To me, the core Neil Gaiman stories are about young people, encountering things they don’t understand. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” Violent Cases. Coraline, something of an edge case – since the core set of stories are all about a young person like Gaiman.
And, of course, Mr. Punch .
I don’t want to speculate how much of this story is “true.” That’s the wrong question anyway: the truth of a story is the story-ness of it, and this is a great story, told beautifully by Gaiman’s words and Dave McKean’s art. (I wish they had worked together more: they are each other’s best collaborators.)
It’s a graphic novel about a young British boy, about fifty years ago, remembered by that boy as a man, about twenty-five years later. So it’s now as far back in time itself as the events it depicted were when it was published: this is a 1995 book about things that happened in the late ’60s. The boy is Gaiman. Or he is not. Or, more accurately, that again is not the right question.
It’s the story of how the boy learned about Punch and Judy shows, about his grandfather’s failing seaside business, about family stories. Like all stories about childhood, it’s about memory most of all: what is remembered, how it’s remembered, what looms larger looking back than it did at the time. It is an intensely told story, constructed carefully by Gaiman even as it seems to be narrated off-the-cuff by the man in the story who is and is not Gaiman.
And, most of all, it’s about the questions of childhood: the things you asked at the time, the things you wish you’d asked at the time, the things you know you never would have gotten a straight answer about, and the things you didn’t even think could be questions until much much later.
Punch and Judy shows are alien to Americans: they don’t exist here. I don’t know if they exist in Britain, these days: I get the sense the boy in this book was from the last generation to see that kind of puppet theatre all over the place. So this might be entirely a dispatch from a foreign country: for all of us, everywhere.
That’s entirely right, though: that was the point and purpose of Mr. Punch. It was always a dispatch from the foreign land of childhood, the land we all were born in and can never return to. And it’s just as strong and thoughtful and moving now as it was then. Mr. Punch does not change with time, as Gaiman points out. He is always the same, always there, holding strong his side of the stage, eternally on the puppeteer’s right hand.