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The Comical Tragedy Or Tragical Comedy Of Mr. Punch

The Comical Tragedy Or Tragical Comedy Of Mr. Punch The Comical Tragedy Or Tragical Comedy Of Mr. Punch The Comical Tragedy Or Tragical Comedy Of Mr. Punch The Comical Tragedy Or Tragical Comedy Of Mr. Punch The Comical Tragedy Or Tragical Comedy Of Mr. Punch

The Comical Tragedy Or Tragical Comedy Of Mr. Punch back

Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Well, this was worth re-reading: so many layers, so many secrets and so many lies.

As pertinent as ever, it will make you think long and hard about the tradition of Punch and Judy that presented itself as a childhood morality tale in which justice was never served. In which the philandering, maniacal, child-dropping, wife-beating, cop-killing, mass murderer escaped the noose right under our noses.

Punch slaughtered each and every one of them, and we were made to witness it all. Do you think that made us complicit?

"The path of memory is neither straight nor safe, and we travel down it at our own risk."

It is indeed a maze and a hall of mirrors, prone to distortion; but then so is the present to a child. This is a book told in retrospect as the narrator recalls a past which will become increasingly troubling as moments take on more significance and clarity to an adult mind's eye.

For as a young lad he was sent to stay with his maternal grandparents and left to wander around his grandfather's eerie, failing and virtually deserted seaside arcade which was visited by his uncle and one other. Then the boy saw more than he should; now he learns more than he wanted to.


"What baby?"
"Our baby, you wicked old man. I left it with you to mind, didn't I, boys and girls?"
"It's asleep."
"You wicked, evil Mr. Punch. It's not asleep. He killed my baby, didn't he, boys and girls?"
"Oh! You wicked storytellers!"
"You're a very naughty Mister Punch, and I'm never going to kiss you any more."

"They began to hit each other,
in an intricate bobbing dance,
the Judy puppet flew into the air
and fell, lifeless
of the

Between Neil Gaiman's quietly controlled script and Dave McKean's nightmarish puppetry (frenziedly photographed during the sequence above in which Mr. Punch's rabid eye virtually hisses with brazen psychopathy) you will perhaps begin to wonder what the fuck we were all laughing at.

There's a scene on the beach during which the boy stumbles upon a private performance of Punch and Judy so early in the morning that nobody should have been there - certainly not the puppet master. He witnesses father Punch's defenestration of his baby and is addressed directly: "Aren't any boys and girls. Only him." It's possibly the most chilling panel in the entire graphic novel.

It will resonate later on for this is a comic with carefully constructed parallels.

It's also a comic about being a child in an adult's world "to which children are denied access", full of the things which adults tell children and the ambivalence or uncertainly with which we as children receive them.

One of its delights is Gaiman's ability to recall elements of youth which were legendary to our shared generation, as demonstrated most effectively in THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE. There it was the penny or ha'penny chews; here it's the Heart ice-cream with its tangy raspberry ripple and rich coating of chocolate. In both instances it's the seemingly life-altering decision on what to spend your much-prized, meagre pocket money. Of being left alone in a car while adults did their thing. Thunderstorms. Apple-peeling. Grandparents sleeping in separate beds. Lives you could never imagine they once had before they became the only thing you perceive them to be: your Gran and Granddad.

In contrast throughout McKean skilfully and thoughtfully employs a range of media - pen, paint, modelling, photography and extra special effects - to harrowing effect. For example, there's a page in which the grandfather's mania is recalled, using grainy, outdoor photographs of a man with a Toby-jug-sized head bellowing at a woman sitting meekly in a chair by a table and lamp, closing in on the mask's wild, white-eyed fury. It's disconcerting, to say the least. Unsettling.

All of it is.

To my mind this is one of the greatest graphic novels Britain has ever produced and two decades ago it was massive. Since then it's slipped below the radar and become submerged below so much subsequent brilliance, but it needs to be refloated.

This 20th Anniversary edition comes with a brand-new gallery in the back including the witty Comics Journal cover featuring photographs of Gaiman and McKean pulling the strings of their puppet portraits; previous covers; thumbnail sketches; photographs from the film Whack! by Tim Etchels and Dave McKean inspired by the graphic novel; collage images from the inside of Mr. Punch's head, plus other designs for the never-completed nor released CD-ROM and photographs from the 'Comics Unmasked' exhibition at the British Library.

As to the printing, although the cover claims that it has been "completely re-mastered", previous reproductions have been pretty classy and all I detected was a slightly more blue hue on some pages. I wish they'd corrected the commas instead which is my only complaint: they can barely be distinguished from the full stops. What I do like is the lower case - unusual outside of Eddie Campbell back then - which gives a diary and so confessional air to the proceedings.

I'll leave you will this which surprised and alarmed me, though I don't know why I was surprised. Please bear in mind that amongst Mr. Punch's many audacities and "accomplishments" was that he also slew the Devil.

"I thought I saw the Punch and Judy man a year ago last May, in a churchyard in Covent Garden. They celebrate Mister Punch's birthday there, and Punch and Judy professors come from all over the country to tell his story. The church even invites Mister Punch into the pulpit to read the lesson, in his squeaky, secret voice. I wonder what the Devil thinks of the arrangement - but I am sure he has spoken from the pulpit or the lectern in his time, also."