The Wendy Project, written by Melissa Jane Osbourne and illustrated by Veronica Fish, is a dense and chewy (both emotionally and visually) retelling of J. M. Barrie’s classic tale, Peter Pan. Throughout the graphic novel, Osbourne makes changes—in the form of making corrections—to several famous Barrie quotes, including the one that the novel opens with. She scribbles out “die” in the quote “To die will be an awfully big adventure,” and corrects it to “To live will be an awfully big adventure.”
And that’s really the theme of this whole thing—that maybe there are times when growing up, though difficult, is the right choice.
The story begins with Wendy waking up in the hospital after a car accident. She had been driving, with her two brothers in the back seat. The police tell her that Michael (her youngest brother) died in the accident, but she says she saw him fly away into the sky. They think that maybe she’s unable to cope with the responsibility of her brother’s death, to which she counters that no body has been found.
Whether or not Wendy is right is a big source of tension throughout the story. Are the things she sees in color—in her otherwise black-and-white world—significant? Are they pointing to a fantastical reality where Michael escaped to Neverland? Or, is she experiencing a mental breakdown?
The answers to all of these questions seem to be yes, and I kind of like that. The Wendy Project doesn’t shy away from complexities. The truth of the situation is both metaphorical and real in a way that makes emotional sense.
However, I expect that this story would be best appreciated if you have more than a passing familiarity with the original novel—which I don’t. My parents may have read Peter and Wendy to me when I was small, but I retained nothing (except what was reintroduced by Disney’s animated version). In the graphic novel, Wendy’s quest to preserve her brother Michael in her mind becomes more haunting if you know that when J. M. Barrie created the character of Peter Pan, he based him on his own brother, who had died in an ice-skating accident the day before his 14th birthday.
Similarly, I didn’t recognize the character Tootles as being one of the Lost Boys in the original novel, although Osbourne tries to give us hints about these re-envisioned characters. When we meet Jenny Wren (the Tinkerbell analog), Wendy narrates that “Girls are like fairies. They can only feel one emotion at a time.”
The good news is that you can be completely ignorant of the original tale and still appreciate this graphic novel. Fish’s art certainly helps; and I really like the way that all of the Peter Pan elements are done in color, reflection, or through the use of the detached shadow’s presence.
Since I think Osbourne and Fish would appreciate it, I will say, in the corrective style of The Wendy Project, “How clever
I they am are!—Oh, the cleverness of me them!”