Monday, May 24, 2010

Walt Kelly's Adventures of Peter Wheat

Without further ado, The Adventures of Peter Wheat #1:

An Appreciative Afterword by OtherEric of the Digital Comic Museum, the fine fellow who has shared these scans with us:

Kelly could have been one of the great adventure strip creators if he had wanted. Peter Wheat is a wonderful, well designed and developed character. The nature of the genre and the art make it easy to think of him as a child at first, which probably helped kids identify with him. Peter is not a child, though, and he does not live in a peaceful world. Death, while never excessively graphic in the series, is always a possibility and is not shied away from, either. There is a real sense of risk and consequences in the series; even when we know that the characters are even less at risk than in normal comics, we feel the threat to them.

Kelly had the freedom to let his characters actually change and develop and he let them do so. While I need to guess at several of the missing issues, what we have shows a very detailed arc with Dragonel changing from enemy, to what the characters themselves describe as "not exactly friends" to friends. Dragonel's father, the Wizard, is in many ways a stock villain, but Dragonel herself is a fascinating antagonist. While her methods may be suspect, her goal is to protect her people from the incursion of the wheat field into the Hornet's territory. This is hardly an unworthy motive; as we'll see in later issues, she arguably has a stronger claim to the ethical high ground than Peter. Kelly never says that directly, but he at least shows the debate even more clearly in later issues. We'll even get a plot where the Hornet Knights split into two groups; one loyal to Dragonel and one to the Wizard.

Later on we get an epic storyline involving the queen of fairyland which runs, as near as I can tell from one issue and and a small scan of two pages from another issue, over 60 pages and featuring some of Kelly's most impressive work. (Go find issue #26 elsewhere online, or perhaps I can get Thom to post it here someday when we don't have other 'new' Peter Wheat material). Kelly is constantly experimenting in these issues—he does several where he's playing with scale and storytelling in fascinating ways. At least once he used a full page splash to create a contrast between Peter and a giant character. His staging is so perfect, it doesn't matter that the page is on the right or that the giant and Peter are allies; it's still a stunning piece of work when you first see it. He's always aware of where everything is—you always have a sense of where the characters and the scenery is. I could probably draw maps of any scene where it might matter; the attention to detail and sheer level of craft is amazing. Kelly was also innovating—as an example, there are several silent fight sequences. Normally Eisner or Steranko get the credit for doing that first, but here we see Kelly doing that from the beginning of the series.

Kelly also took pains to maintain his continuity between Adventures and Peter Wheat News. In issue 20 of Adventures, we see the Wheat Field crew celebrating Thanksgiving and in 21, they help Santa at Christmas. The story in 19-21 of News (19 is the only scanned Kelly issue) is very carefully set up as joining the goblins for a "Thanksgiving and Christmas party". That attention to storytelling is very rare if not unique back then.

As I said earlier, Peter Wheat is Kelly's last major Comic Book only work, the one where he brought together everything he had learned from working on them from nearly the very start. Sadly, the series always had limited distribution and is the hardest Kelly work to find. I know several hard-core Kelly collectors who had never seen the series (other than the very few reprinted issues) before scans started appearing online. Looking for Adventures is bad enough, the stories he did in Peter Wheat News are so rare that I've only even seen one of his issues for sale in over a year of looking. Thanks to the internet, we're finally getting a chance to see Kelly's epic.

Here's hoping more issues turn up or somebody with access to the stories decides to do a collected reprint. For now, just enjoy the beginning of this great Kelly series!


  1. A beautiful Story and Kelly art--thanks again for sharing--charlie

  2. charlie, I always appreciate your comments.

  3. I can actually remember this comic from my youth. It was a promotional item given out by the delivery truck drivers of Mrs. Conkling's Bakery in San Diego. I wish I had saved them - along with all those Mad comics.

  4. Thank you for that information, Anonymous. That actually gives me two minor points of information on tracking the history of the series: I've only seen one issue with the Mrs. Conkling's logo and had no idea where it was based. And it also confirms that the book was distributed by the delivery drivers; I was pretty sure that was the case but I think you're the first person who has said they remember it happening.

    Charlie: You're welcome.

  5. I love this stuff. Great find!

  6. I was one of those drivers who gave out the comic books on my bakery route.

    Those were the days.....