Series Review: Peter Panzerfaust

Peter Panzerfaust
Written by Kurtis Wiebe
Illustrated by Tyler Jenkins
Colored by Alex Sollazzo, Heather Breckel, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Hilary Jenkins
Lettered by Ed Brisson
Published by Image Comics/Shadowline

"I won't grow up.
Not a penny will I pinch.
I will never grow a mustache,
Or a fraction of an inch.
'Cause growing up is awfuller
Than all the awful things that ever were.
I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up,
No sir" - Peter Pan (1953)

You know how even the terrible times can sometimes seem not as bad in retrospect? We romanticize the past; even when we've gone through something difficult, we see it is a special or formative time (or at least it feels that way in retrospect). I certainly don't think time heals all wounds, but it can give difficult experiences a different (more sepia-toned) look as you see them from the safety of the present day. That sense of elegy, lost youth, and magical and difficult times, all of it is eloquently captured in the Image/Shadowline series Peter Panzerfaust. Many of the thematic elements of the classic Peter Pan story are here: Peter, Wendy, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily, Captain Hook. Come for the fun update on the Peter Pan story set during World War II (WWII), stay for a rousing, action-packed yet simultaneously nostalgic and elegiac look at war and loss and youth. All of this is terrifically brought to life by writer Kurtis Wiebe, artist Tyler Jenkins, an assortment of colorists (listed above), and Ed Brisson on letters.

The story begins decades after WWII, with an interviewer coming to speak with an older man about the war, and his involvement in certain activities, and his knowledge of a very special man named Peter. After an initial scene set in the present day (or, at a minimum, in an era where cell phones exist), the story jumps back in time to the war. Each narrative arc of Peter Panzerfaust is structured around such an interview, and simultaneously pushes the wartime narrative forward but also shows us what has become of various characters. We see who survived, who didn't, and the toll that the war took on them.  The heart of the story takes place in vivid, detailed flashbacks, as we see the moments when the "Lost Boys" of the story first encounter Peter as he rescues them when their orphanage is under siege, as they gather more allies, try to avoid being killed, but also become part of something larger than themselves (the French resistance movement).  I don't want to say too much more about the plot details, it's worth discovering the story for yourself. This is a wonderful, heartfelt, dramatic and sometimes humorous story. It's doing a number of things and does them all quite well. 

Most obviously given the setting, it's a war story. While this isn't exactly a graphic, blood-and-guts story a la the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, the creative team brings to life the heat of the moment of battle.  The pacing and flow of the combat throughout the story is first-rate. All of the action flows in such a way that you can't help but read quickly as you want to find out what happens. Jenkins is highly skilled at demonstrating the flow of close quarters combat from panel-to-panel (both in hand-to-hand situations and siege/guerrilla warfare). In particular, the fight sequences between Peter and Captain Haken (i.e., Captain Hook) have a playful dynamism to them such that while they're kinetic and intense, there's some joy to them as well. The battles in Peter Panzerfaust aren't combat between armies on an organized battlefield; this is chaotic fighting on farms and through crowded city streets. There are moments of tension and high drama through the series (such as when our heroes are trapped in a farmhouse, surrounded by enemies) that the sense of danger to them is palpable. This is also an espionage story, so there are a lot of moments of high, effectively nerve-wracking tension as we fear someone is going to get caught as they attempt a daring heist or other mission. All of the characters' actions and emotions and motivations throughout those tense sequences feel real and earned; it's great collaboration across a creative team.  

But it's much more than a war story. Peter Panzerfaust is a story about camaraderie and friendship (and the limitations of those bonds of friendship), common cause in the face of terrible fear, believing in something and someone, and about growing up and changing. In-between scary and tense moments, there are some quiet moments where we really get to know the characters as people (who they are, and who they want to be when they're not fighting or running). When they receive some sort of respite from war or running for their lives, it feels earned. The art team brings those moments to life equally well. The peaceful moments feel peaceful, and while Jenkins has a dynamic style that lends itself to action and movement, this book really brings to life the simple joy of something like characters sitting and eating.

An aspect of Peter Panzerfaust that really stuck with me is the fact that each arc is essentially someone else's flashback. So we as the reader are covering the historical ground but each time we move from narrator to narrator we're shifting perspective. It's fairly subtle (this isn't a Rashomon situation), but moving from one character to another gives us a chance to see that while one set of characters was dealing with particular challenges, the other characters were dealing with a completely different set of challenges and not necessarily sympathetic to the other characters. It's a reminder that history is itself something of a patchwork, and ultimately unknowable. 

The whole creative team does terrific work bringing these characters to life. Peter himself is a little inscrutable of a character, which is as it should be. He's essentially going to be the subject of a write-around by a journalist interviewing a number of people about him and his exploits. So, we get a sense of Peter (his bravery, his motivations, his limitations and frustrations as a leader) but he is in some ways unknowable.  Not so for the other characters in the story; we get to know a number of the Lost Boys, and really understand what their life must have been like, as they get swept up in these (at various times) thrilling and harrowing adventures, and as they find moments of contentment. Jenkins and team are equally skilled at illustrating those moments. 

Jenkins brings his distinctive visual style to Peter Panzerfaust - he has a really confident line and what's interesting is that as the story goes along (it was created over the course of several years) you can see his style evolve, and become a little looser and free.  But his characters' faces have a ton of personality, and they stay distinctive as you see them grow over time (and in some cases, jump forward decades). In those situations, even as a character has aged significantly, Jenkins captures their essence with terrific and precise facial acting and body language. As it's a large cast of characters, the creative team gives each character some distinctive continuous design elements (in order to keep all of the characters straight); so, Peter is particularly angular and has pointy hair that's somewhat evocative of the hat he wears in the cartoon, the twins always wear the same hats, Tiger Lily always has her hair in two braids; there's a lot of ways in which the team has introduced design elements to the characters that feel appropriate and evocative of the original story, while still making sense in the WWII setting.

It's strong color work, using a relatively realistic color palate. Throughout the series, in moments of high tension, there's excellent use of light and shadow. However, as the colorists change in the course of the series, the coloring style changes in fairly significant ways as well. The first arc is a little more rendered, and a flatter color palate is later used for much of the series. Particularly when I reread the series over the course of a few days, the change was pretty significant (and I occasionally found it distracting). Portions of the final few issues are illustrated with watercolors (as seen above) in a dramatically different style from the rest of the book.

These final sequences are beautiful, balletic work from Jenkins (and the style evokes for me a more realistic Matt Kindt) but the contrast between this watercolor style and the rest of the series is a little jarring. As I mentioned, you see Jenkins' style evolve over the course of the series; his line actually becomes a little less formal and the figures are a little less detailed; it feels like over the course of the series he's getting down to the fundamental, basic characteristics of each character in the story, each character is becoming their essential self. But it's also a pretty dramatic change if you read the whole series in a short period of time. On the other hand, it's a testament to the creative team's success that you'll probably want to go through the whole series in a short amount of time.

Peter Panzerfaust not only tells a compelling story, but also effectively conveys an emotional experience. Peter Panzerfaust is a compelling, tense, modern update of the Peter Pan story in a wartime setting, but it's more than that. It's a thoughtful meditation on growing up, getting old, and the way that pivotal youthful experiences can (for better or for worse) stay with you forever. It's a terrific read.