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The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch: 04/26/09

The closest I've come to seeing a Punch and Judy show is a recreation of an Italian commedia dell'arte performance. Punch comes from Pulcinella who then became Punchinello and finally Punch. The show standardized in the Victorian era. In 1827 John Payne Collier published a playbook for Punch and Judy professors called The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy and claimed it was told to him from Giovanni Piccini.

It's that playbook that forms the foundation for Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's unusual graphic novel The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch. It's set in a similar failing seaside resort as MirrorMask but twenty or thirty years earlier. A grown man recounts the summer he spent with his grandparents while waiting for the birth of his sister.

His summer is punctuated by scenes from Punch and Judy and he finds disturbing parallels with the violence of the show with his own life. Meanwhile his grandfather's arcade is on its last legs and he's there for its closing. The reasons behind the arcade's closure are tied up in dark family secrets, all of which are overwhelming for a young boy and still puzzling for the man as he reminisces.

What makes the graphic novel stand out as something more than just a dark nostalgia piece is Dave McKean's illustrations. They are a collage of photography and drawings. Sometimes in the photographs the characters are wearing masks to mimic the drawings. Sometimes multiple photographs (including blurred ones) are put together to give a still frame effect of the rapid and chaotic motion often used to show possession in horror films. McKean's work mirrors the violence of the Punch and Judy and reveals the horror inside something taken as children's entertainment.

In the time since the graphic novel was first published, it has been adapted for the stage.

Comments (6)

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Comment #1: Monday, April, 27, 2009 at 09:59:14


I really enjoyed this when I read it last year. I didn't know though that it had been adapted for the stage. I reviewed it here.

Comment #2: Monday, April 27, 2009 at 21:23:41


Thanks for the link. Long book titles don't always give sensible results in Google.

Comment #3: Monday, April, 27, 2009 at 10:44:39

That's the Book!

I absolutely loved this book. The images were amazing and the story was wonderful. You can check out my review here.

Comment #4: Monday, April 27, 2009 at 21:38:33


Thanks for the link. I've added it to the list. I'm still relatively new to Dave McKean's work but I've loved everything of his I've seen or read.

Comment #5: Saturday, May, 2, 2009 at 10:11:55

Girl Detective

I first read this when it came out, and didn't care for it. I don't think I was able to "get" it then. In retrospect, and having seen and appreciated so much more of Gaiman and McKean's collaborations, I think it's one of their best works, and a good representation of their style and themes, which they lightened up (somewhat) on for books like Coraline, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, and Wolves in the Walls.

Comment #6: Saturday, May 2, 2009 at 16:01:55


I wasn't interested in graphic novels when it first came out so I've missed most of Gaiman's early work. I have since completely changed my mind on the genre and I'm playing catch up now.

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