I will openly admit that I have never seen the Punch and Judy story, and I haven't got the faintest idea how it goes.
So I was a little nervous going into "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch," but it turns out that there was nothing to worry about. It's a vaguely nightmarish, jewel-toned story told like a series of serial photographs -- and rather than a retelling of the story of Punch, it's a boy's reflections on the world.
A boy and his grandfather go to the beach to fish. Eventually, the kid wanders away and finds a strange little tent neaby... only to have Punch and Judy puppets emerge and do their grisly little performance. This sets the child to thinking about the past, his ancestors and the way that young children are both intimidated by adults and filled with magical ideas.
Then his grandfather meets the puppeteer who was on the beach, an old friend who still sees the magic in the old "Punch and Judy" performances. The old man reintroduces the boy to a world of magic and wonder, and reconnects him to the past of his family.
"The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch" is a very striking story -- Gaiman weaves together stories within stories, interlocking and spiraling inward like a seashell's chambers. And though the story centers on a young, rather disillusioned boy who is watching the older generations fade, even as he looks on his own life.
And Gaiman's writing is quietly beautiful here -- he fills the story with wooden puppets, faux mermaids, pebbled beaches, and thoughts of childhood's scary magical qualities. There are little shreds of weirdness speckling the main story, like when the boy reflects that his aunt claimed she had a tail. Of course, he had to check.
And Dave McKean's art is... weird. A little weirder than the story merits, actually -- half the time the panels are normal, and the rest of the time they look like strange surreal photographs. We have wire boys, comedy masks, rich jewel tones, puppets that look like they were snapped with a camera, and written letters running under the rough-hewn sketches. It's like having your head shoved into a beautiful, surreal junk drawer.
"The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch" has a rather deceptive title, but Neil Gaiman's dark spiderweb of a tale is well worth the reading.