A noir memoir

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean:
The Comical Tragedy
or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch:
a Romance
Bloomsbury 2006 (1994)

Childhood is a dim, misty country. Facts and faces, people and places all flit in and out of the streetlight of memory, all mediated by the prism of emotion. Neil Gaiman’s Mr Punch captures that feeling exactly, through the eyes of a small boy — Neil himself — and it feels authentic because it is essentially autobiographical, and because it also has a sense of place without being being too specific.

Dave McKean’s atmospheric artwork matches young Neil’s perspective in the 70s, ferried to and around Southsea in Portsmouth to stay with grandparents and where he encounters other strange relatives and their associates. Self and space, adults and events are presented in a kaleidoscopic fashion that mirrors those confusing years when adults have control, violence may be around the corner and nothing truly makes sense, however much you try to fathom it out.

Boyhood memories link back to the inherent violence of the Punch & Judy puppet theatre, featuring as it does domestic abuse, criminal acts and premeditated murder. The acts of the traditional glove puppets are darker than the action in, say, a Tom & Jerry cartoon, and one always wonders at the play’s suitability for children, but it was long a mainstay of seaside attractions and may still occasionally feature during family summer beach holidays.

One of Neil’s grandfather’s runs a rundown seaside arcade, with slot machines, a fortune teller, a maze of mirrors, a mermaid in a tank and a menagerie of parrots. But there are dark secrets in the family history, mysteries that are too insubstantial for the boy to grasp, and whispers of this history are soon bound up with the Punch and Judy man and his macabre comedy-cum-tragedy. Punch, his battered wife Judy, the baby, the law and other puppets become inextricable from people the boy meets, their lives or roles marching in parallel with the personnel in the play.

The sombre colours and noir-ish mixed media illustrations belie one’s expectations of days spent at a seaside resort, and the fonts have been carefully created to perhaps suggest journal entries, in keeping with the style of a memoir. While the story can stand perfectly well on its own (or as a radio drama or audio book), being combined with a gallery of outline drawings, paintings and photographs (both sepia-tinged and colour) of models, puppets and seascapes adds immeasurably to its impact.

And the spookiest thing is that the puppets at times seem more real than the people. After a quarter-century this graphic novel has lost none of its power to disturb, and it does it deliciously. As somebody or other is wont to say, That’s the way to do it!

22 thoughts on “A noir memoir

    1. Hope you enjoy it, Gert! By the way, top illustration is (I think) 19th-century, the lower is of course the book’s cover, others sample pages are generally searchable online.

  1. Nice post. I agree, Mr Punch is an intimidating character. I’m not sure he was originally intended for children, and it sounds like Neil Gaiman’s book is moving it back to the adult world. I’m intrigued. I must look it up.

    1. Thanks, Cath, I’m pleased you liked this. I only hinted at the depths in this novel, depths best explored by reading it than by me giving a lot of spoilers, but I totally recognised aspects of myself in this. Not in specific details (Neil’s childhood was different from mine) but in the feeling of sailing through uncharted territory where adults and their doings are concerned, making connections where there aren’t any in reality except at some occluded psychological level.

      But when the Punch & Judy show began (the late 18th century, I seem to recall) bits of Italian commedia dell’arte went into the mix along with bits of London low-life and figures from folk plays (the crocodile originally a dragon, possibly) and popular culture (the beadle or policeman, Jack Ketch the hangman). Street kids of the time would be familiar with these but children from more sheltered environments, then and now, would most likely be confused, to put it mildly.

      When I was in an electric folk band in the 70s we did a piece of theatre called ‘The Further Adventures of Mr Punch’ with Adapted folk songs and new compositions—we knew then that the story was a tragedy that had to be played for laughs, and so it is with the puppet show.

      Anyway, I’ve gone on more than I intended, but you’ll have gathered I was quite taken with this treatment!

      1. I think the Punch & Judy characters are fascinating, and your theatrical piece must have been fun to develop as well as deliver.

        Now you tell me that the Neil Gaiman has depths I shall definitely be looking out for it. I do like fiction that works on more than one level.

        1. I thought it had depths that, when I finally looked at some Goodreads reviews, I believe had generally been missed. Gaiman, for example, refers obliquely to his Jewish heritage and the physiological stereotypes that exist around Jewishness and how the Punch figure has aspects of this. All this and other ideas subtly comingle in the text, I feel.

  2. piotrek

    Gaiman is, of course, one of the modern masters. So is McKean, I love his Sandman covers, and Folio Society published Gaiman’s American Gods with McKean’s illustrations, so they are clearly a great team.

    Unique style, rather dark but quite powerful.

    He also illustrated Dawkins’ book for kids, The Magic of Reality. It was my present for one of my nieces’ Christening 😀

    1. Haven’t got round to the Sandman graphic novels—so many issues, so much expenditure!—but I know they’re well regarded by aficionados! Mr Punch is therefore, by definition, as dark and as powerful. 🙂 I’ll also look out for the illustrated Dawkins.

  3. This looks super! I’m currently reading Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels (in the middle of book 3 of 10). They do seem pretty good so far and the artwork feels just right for the story. I think I’m going to have to add Mr Punch to my TBR pile – it does look really good! Thanks for an interesting review!

    1. You’re very welcome, as always! Not got round to any Sandman novels yet, too much else in the backlog, but Dave McKean did some or all of these too, didn’t he?

      1. I think he did the covers for them. The artists drawing the stories changed a lot – I think it was a whole team from Vertigo. I know what you mean about a backlog – my list is growing like a weed!

  4. As an American, I’ve always been fascinated by the Punch and Judy shows, and this integration of puppetry and life–I did that, too! So this book sounds like a must-read for my 2019 🙂

    1. I’d be really interested in what you’d have to say about it if you do get round to it, Jean! Punch and Judy is such a British staple, though a dying tradition I suspect, that I often wonder what outsiders think of its gruesome black humour.

      1. Thank you! I do recall a Midsomer Murders episode revolving around a family that traditionally hosted Punch and Judy shows in their community across several generations. There was something about using gossip and known scandals from about the town as banter fodder for the puppets. Is that an actual tradition? It would seem to fit with the black humor.

        1. As I understand it, there are age-old scripts that traditional ‘professors’ or puppeteers use, but there are also others who are happy to bring in more contemporary references or even introduce new characters.

          Whether they would retail local gossip or not I would somehow doubt but there is usually a bit of leeway for improvisation depending on the age and reactions of the audience.

          This is as I remember it, though—possibly the last time I spotted a Punch & Judy show was on a Dorset beach when our son was little, probably in the early 90s!

          The first (and only) Ben Aaronovitch fantasy that I’ve read, Rivers of London, features a rather sinister Punch & Judy man, though, I found the novel a little uneven. (Review here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-rivers)

          1. Ah, I see. Must have been a plot working for the Midsomer episode, then. This is interesting, though, that there are scripts calling back to decades past. And that they still carry on in some places! Granted, you last saw one…gulp…30 years ago (WE ARE NOT OLD) but I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue on in a few places.

            Thanks for the book review–I’ll check it out!

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