Trevor Hogg chats with Kurtis Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins about transforming a literary icon into a swashbuckling World War II hero…
“My family is very musical, but I’m the only one who’s ever shown interest in creative writing,” explains Kurtis Wiebe (Green Wake) who won a Shuster Award for Outstanding Comic Book Writer in 2012. “But, we grew up with stories very much being part of our lives.” Comic books were not part of reading childhood itinerary. “Not until my mid-twenties when a friend bought me an issue of Walking Dead. I had no idea comics could be anything other than superhero stories, so it was a huge eye opener. I was never into superheroes; it never really caught my attention. The idea that you could tell any story you wanted with the medium was a huge appeal to me.” The desire to take the comic book beyond the printed page does not always impact upon publishing decisions. “It really depends on the publisher. I definitely think there’s some out there that want to be able to see the concept adapted into other mediums, but from my experience with Image, they want a strong story with top notch art. That’s the only real qualifier.” As for his favourite comic book and comic book movie, Wiebe remarks, “If the requirement is that it has to be both, I’d probably say Ghost World.”
For Tyler Jenkins, who co-created Peter Panzerfaust with Kurtis Wiebe, his family is artistic in different disciplines. “My brothers all did and do artwork of some kind and all of them are musicians. Music and art were an expected and continual part of my childhood, despite me being a God-awful musician.” The illustrator was aware of comic books peripherally. “I had a few issues of Zero Patrol from Continuity when I was a teenager that really made an impression, but I was never an avid reader or collector until art school. I got hooked on Hellboy and Mike Mignola’s art, and that was it.” Despite the cinematic success of comic book adaptations the criteria remains the same when producing a new title. “All the great movies made from comics were not adapted from comics crafted with movies in mind. They were made as excellent standalone stories. Medium is partially irrelevant. People want good stories.” When it comes to favourite comic books Jenkins lists: Winterworld, Hellboy, Lobster Johnson, I Kill Giants, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Moving Pictures, Parker, Sin City, Torpedo 1936, Hellblazer, and The Marquis; as for comic book movies he prefers 30 Days of Night (2007), Constantine (2005), and The Rocketeer (1991).
“I try to work in as many different genres as possible,” notes Kurtis Wiebe. “I want to take a genre that I’m not comfortable writing and push myself to do something good with it. I’ve done a bit of everything at this point; pulp spy action, psychological horror, romantic comedy, science fantasy and straight up fantasy. Of course, Panzerfaust is a war story, so against those other genres it’s pretty different. There’s a lot more investment in the heads of the characters because they’re young but affected by a real horrific time in history. It’s a more realistic depiction of trauma, whereas my other projects have been a bit more comical in that area.” The Image Comics series about a group of French orphans led by the swashbuckling American Peter Panzerfaust who battle the occupying Nazi forces commanded by Kapitan ‘The Hook’ Haken is not a significant creative departure for Tyler Jenkins. “Different on the surface, as in time period, art style, and plot; but similar in the focus on character development and motivation, realistic portrayal of the human condition, and story over style.” The original setting of the Vietnam War was changed to World War II. “It was a better fit for the themes in Peter Pan,” notes Wiebe. “It’s pretty well documented who the bad guys were in WWII, but if you look at the Vietnam War there’s a lot of political debate about it even to this day. Peter Pan is, in some aspects, a story of good vs. bad, and on top of that, a lot of the concepts ported much easier to the European Theatre. Interestingly enough, Tyler [Jenkins] had originally pitched the idea set in Vietnam, but we both realized it wasn’t a good fit.”
The global conflict provided a neat spin on the story about the boy who never wanted to grow up as adulthood was forced upon the children living in the devastated areas. “I can’t imagine what it was like to live in a warzone, so I instead turned to my own personal losses in life and how they changed or defined me,” explains Kurtis Wiebe. “This cast of characters have all been fundamentally affected by what they’ve seen and done, and I wanted to explore what it would mean to teenagers that, in a lot of ways, had no choice but to fight.” Tyler Jenkins admits, “In truth, I am not overly inspired by the actual facts of Peter Pan, but more the underlying meanings and themes. World War II movies, particularly, those of the 1960s and 1970s play a huge part of my inspiration: The Guns of Navarone , Kelly’s Heroes , Where Eagles Dare , The Longest Day , and A Bridge Too Far .” Jenkins remarks, “The attraction for me was the boy soldiers becoming men fighting against oppression. The effect this had on them, their beliefs, and their lives after the war. Panzerfaust is actually a thing; it is an anti-tank rocket used by the Germans to defeat allied armour.”
Different narrators recollect about the title character. “It was less about convenient chaptering of the story and more about the idea that each person who lived with Peter would remember him differently,” states Kurtis Wiebe. “I felt it brought heart to the story and allowed us to play with who Peter was. To also see the Lost Boys in their later years, looking back on what made that time both horrific and thrilling, was an aspect I felt drove home the impact of living in a time of war. I’d also been deeply moved by Band of Brothers [HBO, 2001], in particular, the real interviews with the men the show was based on. How will readers perceive him? Peter as a hero. As a brave young man who never gave up hope, and inspired the same in those who lived with him.” Tyler Jenkins concurs. “It allowed us a vehicle to comment on the legacy we leave. To accurately depict the outcomes in life based on the decisions made during times of stress and danger.” Understanding the characters on a deep level was essential in being able to compose effective narration, dialogue and exposition. “Knowing who they were before, during, and after the war,” remarks Wiebe. “Their fears and hopes. If I didn’t understand any of those aspects, none of their arcs would feel real.”
