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The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, David Hine, and Mark Stafford

review published on February 4, 2014. Reviewed by Erin Britton

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

On a bitterly cold day during the coldest English winter for a hundred years, a group of nefarious carnies abandon their young freak Gwynplaine on a desolate part of the coast before embarking on a voyage to parts unknown. These Machiavellian merrymakers don’t get to enjoy the sea air for long though as a storm batters their vessel, leaving them with only time to launch a message in a bottle detailing their multifarious sins and say a quick prayer before they are all drowned.

It seems that the unfortunate Gwynplaine will not fare much better. Mutilated at birth to be left with a permanent, grisly smile and thus to be more profitable as a sideshow act for his devious guardians, Gwynplaine stumbles through the frozen countryside searching for shelter. He finds the frozen body of a peasant woman and saves her newborn baby before himself being saved from freezing to death by Ursus, a philosopher and travelling apothecary.

Finding himself with two young charges to provide for, Ursus takes the decision to move on from the dodgy medicine business and form a group of travelling players to work that same carnival and rural showground circuit. Gwynplaine eventually takes on the leading man roles (although he has to contend with being billed as “The Man Who Laughs”) while the baby he rescued, named Dea by Ursus, grows up to be a beautiful if similarly tragic leading lady. The group meet with considerable success in provincial ventures, even if the crowds are there as much to see Gwynplaine’s famously unfortunate face as to enjoy the show, and so Ursus arranges for his troupe to take up permanent residency at a London tavern. It is in London that the truth about Gwynplaine’s origin begins to be revealed and where he faces the danger of his dreams becoming reality.

The Man Who Laughs was originally a novel by Victor Hugo and it is fitting that its story has been adapted into a graphic novel by David Hine and Mark Stafford since Gwynplaine is frequently cited as the inspiration behind The Joker in Batman. Hugo intended The Man Who Laughs to be a scathing indictment of injustice and inequality in Britain and so, in whatever form it is presented, the story is dark, frequently disturbing and all too often tragic. With their version, David Hine and Mark Stafford have stuck closely to Hugo’s original story and so have matched its tone and melancholy aesthetic.

David Hine is an incredibly experienced comic writer (he’s worked on Batman, Spider-Man, X-men and 2000AD as well as many other well regarded series) and he’s really on top form with The Man Who Laughs. His emphasis on speech rather than expositional description really assists the pace of the story and allows him to focus on the most impactful of Hugo’s chosen examples of inequality. Gwynplaine’s emotive yet tragically fruitless speech to the House of Lords is amazingly well done and highlights the impossibility of changing an inherently corrupt society.

Hine’s script is perfectly matched by Mark Stafford’s excellent artwork. Stafford has brilliantly captured the look of all of the characters – treading the fine line between horror and humour when drawing Gwynplaine must have been especially difficult – and the emotions they display are sometimes truly frightening. The bevy of corrupt, debased and abused characters that people The Man Who Laughs are all brought starkly, occasionally sickeningly, to life. Stafford’s use of colour and the apparent texture of the panels is amazing. Some of the most powerful pages of The Man Who Laughs are completely without text and so their heavy emotional impact is due entirely to Stafford’s skill as an artist.

The Man Who Laughs is a powerful, satirical expose of the evils of a corrupt society. The noble Gwynplaine is the perfect counterpart to the hideousness of the world in which he is forced to live and his ultimate aim of giving a voice to the voiceless in a country that’s not prepared to listen is wretchedly moving. The Man Who Laughs is yet another excellent graphic novel from the good folks at SelfMadeHero.

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