Rumination on the Echoes of Art and Life and Memory

The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch (20th Anniversary Edition)
Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Dave McKean
Nov 2015, $29.99

mr_punchThe early Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean graphic novel, The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of  Mr. Punch, is one of those pieces of work that I’d never quite got around to reading. Both Gaiman and McKean are prolific in their works, and given their large bodies of work, there will almost certainly be the odd story that slips a reader by. Mr. Punch would be one such story for me. We are, however, at the 20th Anniversary of Mr. Punch, and Bloomsbury have brought out a lovingly remastered edition to celebrate. This seems as good a time as any to acquaint oneself with the graphic novel in question.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the works of Gaiman and McKean, this is a dark story. The tale is one of family, the overlap and mismatch between what children see and what adults tell them, memories, and the ways in which art can interlock with, and perhaps add a sense of super-real boldness to the events of life, past and present. The narrative reminds me a lot of the type stories that Neil Gaiman sometimes writes that appear to be not-quite-autobiographical: some of the short stories in Smoke and Mirrors, for example, or The Ocean at the End of the Lane. By that, I mean that Neil has clearly plundered his family history and his own history for inspiration, but any actual autobiographical elements are (I suspect) so deeply hidden as to be not quite visible to the casual reader. A lot of great writers obsess over their childhoods and how they experienced the world as a child. Bradbury, for one. Steinbeck would fall into that category too, I think, and probably also Charles Dickens and Stephen King. (I note as I write this that I’ve included no women. Maybe it’s more of a male obsession? Something to think on.) Neil Gaiman clearly delves into this same obsession here.

We have a tale that captures something of what it was like to be a child in the seventies-ish era living in and about the English seaside and country. The amusement piers are there, like skeletal phantoms in the fog, the pebbly beaches, along with the mores and prohibitions on what may be discussed in the company of children and what may not. It is all very strange through a modern eye. The past is another country, as they say. One curious element of the story is the lack of very much that is preternatural. If you have someone in your life who you’d like to introduce to graphic novels (in general) or Neil Gaiman’s works (in particular), but who is also a little leery of gods and magic and suchlike, then The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of  Mr. Punch would be a good place to start. The story represents a deft interweaving of the mundane dramas of a family with just the barest hints of some uncanny things. Nothing is too thickly layered. A lot is implied. It is a very skilful work.

And of course, I cannot finish without some discussion of Dave McKean. Whereas a prose novel is conjured out of the collaboration of the author and the reader’s imagination, a graphic novel has two authors, so to speak, and Dave McKean’s clever subtleness, his movement between drawn images, found objects and specially made props, sometimes all mixed together, and the expressiveness of the whole is terribly, beautifully wonderful. The lifefulness of the puppets, especially the wild-eyed, unnerving Mr. Punch is affixing. His mad gaze looks too alive to be coming from a piece of wood and paint and lace. The puppet himself is perhaps the purest object of the supernatural in Mr. Punch. It is difficult to quite trust that Mr. Punch is inanimate.

On the whole, The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of  Mr. Punch, could just as easily be a contemporary release as a work twenty years old. Being set in the landscape of memory means that it has not aged in the way it might, and if you have not read Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mr. Punch, you are certainly in for a treat. Just be sure to put some time aside when you first crack the spine. This story has its own momentum, as good stories do. For as poor, mistreated Judy tells us:

…it’s started now, and it can’t be stopped, not even if the Devil and all his crocodiles came up from hell to stop it.



About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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