Violent Cases and Mr Punch


Donny shows he’s in love with Dave McKean by reviewing two more of his comics.

Violent Cases 1

Violent Cases (1987)
The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994)
Neil Gaiman (story)
Dave McKean (art)

Violent Cases (like Gaiman’s Sandman) is a story about stories… and its themes of childhood’s imperfect perceptions, the unreliability of memory, and how horrible adults can be to children are all revisited in Mr. Punch (as well as Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane). In Violent Cases, a narrator (who is physically modeled after Neil Gaiman) sits and smokes and tells us about the time when he was a kid and, after his dad accidentally pulled his arm from its socket, he was taken to see an old osteopath who used to work for Al Capone and began to tell the boy some inappropriate stories about ol’ Scarface.

Violent Cases was the first collaboration of Gaiman and McKean. Gaiman was working as a journalist and had published one book (about Duran Duran). McKean was finishing art school. They were offered a chance to collaborate on a five page story for Eclipse… and they came back with a 44 pages which McKean had adapted from an unpublished prose story Gaiman had written for a writers’ workshop. In this first book, they wear their influences very openly. For Gaiman it’s Alan Moore, and for McKean it’s Bill Sienkiewicz (especially the 1982 story “Hit It” from Moon Knight #25). However, the work shows the promise of two, young geniuses.

In the wake of 1986’s Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus, there was an abundance of “Comics have grown up!” euphoria going around, and, according to Gaiman, Violent Cases was a deliberate attempt to “show the world what comics could do.” Gaiman and McKean were both primarily interested in finding a way, in comics, to show intimate, subtle emotions rather than the big, physical action and “over acting” which comics were known for.

The unreliable narrator of the book didn’t understand what was happening at the time (a mob hit). As the narrator tries to make sense of a memory he forces it into a narrative… which probably isn’t even true (Was this really a mob hit?). The title gives away the theme: it’s about a child misunderstanding something. He is told about gangsters carrying guns in violin cases – which he misunderstands as “violent cases.” How much of the story that he tells us did he misunderstand or misremember? Was his dad more (or less) abusive than he tells us?

The story (which is far from Gaiman’s best – remember this is very early Neil) is simple, yet kind of disturbing. The art is just fantastic! McKean’s smudgy, sketchy art feels like an authentic depiction of memory. Perspective and scale are all out-of-whack. (I know that when I think of my childhood home, in my mind, it seems huge – in reality it was a small, two-bedroom ranch house.) But some memories (and drawings) are more clear and distinct than others. My favorite line: “He looked like Humphrey Bogart’s partner in The Maltese Falcon. Although for a moment just now I found it hard to remember if we ever saw Bogart’s partner…” Writing and art come together perfectly during the climax: the spectacular sequence which intercuts some kids playing musical chairs with a gangland murder.

Violent Cases 2

Violent Cases explored violence in American culture. Mr. Punch crosses the Atlantic to give us some childhood violence from the European tradition. Mr. Punch was part of DC’s launching their Vertigo line of grown-up comics for “mature readers.” It came out during my sophomore year of college, and it was actually the first book by Gaiman and/or McKean I discovered, and my first Vertigo book. I found it, not in a comic shop, but in a big box bookstore – Borders, I think. I remember seeing it in the bookstore and being fascinated by the art… but not buying it… but going back again and again, pulling it off the shelf, and looking again at the art… before finally laying down my $15.

Much like Violent Cases, it involves a narrator telling a story about his childhood. “I lived in a land of giants in those days. All children do.” The unseen adult narrator recalls his childhood visits with his grandparents, how his grandfather went mad, domestic abuse, a hunchback uncle (perhaps deformed from when, as a baby, he was thrown down stairs or out a window or something), the betrayal of a child by adults, an unwanted pregnancy… and apparently the murder of an unborn baby.

