Features Essays Published 14 March 2012

The Immortal Mr. Punch

“Once you bring Mr. Punch to life, theres no getting rid of him”.

Gareth Martin

The graphic novel: The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch by acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, is equally interested in how Punch affects the lives of those who “perform” him as Improbable’s contemporary staging. Told through the dark glass of childhood recolections, The Tragical Comedy… follows a young boy and a series of odd events that befal his family, mirroring the events of Punch’s downfall. From a ghostly appearance of a booth on an empty beach, to the appearance of Mr. Swatchell the Punch and Judy professor, the story is dominated by the grinnning face of Punch.

Tragical comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch. Words by Neil Gaiman, Illustration by Dave McKean

Much like Improbable’s show, violence brews below the surface, waiting to bubble up into something comic, tragic, or both. Improbable’s Harvey and Hovey may seem tired of a life as wandering showmen, but their purgatorial fate of travelling from place to place to restage the downfall of Mr. Punch also seems like the punishment for some unknown crime.The Tragical Comedy’s Professor Swatchell shares their fate, an old man touring the country, pursued by memories and old enemies. Both Improable’s and Gaiman’s portrayals of the puppeteers draw connections between the woes of these travelling performers and their task of bringing the parasitic Punch to life. This further adds to the feeling that Punch’s cycle of violence is not simply a dark cautionary tale, but a powerful mythology dealing with violent struggles and arcane mysteries.

As Gaiman notes when discussing his fraught Professor Swatchell: “Everybody dies but Mr. Punch, and only he has only the life he steals from others.”In giving Punch life, it seems, something else is taken.

Punch’s tale may be a simple one, but it acts as the perfect mirror through which to twist tales of intrigue. Its violence, remorseless anti-hero and often odd and unhappy puppeteers, have captured the imagination of many artists, leading them to, over the years, bring a richness to this nasty little puppet that stretches beyond his sideshow origins. Outside of Improbables The Devil and Mr. Punch , a Punch and Judy booth may be a rare sight in Britain, but this anti-hero has retreated to where his particular talents are most welcome, the twisted imaginings of those willing to bring him to life once more.

As Professor Swatchell so rightly says: “Once you bring Mr. Punch to life, theres no getting rid of him.”


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