Band of Brothers by historian Stephen Ambrose was a major source of inspiration. “Probably what’s the most important piece to the puzzle that is Peter Panzerfaust; the naïve outlook on war, going in with this hero complex about saving the world, and the awful reality of death and loss,” states Kurtis Wiebe. “The terror that they felt, the helplessness, and, in many cases, and the total absence of hope; resigning themselves to death so they could manage to carry on. It’s sombre, and heart wrenching stuff.” The iconic character created by Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie was reinterpreted. “Honestly, it was mostly to capture the heart of the series, to take the pieces of Peter that made him heroic while taking away some of his complete selfishness. We’ve just allowed that latter aspect to manifest a bit differently. I always loved the scene where Tootles tells John Parsons that he saw Peter fly. That was probably the one I’d most wanted to bring to life and I’d imagine that’s why it showed up in the first issue.”
“This is a story we have developed together,” explains Tyler Jenkins. “It is a reflection of both of us, and what we are looking for. We talk, weekly, discussing what we want to say, what’s important, and where we are going. Kurtis takes our loose ideas and CRAFTS the story; he brings it to life, adds depth, nuance, and character voice.” Kurtis Wiebe who previously collaborated with his Peter Panzerfaust colleague on Snow Angel remarks, “It’s completely understood between us. There’ve been numerous times that I’ve only broken down the panel count and inserted dialog with no direction at all. Tyler reads the dialogue and completely frames the scene in a way that perfectly embodies the emotion. The interrogation scene in issue #9 between Peter and Hook is a classic example of that, I believe it was an 8-page sequence that he handled masterfully.” Jenkins does not rely entirely on digital techniques. “My method is almost entirely traditional. I use pen and ink and brush on water colour paper, some white out, and a light table for tracing out panel borders. I do use the computer for colouring and sometimes for posing vehicle reference in Sketchup.”
A stylized approach is used when illustrating Peter Panzerfaust. “It is interesting that you mention the elongated characters,” notes Tyler Jenkins. “I honestly don’t see it. I have been told it many times that the characters are thin, but that is just what comes out and looks right to me.” The Lost Boys have evolved over the course of the series. “If you will notice in the early issues of Peter Panzerfaust, the boys looked very similar. As they grew and we learned who they were, they grew up into what they look like now. In truth, there is really no way I could have designed them at the beginning. I didn’t know who they were until they had had the experiences that made them into men. Even Peter’s look changes significantly.” The portrayal of Tiger Lily is cleverly executed as she is sexy but also grounded in reality. “Ha! Thanks. I am a big fan of her too. It is not that hard actually. If you are truly into the story, and truly committed to some historical or at least a period truth, then you just create a character who fits in. You would never draw Wendy with massive cleavage: not truthful to the character or the 1930s. Tiger Lily would never wear a miniskirt, or run around in a bra…same reason.”
Tyler Jenkins explains how he reinvented various Peter Pan characters:
Peter Pan: He was an exaggeration of a 1930s look. cool. heroic. Indiana Jones. Steve McQueen (Bullitt). Just cool.
Wendy Darling: Classy, a real woman in a real world of 1930.
Captain Hook: Definitely inspired by the Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds (2009) mixed a little with the father from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
Tiger Lily: The goal was to capture a mysterious and dangerous aloofness. And to definitely capture a Native American vibe.
Crocodile: He was based entirely on Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Pompeii). I love that actor, and I love his Mr. Eko Tunde.
Helping the Peter Panzerfaust creators is an essential third member of the creative team. “Kelly Fitzpatrick is a fellow artist,” states Tyler Jenkins. “I do not tell her what colours to pick. I love her eye. So much so actually, we are working on another project together and Kelly coloured two short stories I did this year too. If I thought I could do better, I would [except covers: I am fully aware she could do better. I colour most of them for fun and so I don’t forget how!].” Jenkins remarks, “Each page, issue, and arc is a new challenge. From an art point of view, for every issue I pick on the thing that needs improving: layouts, faces, hands, or acting.” The protagonist of the tale has been a pleasant surprise. “Peter continues to live up to the high ideal I have for him in my mind; he is a role model. Kurtis and I had a talk early on about that very thing; the idea of creating a character in an old fashioned way who could show young boys how to be men, and how to rise up and meet the challenges of the world.”
“I loved the issue #9 opener of Hook’s ancestor battling during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s one of my favourite sequences in the entire series,’ states Kurtis Wiebe. “But, I’m always impressed with each new issue, so it was hard even picking one.” The biggest challenge has been staying ahead on the script. “Balancing it with Rat Queens has been a trial given how different in style and tone they are, and given I’ve got three or four more projects coming together behind the scenes; it’s a lot for me to balance.” Tyler Jenkins reveals, “I have always looked forward to The Mermaids. You’ll have to wait and see, though they have made several appearances already.” Peter Panzerfaust will be heading to the small screen. The live-action TV show is in production as we speak. Script is written. Actors attached.” As for what fans should expect from the original comic book series, Jenkins states, “We are going into the final two arcs. It is going to be a rewarding, sad, painful, magnificent and bittersweet ending. Realistic and meaningful. Tell your friends.”
Many thanks to Kurtis Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins for taking the time to be interviewed.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.