Earlier this year BC Books, Birlinn’s childrens imprint, released the first ‘official’ UK graphic novel of JM Barrie’s beloved book Peter Pan. The book was the work of artist Stephen White, also known as Stref, a long-time fan of Barrie’s work who, after years to trying, was finally able, with the help of colourist Fin Cramb, to create the book of his dreams.
Scots born JM Barrie originally used the character within a section of his 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird before focussing on the character in a stage play entitled Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up which premiered late in 1904. The popularity of the play lead to the Peter Pan section of The Little White Bird being published separately in 1906 as Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The novel that we now call Peter Pan was an expanded version of the play which was originally published in 1911 as Peter and Wendy.
Stephen spoke to downthetubes about his work on Peter Pan here and, in addition, was able to point out many of the references that he incorporated into his adaptation. As Barrie was born in the village of Kirriemuir north of Dundee, and would later live at Moat Brae House in Dumfries, Scots born Stephen was determined to incorporate elements of both houses and their locales into his book.
The gardens of Moat Brae House feature extensively in the book, no more so than at the beginning when we see a very young Wendy playing in the garden of the Darling’s house. Stephen used many of the trees and flowers from the Moat Brae gardens both here and in the Neverland section of the book, while the distinctive railings are also to be seen at Moat Brae. The first panel of the book includes a statue of a goat, an animal that Peter rides in the Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens book. Indeed the pose for the goat that Stephen uses is that same pose that Arthur Rackham used for the cover illustration on the first edition of that book while a little white bird, representing the original novel Peter appeared in, can be seen in the garden in a later panel.
As if to bookend the story, a goat also appears in the final panel of the book as Peter strikes a pose with Tinkerbell on a tree stump. This pose also references Kensington Gardens, except this time rather than the fictional story Stephen has combined elements of the real statue of Peter in Kensington Gardens with elements of the statue of him in Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Returning to the beginning of the story and the original novel shows its origins as a stage play by being mainly played out in the children’s nursery. To keep himself entertained, as well as his readers, through the first twenty or so pages of the graphic novel set mainly in that same room, Stephen used a lot of references both from Barrie’s life and from other author’s books.
Looking down like a benevolent uncle, that framed picture in the corner is actually Barrie himself while the toy below him is AA Milne’s Tigger, and Winnie The Pooh appears in other panels of that same corner. Indeed the eagle-eyed reader may spot Flip the Clown from Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, Herge’s Snowy from the Tintin books, and Moebius’ Arzak dotted around the nursery in various panels in this section.
The contents of the Barrie family home in Kirriemuir, now the National Trust For Scotland’s JM Barrie Birthplace Museum (seen above in a publicity shot of Stephen), also feature in the children’s nursery. The real room’s fireplace is the inspiration for the nursery’s fireplace even down to the china dogs and the candle sticks while the framed picture of the woman beside the fireplace in the graphic novel is Barrie’s mother Margaret who of course lived in the Kirriemuir house. The needlepoint ‘God Bless Our Home’ from the graphic novel is on display in the museum while, looking at the photograph, the needlepoint sampler above the real fireplace is seen on the wall near Wendy’s bed in the graphic novel.
One of the framed pictures in the children’s nursery is based on the advertising poster for the original 1904 Peter Pan stage play in London. Painted by Charles Buchel, the illustration shows Peter in the autumnal colours that the stage play portrayed him in and those are that the colours that Stephen also used for his Peter, helping to de-Disney-fy the character who the animated film chose to dress in green.
Indeed Stephen liked the stage play illustration so much that he used its pose of Peter and Wendy flying in his version of them arriving in the skies over Neverland as they face the danger of being shot at by the Long Tom gun. While Long Tom is not seen at this point in the book, when Wendy and Peter board Captain Hook’s ship later on Long Tom is revealed as the Mons Meg cannon now housed in Edinburgh Castle. The connection for this is the fact that JM Barrie attended Edinburgh University.
One of the best known facts about Peter Pan is that JM Barrie gave the copyright of what was a highly popular stage play and a best-selling book to the Great Ormond Street Hosital For Children (GOSH) in London, although it is less well known that he stipulated that they never reveal how much the donation was worth to them through the years. While that copyright has now expired, an Act of Parliament has allowed GOSH to retain certain rights to Peter Pan in perpetuity and so the they still benefit from it, and that includes this graphic novel.
Stephen gave GOSH a full splash page to itself, recreating the hospital as it was in 1904 when the play debuted and also placed three men in the bottom of the page. The two on the left hand side are Stephen’s artistic heroes Herge and Winsor McCay while on the right with his dog Luath (the inspiration for the book’s dog Nana) is JM Barrie himself.
All the above details are just part of the richness of Stephen White’s adaptation of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and yet only scratch the surface of the amount of research and effort that Stephen has put into the book.
With thanks to Stephen White for the fascinating insight into his work.
• There are more details of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan on the Birlinn website
• There are more details of Stephen White’s work on Peter Pan on his Pan by Stref Facebook page
• Stephen spoke to downthetubes about his work on Peter Pan here
• Stephen will be giving a free all ages talk about his adaptation of Peter Pan in the Family Zone of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal this coming Saturday afternoon, 17 October 2015. There are more details of this in the Family Zone section of the LICAF website.