Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch: A Romance (graphic novel) written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated and designed by Dave McKean

I'm not sure what genre to assign The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch. "Realistic graphic novel"? It has a sort of faux-memoir feel.

I checked it out via ILL.


A while back, Rose posted a request on BookLikes for amusement park/theme park book recommendations, and this was one of mine. I hadn't read it in years, so I figured a reread was in order.

The title is long, so, from here on out, I'll just refer to it as Mr. Punch. The narrator of Mr. Punch is an adult recalling his childhood, in particular an extended period of time he spent with his grandfather, his father's father, before the birth of his younger sister. When he was a boy, those were just days he spent at his grandfather's arcade, hearing the mermaid sing and learning about Punch and Judy shows from Professor Swatchell. As an adult, those memories took on greater significance, because of disturbing things they revealed, or almost revealed, about the narrator's past and his family.

Although the Narrator-As-Child doesn't understand everything that's going on and isn't concerned with certain details, it's easy enough for readers to decipher the general situation. The narrator's grandfather cheated on his wife with the lady who played the mermaid at his arcade. That lady became pregnant and was convinced she was loved and would be supported. Various Punch stories and details about the show's history act as a sinister backdrop to all of this.

This graphic novel is not going to work for everyone. It's slow and reflective. The mixed media artwork is dark, shadowy, and sometimes confusing. The bulk of the text is done in a faux handwriting font, often white on black, that can be kind of annoying to read, although it fits with the artwork better than I imagine anything else would have.

One of the reasons this book works so well for me is that I can connect with it on a personal level. As far as I know, the past couple generations of my family don't have secrets that are quite as dark as the narrator's family's secrets, but they do have secrets. The messages about the way we experienced our childhoods versus the way we remember those experiences as adults resonates with me.

On a more surface level, I found the details about Punch and Judy stories and the history of the shows to be fascinating. Whether they're all true or not, I don't know, but they at least sound like they could be.

I vaguely remember attending a few shows when I was a kid in Germany, although I don't recall them being nearly as creepy-looking as the ones in this book. I used to own a set of hand-puppets, cheap rubber and cloth things, of all the basic characters. My favorite was the crocodile, so I got a kick out of the bit in the book that was specifically about that character.

  • Cages (graphic novel) by Dave McKean - Okay, so this is kind of cheating, since Dave McKean also illustrated Mr. Punch, but it feels less like cheating than listing a bunch of works by Neil Gaiman would. I first read this while in grad school. I remember it being enormous, textbook-sized. Those who'd like to see more of McKean's artwork might want to check it out. Story-wise, I can't remember much about it, but descriptions make it sound like it's about the intersecting lives of a writer, artist, and musician living in the same building. It also sounds like a philosophical look at art and creativity.
  • Der Struwwelpeter (book) by Heinrich Hoffmann - I've linked to an English translation of the work, and I believe it can be found for free online as well. Those who'd like something else that fits the "childhood is creepy and terrifying" theme may want to give this book a try. I highly recommend an edition featuring the original illustrations, which played a part in my childhood nightmares.
  • Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (graphic novel memoir) by Alison Bechdel - I haven't read this, but it sounds like it might be a good fit for those who enjoyed the memoir-like feel of Mr. Punch.

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