The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch
The Punch and Judy puppet show is as much a part of British seaside heritage as donkey rides, sticks of rock, amusement arcades, dive-bombing seagulls, and chips and ice cream on the sea-front. But like most classic children's fairy tales its origins are shrouded in mystery, further clouded by its long history. According to a quick scout around the web, it would seem that a good handful of European countries have similar puppet traditions (albeit with different names) and it even appears to sneak as far south-east as Turkey.
Gaiman's view of the puppet show is sinister but fascinating. By documenting the occurrences of an average show - essentially a barrage of murders by an unrepentant, high-pitched psychopath - we see how the disturbing nature of folk stories are sanitised with comedy and transformed into children's stories. It's a theme that Gaiman is clearly fascinated with, as it also crops up throughout The Sandman series.
Mr Punch's horrific story is juxtaposed with Gaiman's own childhood experiences, showing how easy it is for human nature to turn as violent and cruel as Mr Punch's. It makes for an innocence-busting exploration of humanity as seen through the eyes of a young boy, cast into the uncomfortably adult world of an out-of-season British holiday resort.
McKean's artwork is an amazing mixed-media dreamscape. The puppet scenes are photographs, with detailed close-ups of the ugly paper mache models. It's a stark contrast to the cartoonish look of the real characters - an inversion that sits quietly in the background, subtly adding weight to the disturbing nature of the overall piece.
This is a haunting book of great beauty, both in the writing and the art. Its slow pace and nightmarish undertones may not appeal to all, but those who appreciate and enjoy the artistry of Gaiman and McKean's other work should endeavour to seek it out, though this will inevitably be harder in the UK where it's currently out of print.
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