The following are impressions of content, not descriptions of the content itself. Spoilers are kept to a bare minimum, so if you want to know what happens, go visit your local comic shop and get your hands on the book.
Upon finding out that Vertigo was releasing a 20th Anniversary edition of the book colloquially, and for brevity’s sake here, called Mr. Punch, I decided it was about time to re-read the Neil Gaiman–Dave McKean mind bender. I recall reading this at the urging of a friend near the end of my teen years and being utterly freaked out, not just by the surreal nature of McKean’s art, but by the script’s brilliant portrayal of the violence and fragility of childhood. Now, after reading it again more than a decade later, I can say that for me it hasn’t lost any of its intensity or relatability.
Mr. Punch follows an eight-year-old boy spending a couple of weeks banging around his grandfather’s seaside arcade in the bygone days of some unrevealed year (the 50s or 60s if I had to guess). The local Punch and Judy Man, who puts on grotesque puppet plays for children, becomes a touchstone for the boy and the puppeteer’s stage holds strange and terrifying mysteries, which subtextually explore how we view life when afflicted with the temporary, but painful, condition of pre-adolescence. His time with his grandparents is the boy’s crucible, and this story is his adult mind narrating and trying to make sense of his memories. He sees things he can’t understand. He finds that horror can be twisted to humor, and the things that make some people laugh are truly chilling, especially seen through the eyes of a child. Gaiman wrote an enjoyable script. But . . .
The real hero of this graphic novel is the art. If you are unfamiliar with him, Dave McKean loves to mix media in his art and that is on full display here. It is such a moody, evocative delight every time I lay my eyes on his work. I’m not sure if he created all of the puppets used in this book himself or found them somewhere else, but they are worthy of a special mention here as each works perfectly for its part, and each is horrifying in its own right. What McKean does with his photography and illustration is just flat out brilliant and his ability to create a sense of place and time within something as simple as a blurry photograph is incredible. Even if you buy this book just for the art, it is worth it.
I can’t help but be nostalgic when talking about this — fifteen years ago or so, while reading Mr. Punch for the first time, I recall falling back to a childish state. The memories of youthful fears crept in. The belief that impossible monsters might come and hurt you. The powerlessness of smallness. And that’s it somehow: this is a book that makes you feel small again. It is a book that reminds you that you are still a helpless child, no matter how much you’ve convinced yourself otherwise. To my mind, Gaiman has written better books, but with its phenomenal art, and because it imparts such a strong sense of its subject, Mr. Punch stands the test of time.
Steven is many things: critic, podcaster, writer, poet, windbag, charlatan. He enjoys comics and cartoons exactly as much as a grown man should.