Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean:
The Comical Tragedy
or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch:
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!