While the narrator of Violent Cases was just unreliable, the narrator in Mr. Punch seems emotionally disturbed and a bit creepy. Again, the unreliability of memory is one theme. The eerie narrator warns us: “The path of memory is neither straight nor safe and we wander down it at our own risk.” It was interesting that, while re-reading these two books for this review, I have also been listening to the This American Life produced podcast Serial. Season one of Serial, which is the true-life story of a journalist investigating a 15 year-old murder, is also very much about how slippery and unreliable memory (and thus reality) is. We all think we know what happened to us when we were 6 or 8 or 17 – or even a few months ago – but we’re all often very wrong – even about major things. And that’s kind of disturbing… Now I’m thinking of the philosopher Bishop Berkley who argued that there must be a God because an all-seeing, perfect consciousness was necessary if there’s going to be any kind of absolute, objective reality.

In this graphic novella, the narrator tells us about being eight and visiting his grandfather who owned an arcade that never made money because it was too far back from the beach. A Punch and Judy man arrives, one who knows his grandfather from their past and holds some power over him. The grown-up narrator remembering the boy he was remembers this prevailing feeling that the family was keeping some dark secret from him, and the book really builds tension as each new memory adds more creepiness and brings us closer to the secret being kept. By the end, he is brought into the world of adult secrets. He witnesses a violent act, and his grandfather, after realizing he was there, tells him, “You didn’t see anything.” We know that his innocent childhood is, effectively, at an end.

The action of the memories parallels the action of the Punch and Judy puppet play. The story of Mr. Punch is that he kills his baby, then his wife Judy and the police officer who comes to arrest him. He outwits a ghost, a crocodile and a doctor, convinces the hangman to be hanged in his place and, at the play’s end, even defeats the devil himself. In the end he cheers, “Hooray! Hooray! The Devil is dead. Now everybody is free to do whatever they wish!” The comic is also “an impressive collection of references to Punch traditions,” notes Diane Rains, “[Gaiman] had obviously done his homework” (Rains, “Mr. Punch, Neil Gaiman, and the Fantastical Gig,” 2003). According to Rains: “Neil related the tale [to me] of what inspired him to write his Punch book. It seems that as a child he had a hunchbacked uncle. The adult Neil discovered some mystery surrounding this uncle, which got him thinking about Punch and Judy.” (Gaiman also has affirmed that the opening few pages of Violent Cases are also inspired by autobiography.)

As with Violent Cases, without McKean’s strange, dream-like (or memory-like) artwork, the story wouldn’t work as well. The look is similar to Jan Svankajer’s surrealist film Faust, but I don’t know if that was a direct influence. McKean’s art is a virtuoso mix of photography, collage, sculpture, and cartooning that creates a world that can best be described as nightmarish. Hazy recollections are seen through cheesecloth gauze. Memories too painful to look at directly are seen as shadow plays on the wall. A crazy old man is depicted (remembered) as a guy with an oversized mask-head flailing about in a field. A powerless, little boy is a thin wire sculpture. I particularly like his fantastically expressive cartoon faces. He uses so much multi-media-manipulation and digital trickery that one might forget what a solid draftsman he is.

It’s been said that the mark of a great book (or film) is that it can be re-read (re-watched) again with equal or greater pleasure and you keep finding something new in it. That has always been true of Gaiman and McKean’s work. I’ve enjoyed their work from the start and enjoyed it more each time I look at it again.

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One Response to Violent Cases and Mr Punch

  1. stolenpens says:

    Yeah, I own Violent Cases and some other Dave McKean Books. I liked his stuff for a while back in those days. I have some Neil Gaiman books as well.
    I like your review by the way. Not only because I’m familiar with the creators and the works that you’re talking about. But, it seems like you actually have some viewpoints and opinions. You weren’t at all critical in this review. Which is logical. It’s pretty obvious that you like their work.
    I wouldn’t of used the word sculpture. I would of said puppets or puppetry. That’s what it felt like to me. More like a puppet than a sculpture.
    I’ll try and dig up that issue of Moon Knight and thanks for posting.

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