THE first ever graphic novel of JM Barrie’s boy who never grew up spearheads the launch of a list of children’s titles by publisher Birlinn.
In a garret flat high above Gorgie in Edinburgh, Stephen White is putting the finishing touches to the biggest project of his life. Six years after he started work on it, he’s finally getting round to typing JM Barrie’s words into the panels he laid out while drawing the first ever graphic novel of Peter Pan. It’s hardly as if Barrie’s story of the boy who never grew up has faded from our culture. Right now, you could be booking tickets on Broadway to catch Kelsey Grammer’s Hook and singing Gary Barlow’s lyrics in Finding Neverland, while in October Hugh Jackman will be playing Hook’s piratical mentor Blackbeard in the £100 million “prequel” blockbuster Pan.
Yet White’s graphic novel comes at a time of renewed emphasis on Peter Pan’s Scottish roots – which underscores the £5.5 million project to establish Moat Brae House in Dumfries as “the birthplace of Peter Pan” and a new centre for children’s literature. For all the importance of Barrie’s notoriously close friendship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys in Kensington, it was the depth of his own experience of childhood in the games he played at the gardens of his Dumfries schoolfriend’s house of Moat Brae beside the River Nith – Nitherland? – that provided the deeper inspiration on which he drew. In a speech he made when revisiting his alma mater, Dumfries Academy, in 1924, Barrie couldn’t have made it any clearer: “When the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”
That link is central not only to White’s graphic novel but even more to another children’s book, Sixteen String Jack, by poet Tom Pow and artist Ian Andrew. Both books, published next week, spearhead the launch of a major list of children’s titles by leading Scottish publisher Birlinn.
For White – who works as a freelance artist for DC Thomson, drawing Oor Wullie and The Broons in some of their many incarnations outside the Sunday Post strip – the first graphic novel of Peter Pan also offers opportunities for “de-Disneyfication” of Barrie’s classic tale. “A lot of people think they know the story,” White says, “but there’s so much more under the surface of Peter Pan that they’re often not aware of – that Neverland is also so dark and full of death.”
The challenge, he says, was to hint at that darker side while also keeping the charm of the Edwardian original. “At first, I drew it in a brasher, more modern style, but I scrapped that in favour of making it as authentic and as true to JM Barrie’s life as I possibly could. That’s why – until we get to Neverland at least – there are what I call ‘Easter eggs’ on every page: so the railings in the garden are the railings at Moat Brae, the trees in the garden are the actual trees there, the Moat Brae house itself is the doll’s house in the Darlings’ nursery, one of the paintings on its wall is the famous painting of Peter and Wendy flying from the original 1904 production, and so on.”
Both of the new Birlinn books are testament to the powerful hold of Peter Pan on children’s imagination. For White, seeing a panto version of the play at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre is the very first memory he has, seared there perhaps by the fact that just as Peter Pan was about to make his appearance, the theatre had to be evacuated because of a fire alarm. That only seemed to have deepened his childhood obsession with Peter Pan: so convinced was he that he could fly, his mother had to put bars on the windows of their house. “That happened back in 1904 too,” he points out. “So many children were injuring themselves trying to fly that Barrie had to add that children could only do this after they’d been sprinkled with magic fairy dust.”
Once he had discovered, to his delight, that nobody had ever asked Great Ormond Street Hospital – which still holds the UK copyright Barrie granted them to Peter Pan – for rights to do a graphic novel, and once he had latched on to a more innocent, authentic and charming style in which to draw it, White set about the task like a man possessed. From June till December last year, he drew a double page spread almost every other day. He’d fill them with the kind of detail Disney never dreamed of – a Neverland like an island newly risen from the sea, with lagoons like a sunken rose, the lost boys’ underground home almost choked with tree roots, or Hook’s cabin with a tiny picture of Eton on it (Barrie was explicit about the most frightening figure in children’s literature being an old Etonian).
“The hardest thing was staying in the nursery for the first 20 pages. That’s fine in a play, where you don’t want to have too many changes of scene, but in a graphic novel you can’t wait for the children to fly out of the window and begin their adventure. Yet you’ve got so much character to get right too, and you don’t want to lose any of the book’s whimsical loveliness.”
It’s typical of White’s close attention to detail that when the Darling children fly out of their nursery, it’s at the exact place in the wall where, in a previous page, there had been a tiny portrait of Barrie. “Windows in Peter Pan are like doors in the imagination,” he says. “Maybe that’s why, all the time I was drawing the book, I kept my own window open. Or maybe I was just getting a bit like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.”
Sixteen String Jack, drawn by Ian Andrew, is no less beautiful a book. Tom Pow’s story takes its title from a nickname Barrie’s Dumfries schoolfriend gave him as they played in his garden: his friend would be Dare-Devil Dick, but Barrie would play the part of the historical highwayman Sixteen-String Jack.
“The idea behind the book came to me at the public meeting in 2011 when Joanna Lumley launched the Moat Brae appeal,” Pow says. “One of the people in the audience was the grandson of the boy who had played with Barrie at Moat Brae and given him that nickname. And I realised that it all really wasn’t so long ago, well within the span of a grandmother telling her grandchild about her own childhood.”
From this, Pow – a former English teacher at Dumfries Academy – has devised a charming story that lives up to the strapline on the title page “Where Peter Pan began”. And there’s one last link between Birlinn’s two books that illustrates the enduring pull of Barrie’s magically haunting tale. Watching Peter Pan was Stephen White’s first memory. And having watched a video (in French, while his father was on a year’s exchange visit in Canada in 1992) and wanting to see it over and over again “Peter Pan French” were the first words that Pow’s son Cameron, then 18 months old, ever spoke. n
• Launched next week: JM Barrie’s Peter Pan: The Graphic Novel, by Stephen White, coloured by Fin Cramb, £12.99; Sixteen String Jack And The Garden Of Adventure, by Tom Pow, illustrated by Ian Andrew, £9.99; Silver Skin, by Joan Lennon, £7.99 (YA novel skilfully mixing science and supernatural as time-traveller from future arrives in Neolithic Skara Brae); The Secret Dog, by Joe Friedman, £6.99 (11-year-old boy finds Border collie pup left to drown and raises it without telling his uncle on whose Skye farm he is living)
• Launched in July: Precious And The Zebra Necklace, by Alexander McCall Smith, £9.99 (latest in series about Precious Ramotswe’s childhood in which she helps to find a friend’s missing parents); Tig And Tag, by Benedict Blathwayt , £6.99 (picture-book story of two hand-reared lambs)