I liked how the traditional seaside puppet play was weaved into a story about childhood and reminiscence in The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. The graphic novel seems to collage drawings and photographs, blurring reality and creating a dreamlike feel. There is, sometimes, an air of melancholy for an unrecoverable past and this is punctuated by remembered events that involve a favourite ice lolly, no longer available. As the past is relived, however, the confusion of innocence is highlighted; adults behave inconsistently and make insensible remarks. The book shows childhood as a, sometimes, frightening time.
Mr Punch shows up at various points of the story in short bursts, as if his violent nature cannot be borne for long; that he manages to kill several characters and not be punished is a strange message for a children’s seaside entertainment show, given our cultural behaviour around crime and punishment. On the other hand perhaps it’s not so strange; not all crime is punished, especially crime sanctioned by government – for example, killing people is a crime unless you’re a member of the armed forces and have been ordered to kill people labelled as “the enemy”.
Mr Punch manages to kill everyone who opposes him, including The Devil, and this is where the play ends. In Gaiman and McKean’s version, Mr Punch says, “Hooray! Hooray! The Devil is dead! Now everybody is free to do whatever they wish!” Is Mr Punch a hero or a villain? The statement reflects a truthful reality: people are not all good or all bad (if we are even good and bad at all – surely, these are concepts made up for moral purposes?).
I like the idea of using a story within a story and the dark aesthetic in Gaiman and McKean’s book works well. It feels layered in its presentation as well as in its storytelling: the photographs and drawings create a sense of texture that is often disturbing. It would be interesting to put sounds to this story.