Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch

Jasmine Johnston penned this most excellent review.

So long as we neglect [the] subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. — GK Chesterton.

When I started reading Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch, I had already entered into the story by listening to the radio play. I thought that I might gain additional insight into the family events which lurk and jump out at one in the course of the narrator’s story. What I found was exactly the same impenetrable mystery which informs the radio version.

Family violence and lost secrets are, if not the theme, then at least the motif of the graphic novel. As the story progresses, the narrator, by remembering incidents from his childhood, uncovers strange correlations between beatings and murder in the Punch and Judy puppet show, and those in his own family. Some of what he did not understand as a child becomes clear as an adult. Other things remain unclear, particularly the issue of infanticide. This is partly due to the lacunae of memory, and partly to the silencing consent of adult witnesses.

In the pictures, the adults‚ eyes are black when they are lying, or hinting at unspeakable truths.

The narrator’s family members look somewhat like the cast of Punch and Judy puppets, bug-eyed, rosy checked, beaky noses and chins. When the narrator’s grandfather goes mad, for instance, he looks first very much like Punch, red-faced and beetling; at the end of the sequence, his face is all screaming mouth, exactly like Judy’s infant thrown from the window. Does abuse wear the victim’s face, or become it? This mutable mirroring shows very clearly that memory and meaning become entangled.

I think the narrator knows this. Yet he searches anyways for moments of revelation in “short journeys into the past, remembering in miniature, constructing tiny puppet plays in our heads. . . . That’s the way to do it.” And so the theatre of the mind becomes the “dark interior way” to revelation, the perceptual paradox which is Campbell’s crux of comedy and tragedy.

Dave McKean’s images are far more than illustrations. Elements such as masks, lilies, and calipers point to universal monsters under the bed: tragedy and identity, death and memory, measurement of time and distance; dead branches of hawthorn or bay sign death or banishment of evil, or poetry. The images tell story, but they also make it: McKean’s collage-style art is every bit a part of the mystery — the paradox — which is at the heart of the tale.

In an interview McKean states: When we made Mr. Punch, my feelings about memory had changed. I don’t remember things in little fragments, I remember little pieces of film, that keep playing and playing over again. By now my earliest memories have degraded so much that they bear no relation to the real event. So that is why we started Mr. Punch with those little pieces of film.

McKean uses sepia-toneish, cubist line drawings for moments which are indisputably “real” the filmlike moments are reserved for scenes involving Punch. This dichotomy is intentionally ironic: the cubist lines indicate seeking and disorientation, while we trust photos, says McKean, as we often trust the veracity of memory. But memories are like dreams, animated by the self, the showman moving the puppets. As Byron writes:

Tis to create, and creating live
a being more intense, that we endow
with form our fancy, gaining as we give
the life we image, even as I do now.
so does the narrator.

Punch is the key. He represents violence, but he is also the nexus for other fundamentals of the human condition. He screams “Aagh! That’s the way to do it,” and the narrator echoes him (unconsciously?) in his own re-play of memory. “Atsawaytodoit!”

By “putting on” Punch, the narrator seeks insight into himself: can he wear the devil’s mask and kill him? I was frustrated and intrigued by the fact that the narrator never speaks of his adult life, really. Much is left in the dark. I find myself asking him questions, imagining what I think he might be asking himself.

I think the narrator wonders, perhaps, about how his life was formed, and where it will lead. He seeks answers he never found as a child: is this violence which wore my grandfather’s face, also my face? Is it possible, in this life I have, “lonely now and very far from home,” that I inherit this chiasmic nightmare of violence and death? Must I wonder, and fear, and die, and is it from myself that this destruction comes, or is there a greater force at work?

Whispered answers wait for him behind locked doors and inside masks:

When I was four I believed everything, and accepted everything, and was scared of nothing. Now I was eight, and I believed in what I could see and was scared of anything I couldn’t. scared of things in darkness, things invisible to see.

In many of Neil Gaiman’s works, there is an almost-encounter with the numinous. Lewis writes, “In our life, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. I think it is sometimes done — or very, very nearly done in stories.” So in Mr. Punch. The narrator meets mystery in his dreams, and in thunder. Before he falls asleep, he rejoices in the storm:There was a storm that night; lightning made the night sky flicker and flare. I watched the storm from my darkened bedroom in my grandparents‚ house, staring as the landscape outside the window appeared and vanished into blackness, fractional and colourless, like the past. I rejoiced in the dark rolling booms of the thunder, and counted the interval between the blaze and the boom, and listened to the beat of the rain on the window, and was glad that I was safe and warm.

But in his dreams, he encounters the looming nightmare puppet tent, and the horrors in it are more real than waking life:

I turned to run: but there was nothing anywhere but the darkness. No shelter, no safety. I had lost my way, and I was alone in the night. And already the crocodiles were beginning to roar. I woke in tears, to the roar of the thunder, and for one alien moment I was convinced that it was calling my name.

Far from being a pathetic fallacy, I believe Gaiman uses the thunder as an intimation of something which is real in a way that cannot be put into linear experience, but only felt at the edges of perceptual-sensual registers, like the bass of thunder. This ever-hinted at, never spoken truth is felt by the narrator, and feared, and longed for also.

The start of the graphic novel is still, a predawn quiet moment, where the narrator and his grandfather walk “together in the darkness to fish at the ocean’s edge; they bait their hooks with maggots and wait in the night.”

The end of the novel, by contrast, is demoniacal, mad movement and red light, as Punch kills the devil and says, “Hooray! Hooray! The devil is dead. Now everybody is free to do whatever they wish.” The reader is left to wonder if the devil is really dead, or if evil lives on in Punch. The slaying of the devil may indicate that Punch is the de-polarizing of good and evil, so that men and women must see the source of violence only in themselves — or it may indicate that violence, and death, persist on a far greater scale than the mere atom of gaining-as-we-give puppetry.

The graphic novel is bookended by a collage of a puppet tent. At the start, it is whole, surrounded by the lilies, crescent moon, clock without hands, scale and calipers, and the mask of tragedy. The purple curtains are almost — but not quite — closed. At the end, Punch lies on the stage, staring at the audience. The purple curtains are closed. The narrator has left, fleeing or at peace, and Punch falls, vacant. He looks dead, like the baby and all the other figures he slays. But then again, perhaps he isn’t. “Paradox is,” after all, “truth standing on its head to get attention” (Chesterton).

Perhaps that is why the play is “parallaxical” in its conclusions; the devil slain but violence and death present still, perception momentarily eternal, actions long gone still felt, reverberating down the threads of the narrative which make the life of each person. If you take the mask off — or put it on — what will come to light?

(Vertigo, 1994)

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Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

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