost their family as well, and trudge their way through fear and hardships to eventually reach Paris. It is safe for them for a time, but as it is during times of war, nowhere is safe for forever. Peter’s true intentions and goals in travelling are never fully explained within the first volume, though there are hints that we will learn more about him through the course of more installments to the series. All we know as of yet is that Peter is a truly charismatic –if sometimes reckless—boy, who really just wants to try and help people if he can.
Maybe using the setting of WWII as an alternative universe for stories is becoming overdone nowadays, but in this context, I feel as though author Kurtis Wiebe put a lot of thought into it, and it wasn’t just some gimmicky idea to throw a well-known figure into this other well-known time. This is also quite noticeable in artist Tyler Jenkin’s frequent use of imagery from traditional war posters and propaganda throughout the volume, but giving it a new and spirited quality to it. The artwork in itself is just beautiful, and almost lively in a sense, especially where the image of Peter is concerned.
Little references to the original story of Peter Pan are also included at some points in the novel, and in my opinion, they work quite effectively, both acknowledging the original source material, but also establishing that this is not simply a retelling of the same old story. And despite being based on a childhood figure, I think it goes without saying that this series may not be all that good for children. Though it deals with young protagonists, they are put into very adult situations, and deal with some serious losses along the way. Wiebe isn’t afraid to poke little holes in your heart, and yet, the overall feel to the first instalment to this series is so energetic that it is didn’t leave me downtrodden at the end like I suspected it would. I’ve started quite a number of comic series this year, and as of now, I would say that Peter Panzerfaust may well be my favourite.
[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]