Comic Picks By The Glick

Peter Panzerfaust vols. 1-2

June 30, 2014

It may seem crazy, at first glance, to take elements of “Peter Pan” and retell the story in a WWII setting.  However, writer Kurtis Wiebe actually manages to pull it off incredibly well.  The problem is that while he does a good job of selling the core idea, its execution is a little more problematic.

Part of the reason the setup works is because of the setting itself.  The chaos of war spares no one and it wouldn’t be unthinkable to find a group of kids banding together to survive and save each other.  That’s what happens in the French city of Calais, when the Allied forces retreat in the face of a fierce German advance and a group of orphans is left to weather the assault on their home.  After one shell blows a hole in their wall, in steps a fearless American teenager named Peter who offers them a place to hide until the fighting blows over.  Possessed of a remarkable confidence and what seems to be utter fearlessness, the boys follow him on a path that will have them trying to rescue British troops in the city, hiding out in a farmhouse in the country, making their way to Paris, and matching wits with the Nazis themselves.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that there’s a Nazi equivalent to Captain Hook here and he fits right in with his elitist attitude.

This Peter may not be able to fly, but in this story it’s his confidence that allows his companions to do the impossible.  There’s a great scene involving “flight” in the first chapter that illustrates this as he pulls off an extremely difficult jump that leaves them in awe and with the belief that they can do it in the face of a tank assault.  “Confidence” is his “pixie dust,” in other words and the switch works great here.  The idea that a great leader can inspire his followers to do things they never thought possible isn’t a new one, yet the excitement it generates on the page is palpable.

Weibe never forgets that his protagonists are kids, though, and the narrative feels appropriately focused on that fact.  Their first main goal is to rescue British soldiers with the hope of getting evacuated.  When that doesn’t go quite to plan, they escape the city and wind up hiding out in an abandoned house with some new friends and act as kids their age would.  Eventually, when they wind up in Paris and the war comes to them, their resistance efforts are centered around getting one of their friends back rather than a desire to fight in the war itself.  This also means that most of the action, particularly in the second volume, is centered around strategy and general craftiness than a plan to go in with guns blazing.  The suspense involved in that approach is well-earned and helps to draw the reader in.

What winds up yanking the reader out, or what yanked me out at least, was how Wiebe decided to tell this story.  Each volume, so far, has had a framing sequence involving a reporter interviewing one of Peter’s companions about their time together.  This approach feels unnecessary given that all of the action and drama comes from the WWII setting.  Cutting away from it feels distracting and the older boys’ commentary doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience.  There’s also the fact that knowing that the narrator in question survives the experience does sap some of the tension from the story.

More of an issue is the fact that Wiebe does have a real tendency for melodramatic exposition.  Not only are the framing sequences full of speeches from the survivors of this story, they’re big on both lionizing Peter and playing up the drama of their experiences.  Though it doesn’t surprise me that they’d feel this way after what they’ve been through, their words are less interesting than the action of the time.  You’ve also got scenes like Peter and Capt. Haken, the title’s Hook analogue, engaging in an interrogation/verbal duel that feels more like an excuse for the latter to engage in some ridiculous, over-the-top villainy.  The scene doesn’t feel credible and you’re left wondering if the character is meant to be taken seriously at all.

Then you’ve got the matter of the art itself from Tyler Jenkins.  His work here is… rough.  Though the man has an eye for how to compose a striking scene -- such as Peter’s debut -- his characters have an amateurish simplicity to their design, and it’s hard to distinguish between Peter’s companions save for their hairstyles most of the time.  Jenkins work also lacks in basic detail for a lot of his settings and backgrounds as well.  While this stuff isn’t a huge focus in the story, there’s a two-page spread in the first volume that’s meant to showcase the arrival of “hell” in the Calais harbor.  It’s a spread so empty and dull that will likely only hit home for people whose idea of “hell” is utter boredom.  This appears to be Jenkins’ first major work as a comic book artist, and it really shows.  At least there is the potential for him to get better with subsequent volumes.

That’s something I’ll probably be talking about in the future as I’m interested in seeing where this goes.  Granted, this may be going against common sense a bit given all of the issues I’ve talked about here.  The thing is that I’ve always had a soft spot for stories that place kids in adult situations like this one.  That part of “Peter Panzerfaust” is carried off quite well, and I’m most interested in seeing how Weibe develops it as he goes on.  If seeing a bunch of kids try to survive in WWII with bits of the “Peter Pan” mythos thrown in for flavor sounds like your idea of a good time, then this may work for you.  Everyone else may just want to wait until the BBC miniseries version arrives in the indefinite future.

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