Gaiman’s Dalliance with Darknesses in Comics: “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch” and “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains”

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Myra here.

We can not possibly end our Crazy for Comics reading theme without featuring Neil Gaiman’s penchant for darknesses. While he has published a whole universe of graphic novels, I thought it would be good to share these two, once described by another reader (can’t remember really where I read this) as Sweeney Todd for young readers. However, I don’t really regard them as children’s books per se, more like unearthing of memories and piecing together fragments of the past in all its myriad complexities – in literature, full stop.

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The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch

Written By: Neil Gaiman Art by: Dave McKean
Publisher: DC Comics, 1994
Borrowed through inter-library loan.

One of the things I admire about the partnership between Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean is how they constantly push boundaries when it comes to their unfailingly-weird stories. It almost seems as if they are both trying to see how far they are able to push themselves over the edge without necessarily falling headfirst into the brink of nothingness. As I was reading this strange little tale about puppets that seemed to have acquired their own spirits, insane grandparents, and a sad little boy who takes refuge in books – I wondered where Gaiman was going here.

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As prone to digression and back stories Gaiman usually is, this one I find to be more meandering in the storyline than most of his narratives. Similar to how the sinister puppets Judy and Punch ruled the stage, with the seemingly-invincible Mr. Punch laughing in the face of Death himself,

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Gaiman and McKean allowed themselves to be ruled by a simmering stream of consciousness, permitting their nightmares to lead the way into an examination of the boundaries between false memories and experienced truths, and perhaps a desire to make sense of what it means to witness an adult unravel with heartbreak, disgrace, and staggering loss.

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For me, part of what made the story effective is how there are so many secrets, gaping holes in the narratives that gave permission to the reader to fill in with their own sordid associations and conclusions. One is simply introduced to a pregnant mermaid, a hunchback, weaknesses for women, and the seething violence that is released through puppetry that is meant to unleash monsters within:

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This is not a book for everyone. It starkly confronts the reader by visually giving life to their own ambiguous monsters reflected back at them through Mr. Punch’s evil laughter, Judy’s vacuous character, a baby thrown out the window, and a child’s nightmares.

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And amidst it all, a young boy trying to make sense of it all and finding comfort in books.

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The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds

Written By: Neil Gaiman Illustrated by: Eddie Campbell
Publisher: William Morrow: An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2014
Bought my own copy of the book.

I read this book a year ago and I remembered being haunted by it. Not so much disturbed or frightened but it’s the haunting and the overwhelming guilt that struck me as particularly salient and the painstaking patience of a man intent on vengeance.

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This story is once again a surreal blurring of myth and reality, the painful inevitability of man’s greed, and the unwavering sense of purpose of a man who believe himself to be wronged. While it may seem like an innocuous journey for gold or power or magic, this was punctuated by the strangers met along the way with their own vignettes, and the dubious guide with his own past and agenda.

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And perhaps, more importantly, there was a quiet declaration of the existence of evil, the darkness of man’s soul, and trees bearing strange fruits.

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Gaiman’s writing that skirts around the edge of that which can easily be unhinged (perhaps by a touch, a long-forgotten voice, a scent) is matched by Campbell’s searing illustrations that seemed dark even when they are light. There are visual metaphors that match Gaiman’s layering of confrontations: either with real gods that live in a cave or the metaphor for one’s own retribution given ghostly flesh.

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And at the end of it all, there are truths presented with the black mountains about everything coming with a cost, some more than others; while others come with orange hair tied to a thorn bush laced with empty promises that guarantee extinction more than life itself.


While both books dance with shadows, I find them very compelling reads. I admire Gaiman’s fearlessness as even the mere act of dripping some of this poison onto a page undoubtedly takes its toll. I hope that the birth of his book-creatures have allowed him to sleep deeply into the night. I wouldn’t want these stories just incubating in my consciousness – it needs to be written and poured out in one whole sweep.

  1. […] is that it not only contains a few stories that are already published independently (it includes The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains illustrated by Eddie Campbell and The Sleeper and the Spindle illustrated by Chris Riddell), it […]

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  2. […] there’s Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch rightly referred to as the Sweeney Todd for young […]

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  3. […] I hesitate to call this a children’s book, because it is more like a coming-of-age illustrated novella that has the same eerie tone as Gaiman’s The Truth Is A Cave in The Black Mountains. […]

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