Peter Pan comicDon’t even think about skipping this one.  I know you’re rolling your eyes and muttering about ‘kids stuff’ but don’t be fooled.  This is a labor of love that truly deserves your attention.

The whole tale was written & illustrated by Regis Loisel – a multiple award-winning comics creator – between 1990 and 2004.  Bizarrely, despite it’s universal acclaim for artistry and incisive themes, it has never been previously published in the UK.  Soaring Penguin Press have done a spectacular job collecting together and translating the full run of this Peter Pan prequel, and it needs to go on your wishlist now.  You may think you know the story, but you don’t know the half of it.  When I first posted up about this book I had to wonder whether this hardback mega-trade could possibly be worth the cost.  Well let me tell you, it’s an absolute steal for what you’re getting here.  Six volumes of triumph and tragedy, heart-ache and wild abandonment for a flat fiver apiece.  Bargain!  The crocodile skin cover-design is subtle, beautiful and ominous (perfectly capturing the tone of the book) and tiny Tinkerbell punctuates it beautifully.  While it’s a slight shame the cover isn’t textured to match the image, the sheer weight of the thing, coupled with the classy lettering, is reassurance enough that this is money well spent.  Now, let’s open that cover and take a look inside.

‘To keep from ending up as a pathetic adult, there is one thing to do.  Believe in all your dreams.’

It is clear from the first panel that Loisel has no interest in giving us a white-washed narrative:  ‘London… cold, hunger and misery merge to set the scene…’  It’s a Dickensian nightmare.  The houses are cramped, the streets are full of cynical, selfish people and all is awash in the ordure of poverty.  While it’s clear that they all suffer together, there is precious little sense of community.  The Londoners prey upon each other like rats in a cobble-stoned coffin.  The single factor connecting the adult world and that of the young is a gnawing hunger to escape.  So, we come to Peter, a ragged child holding forth to a group of orphans in a tiny yard.  When we first meet him, his only magic lies in his words, transporting the children with marvelous stories of far away places and warming their hearts with the ‘words of tenderness’ he claims his mother whispers to him.  (That damned harpy!)  His struggle to maintain innocence in a tawdry world is heart-breaking, and renders the book firmly in the arena of adult reading, for reasons we’ll explore later.  Loisel does an excellent job of portraying the darkness and terror of the adult world from a prepubescent perspective, in imagery, language and inference – laying down the psychological tracks that lead to Peter’s perpetual childhood in Neverland.  This is not a world for children.

Although he chooses to root the story in reality, the bulk of the adventure takes place in Neverland  – though I don’t recall actually seeing it named in the text.  If there is one thing that Peter Pan represents, it’s the joy of unfettered imagination, and Neverland fits him like a glove.  I was surprised by how much I dreaded this flight to the fanciful after the revelations of the opening volume – and the tonal shift is pretty sudden – but it doesn’t take Loisel long to find his balance.  His artwork is of the very highest quality, but the flames of his creativity burn brightest in Neverland.  The island is brought vividly to life, in all its contradictions: blending Greek mythology, fairy tale, stories of the blood-red waves and the wild west; and I fell in love with it again for the first time since my own childhood.  The character design is fabulous throughout: from Hook’s haggard and be-stubbled face to the Peter’s gap-toothed grin, while the Lost Boys have never looked wilder.  The pirates’ attempts to steal the fairy treasure (and latterly exact revenge on poor Peter) is perhaps the one weak point of the story.  It suffers from the same malaise as Barrie’s original, with outlandish ploys and schoolboy tactics.  That said, Hook is a formidable bully when roused, representing as he does all Adults in his grasping nature and cruel injustices.  If this is a ‘children’s’ story, then it’s the kind they tell each other when there are no grown-ups around: full of brutality and bloody excess.

Loisel builds ambiguity in from the ground level up, with parallels and analogues connecting London to that blissful island paradise: not least of which are the fantastical tales told to Peter by Mr Kundal, his mentor and closest friend.  The tension between reality and the imagination is the very backbone of the story, and is personified in the Peter/Pan dichotomy.  Pan exists already, you see: a separate being, plucked from the world’s imagination and leading the fairy folk.  It is only in the second half of the book that Peter and he become ‘one’ and, in doing so, cement Peter’s position with the Neverlanders.  The constant gravitational pull towards the adult world (most obviously embodied by the saucy sirens of both worlds but, more subtly, with chains of guilt and responsibility) sets up an internal conflict which lends Peter a real pathos in the midst of his cocky charm.  Of course, it is in the denial of the ‘dirty’ Adult that Peter Pan derives his greatest power: the boy who never grew up.  It comes with a price, and that price is forgetfulness – allowing some particularly chilling events to occur.  What many readers will find astonishing is Loisel’s inclusion of a Jack-The-Ripper sub-plot back in London.  It is akin to the Tales Of The Black Freighter sections of Watchmen in its apparent irrelevance, but essential thematic link.  I have theories about the psychological depths of this book that I could just go on and on about, but that’s a conversation for another day.  Perhaps when you’ve bought it and soaked it all up yourselves, you’ll post a comment or two below and we can explore it further.

You must buy it, though.

This is one of those rare books that gives you more and more each time you read it, whether it’s in the spectacular detail of the artwork, fresh insights to story, theme or meaning.  The artwork is sumptuous, the drama intense and the emotional punches are near-crippling.  How many comics delve into gnaw-knuckle nastiness one minute and move you to tears the next?  Precious blooming few, and that’s a fact!  I’ll state it clearly one more time though – this book is not for children.  On first flick through I thought it was ‘adult’ because of the copious amount of boobs on display, but that’s really not the case.  While the sirens (read mermaids) have a sexual nature to them, there is nothing that they actually do which is overt enough to be unsuitable for children.  It is the emotional trauma of Peter’s abusive mother that I would protect my daughter from; the salty language used by adults and children alike; the pants-wetting terrors of night-time London; and the horrible lengths to which Tinkerbell goes in her jealousy.  I dare say the tick-tock croc would give her nightmares too, but I don’t want to put you off too much.  Just be careful where you leave it, eh?  Is it a perfect book?  Not quite.  Ambiguity makes for a more interesting and interactive read, but it also stops it from ever being wholly satisfying.  Critical questions of plot and moral character are tossed in the air without ever quite landing, and remain so, no matter how much you grasp.  I suppose that’s Peter Pan all over though: a crowing, glorious, bloodthirsty little bastard; hovering just out of reach – tormenting the grown-ups… forever.

‘May your madness be joyful! Forget all to live.’

Rating: 5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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