Adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo, written by David Hine and illustrated by Mark Stafford
SelfMadeHero certainly have a thing for a good adaptation, have done from the outset, when the company made its debut with the Manga Shakespeare line. Since then we’ve had excellent Holmes adaptations from Edginton and Culbard, Lovecraftian nightmares from Culbard solo, and flights of extravagant ridiculous fantasy in Rob Davis’ Don Quixote.
The Man Who Laughs is right up with the best of them, an classy adaptation that approaches the original text unafraid and with a willingness to take harsh action to clean up a text David Hine calls rambling and full of turgid passages.
The Man Who Laughs really does deliver an adaptation of a difficult novel, it cuts everything back, isolating the very best parts, and delivers a deceptively simple Shakespearean melodrama, part doomed love story, part simple morality tale of the nature of true inner beauty and part clever invective fueled political rant against a world of social injustice, where the rich and privileged few rule the masses with such disdain and heartless lack of care.
The Man Who Laughs is young Gwynplaine, brutally abducted and mutilated when a mere babe on the orders of a king threatened by the baby’s noble lineage, a grotesque smile etched with blood and sinew across his face. The imagery so intense and immediate that it’s no wonder a young Jerry Robinson based his Joker on Hugo’s idea. The smile is forever fixed, and Gwynplaine’s tragic fate is similarly fixed, no matter what he does. And yes, it’s another metaphor for injustice and socio-political unfairneess as Hugo mercilessly bludgeons the reader once more.
We first encounter Gwynplaine as he’s refused passage abound a ship. Lost and cold he wanders through the snow, coming upon a baby swaddled in his mother’s frozen arms, milk frozen upon her breast. This is beautiful, blind Dea, the girl, later the woman to whom Gwynplaine would find true happiness, if only he could.
But tragedy is always waiting, events set in motion from the very first pages, a letter in a bottle cast overboard from that ship that refused Gwynplaine passage, the secrets contained in that letter destined to destroy the lives of all they touch.
Taken in by kindly Ursus, quack doctor and sometime showman, Gwynplaine and Dea grow into adults, happy in their lot as they travel England as a troupe of theatrical players eventually rolling into London where all manner of coincidences and calamities will befall them all, as various strands of the tale come together.
This is a tale of riches, of Lords and Ladies, crown and republic, coming in the years following Cromwell, where the reinstated elite are cruel and blind to the struggles of their people, playing with lives to stave off boredom. One particular Lord, bastard son of a Republican peer, and his intended wife, Duchess Josiana, will prove the disastrous undoing of Gwynplaine, as they set in motion events destined to bring tragedy down on everyone.
Mark Stafford’s art wasn’t new to me, but who knew it could be turned so effectively to grotesque politics and heartfelt love story so easily? His work previously has a cartoonish bent, but here we have beauty and majesty from the outset, albeit beauty and majesty covered in dirt and shit-stained, just as any good historical adaptation should be. The first few pages, as the boy Gwynplaine struggles through the snow really stayed with me, the poor thing, trying so hard just to survive, always and forever doomed…. the image of Gwynplaine struggling onwards, snow blanketing everything…. beautiful:
The pacing of the tale is near perfect, the only problematic moments those where Hine had to deliver a huge chunk of history in a short space of time, names and dates, and relationships coming too thick and fast to work.
But it’s a minor flaw, necessary almost, and doesn’t spoil the flow of the twin threads of love and tragedy, personal and political, that leads to a final third where everything comes together, a jigsaw of devious machinations and barely considered cruelty fitting near perfectly, the finale in the House Of Lords powerful and desperate in equal measure:
The figure of Gwynplaine stood alone in the aftermath of his speech is almost too much to bear. And then the comedown, the real tragedy as Gwynplaine reunites with his adopted father and his love, that takes your heart and tears it to shreds.
The Man Who Laughs succeeds at all it attempts to be, creating a clear tale of personal love and tragedy whilst exposing the evils and injustices at the dark heart of the British legal and political system. Sadly, it’s as damning and pertinent now in this great graphic novel as it was when first written.