Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 138

Peter Pan

by Régis Loisel
Genre notes: Peter Pan prequel, grim faery tales
338 pages
ISBN: 1908030070 (Amazon)

[note of caution from the outset, this book is well and solidly Rated R. it is not remotely for your kids if they are kids.]

In preparation for reviewing Régis Loisel’s Peter Pan, I thought it necessary to show due diligence by reading J.M. Barrie’s novel, Peter and Wendy. I’m glad I did. Not only is Barrie a fantastic writer with a grand taste for words (and the worlds their interplay can invoke), but I found the opportunity to have my conception of Pan entirely overturned. I, like too many others, have had my entire familiarity with the character dictated by the sanitized Disney product.

Most of us are familiar with Disney’s penchant for trimming and reframing classic stories into confections made palatable for audiences in the lowest common denoninator (in this particular case, terrified moralists). Under Disney’s pen, Hans Christian Anderson’s littlest mermaid does not lose her tongue, does not walk with excruciating pain, is not tempted to murder, and does not perish in the end. Disney’s Pinocchio does not kill the talking cricket at the beginning of the story. Victor Hugo’s finale doesn’t end in a litany of death with Disney at the helm. The stories of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, Aladdin—all paved over, gently landscaped, tidied, and made wholesomely presentable by the Disney company. Some of these stories survive their crisp evolution and become their own wonderful selves in a kind of cinematic afterlife. Others, like Peter Pan, fair less well. Not only does the story lose Barrie’s ingenious narration, the chief and principal joy of the book, but Pan’s character and world are eviscerated, losing all of the frightening terrifying heart that makes Barrie’s story so wonder-strikingly perfect. I’m actually somewhat upset at Disney for turning such a work of beauty into the anemic sort of innocuous adventure we find in their Peter Pan. Their version kept me from reading the original for more than three decades.

It’s fortunate that I had begun Peter and Wendy before embarking on Loisel’s journey with the character. Had I not, I would have been broadsided entirely by a crass, violent, sexist, and sexual vision of Peter Pan that stands strikingly at odds with Disney’s depiction. I would have chalked the book up as merely yet one more of the revisionist trend of reconceptualizing faerytales into dark, modernized treats for the Cynical Generation (shoutout to muh peeps). While reframing classic stories to be “more realistic” was cool for a while, it’s been done and redone and overdone so many times that it’s passed well into the realm of cliché by now. Adding to Disney’s sins, they almost had me believing that Loisel’s take on Peter was typically revisionist. But it’s not—not at all. Rather, it’s probably more properly viewed as devotional. It’d be counted fanfiction save for its production value and narrative strength.

Loisel’s origin story for Pan susses out so many of the terrible little deviancies that Barrie’s Peter and Wendy coyly includes. Barrie’s story took place in a world of violence and sex and anger and depravity, but Barrie consciously told his tale in a manner fitting for young listeners. It’s a deeply whimsical work, subversive in how baldly it glosses the depravities at stake in Peter’s world. Via Peter and Wendy, we find numerous dark surprises. Peter kills off Lost Boys as they grow too old for his taste. The Redskins are naked save for a decoration of scalps, some belonging to the Pirates, some belonging to Lost Boys, and their chief is so thoroughly overburdened with such decorations that he has difficulty sneaking. Tinker Bell conspires to have Wendy assassinated by a Lost Boy (with an arrow to the chest) and is successful until it is revealed that a bare chance caused the arrow to glance from her heart. Tinker Bell is portrayed as a bit of the sexpot, endowed with a generous bosom and wearing a scant leaf as a dress in order to best show off her figure. The faeries are a randy bunch and given to orgies. Peter has a fondness for meting out mortal violence. Barrie recounts that Peter will come home with stories of great adventures—only in the light of day no body can be found; at other times he will come home with no story at all—yet come daylight, we find a corpse in plain sight. Hook routinely murders his crew members for various slights and perceived slights. In Wendy, John, and Michael’s flight from London to Neverland, the journey is so long that Michael falls asleep and plunges from the air toward death in the waves below; Peter dives and rescues him spectacularly at the last moment, but Wendy suspects that Peter is indifferent to the saving of Michael’s life and wouldn’t have bothered save for the fact that he could look heroic doing it. Neverland drains its inhabitants of their memories and so Wendy and the boys begin to forget their former lives, but Peter, who’s been there longest, has no memory of his former life nor of many other things. Wendy continually must remind Peter of who she is. When Tinker Bell finally dies, Peter quickly forgets that she ever existed.

Had I not discovered that this was the character and realm that Loisel needed to build toward, I would not have been able to understand his work for what it is. Loisel’s Peter is not yet the Pan that Barrie would reveal to the world, but he’s on his way—and unlike Barrie, Loisel does not have any reason to hold back the grim clouds inherent in Peter’s tale. Barrie’s story is a gathering of light in a world of profane darkness; Loisel’s is the story that justifies Barrie’s requirement of light. To that end, Loisel crafts a visual narrative that capitalizes on an adult readership—and the grown-ups (parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and teachers) who take the time to investigate Loisel’s Peter Pan will find themselves at a place to better understand Barrie’s original, as well as the profound need for Barrie’s steadied voice from within that maelstrom.

While Barrie’s Peter is grounded in Edwardian England, this prequel is founded a quarter-century earlier in a Victorian London more reminiscent of the filthy streets of Dickens than the drawing-room comedies of Oscar Wilde. Loisel’s London is dirty and sinister, on the cusp of reeling under the terrible shadow of the Ripper. The city is rife with whores and pedophiles and thieves and drunks. It’s a world of foul deeds and befouled hearts. And it’s here that we first find Peter, not quite fortunate enough to be an orphan. Through six meaty chapters Loisel helps Peter divest himself of his memory, his person, his humanity—all to the end that he might become Barrie’s eternal child-monster.

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