Monday, 18 July 2016

Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs Review (David Hine, Mark Stafford)


1690. A frozen wasteland. A departing ship of vagabonds leaving a child behind to die, the boy’s face hidden. A terrible storm that sinks the ship and all its crew leaving behind a message in a bottle - a message of a terrible injustice. A hanging corpse. A frozen mother in the snow, her baby still alive somehow. A kind man and his wolf bringing in the boy and the baby into their caravan – a new family formed. What an opening chapter! 

I’ve never read Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs before - all I know is that the 1928 movie adaptation with Conrad Veidt as the lead inspired the creation of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker - but it’s a helluva story! The visual of Gwynplaine, a man whose face is permanently fixed into a rictus grin, is extraordinarily striking and horrifying, belying his kind nature and making people’s treatment of him all the more cruel. What an inspired choice by Hugo though. 

In his afterword, David Hine talks about the original novel which he describes as “rambling”, “repetitive” and “turgid”, where he’s basically taken a knife to the text and stripped it down to its story elements, rearranging it to flow better narratively. I’ve read enough classics to know that they often have a great story and characters but are hopelessly lost within outdated writing, importunate details and sluggish pacing, so I’m glad Hine did what he needed to get rid of the tedious chapters on 18th century British law and give us this sweeping graphic adaptation instead. And only a couple of new scenes were added by the creative team, so credit to Hugo for his flawed but compelling original story. 

In Hine’s hands, the story moves quickly from the countryside to London where intrigue and gossip lead to other melodramatic changes. And it is a melodramatic story with a sentimental romance and a reveal that’s been done over and over through the centuries - but it works. It doesn’t feel hackneyed at all and the book is utterly compelling with its twists and turns, and, even though Hugo wore his republican heart on his sleeve, Gwynplaine’s idealistic speech against the selfish rich leeching off of the poor is still pertinent today. 

Mark Stafford’s artwork is a revelation. It’s a little bit pseudo-cubist in style with its angles and it’s a little cartoonish too – it’s difficult to describe though it’s really wonderful. The colours are striking, the pages are well laid-out, and the lettering is beautiful. Stafford’s art provides the perfect look for this strange, warped fairy tale and it’s an art style I can’t say I’ve ever seen before but I love it! 

You know when you’ve got things to do but you have a few minutes spare so you think you’ll pick up a book and read a few pages before getting on with the other stuff? That was me when I opened this up and I ending up reading it straight through in a single sitting instead. It’s a fantastic adaptation of a brilliant, little known classic. 

Let’s put a smile on that face - check out The Man Who Laughs!

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