English author Neil Gaiman (Coraline, The Sandman series) spins a beautifully intricate tale like only he can with The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch, better known simply as Mr. Punch. Originally published in 1994, Mr. Punch is narrated by a young boy who recounts childhood memories of fishing with his grandfather, visiting the old arcade to listen to a woman portraying a mermaid sing, his encounters with hunchbacked Uncle Morton and, perhaps most importantly, watching the violent puppet show featuring Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy. As the boy grows older, he realizes just how much the play intertwines with his own life and the reader is allowed a peek into a family’s dark secrets of betrayal, violence, the descent into madness, and his own loss of innocence.
The artwork of Mr. Punch is vivid and gloomy at the same time. (It made its first ever debut in color in 2014 for its 20th Anniversary release). The artwork of David McKean (Batman: Arkham Asylum) is somewhat reminiscent of a less abstract Picasso (if you can imagine that) and bone-chilling, especially when displaying the dark and somewhat mysterious Uncle Morton (who is strangely the narrator’s favorite relative) and the menacing Punch and Judy Man Mr. Swatchell (the show’s assistant). Another element of the artwork I enjoyed was the mixed media – the photographs were a nice touch and helped to further immerse you into the story.
At the age of seven, the narrator first stumbles into the yellow and red tent that houses the puppet show. He pays a penny and is both mesmerized and repulsed by the violence that takes place before him. Mr. Punch, the main character of the puppet show, kills his baby by throwing it out the window and then murders his wife, Judy. As the play progresses, Mr. Punch kills a police officer, the hangman, a crocodile, a ghost, and, finally, the devil himself.
The boy will return to see the play again and again, during different parts of his life, and we find that is a commentary on his own childhood and family. We’re also presented with questions like what causes Grandpa to go mad? How did Uncle Morton really become hunchbacked? What becomes of the mermaid?
Mr. Punch leaves you with more questions than answers, though.
The answers to these questions and more are waiting to be discovered. Namely, Mr. Punch is an elegant portrayal of one boy’s childhood that is like a treasure hunt – it’s a journey and the clues to the past are left like a trail of breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs by adults who shield children from pain, the truth, and the harsh world.
While I enjoyed the storyline overall and I would recommend it to Neil Gaiman fans and fans of the strange, I found it difficult to read at times due to the half-print/half-script font. (It was tiny and I felt too much was stuffed into a single panel). However, the story was unique, imaginative, and enjoyable. It’s tragic while still being hopeful. It holds onto the childhood belief in magic.
Though it doesn’t overtly answer the questions you may have, there is so much room for interpretation. But I am certain we can all agree on one thing: Mr. Punch still lives… in all of us.
Written by Alexa Linger