These days Victor Hugo’s novel The Man Who Laughs (L’Homme Qui Rit) is largely remembered as the book that inspired Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane and Bill Finger to produce the character of the Joker (Gwynplaine, the hero of the story, is a man who lives with a monstrous disfigurement, his mouth perpetually contorted into a face splitting smile). Hines and Stafford have, however, seen more, have in fact spied a tale easily as relevant today as it was back in 1869 and, thanks to some ‘radical surgery’ (most authorities are agreed it isn’t Hugo’s finest novel, too many ‘repetitive details of the working of the British aristocracy’, described by literary historian George Sainsbury as ‘probably the maddest book in recognized literature’ in his History of the French Novel back in 1919), have created a graphic novel that thrums with revolutionary spirit.
Opening in 1690 as a crew of ne’er-do-wells abandon a small child and flee, their ship caught up in a terrible storm that plunges them all to the bottom of the ocean but not before they had attempted to atone for their sins, capturing the record of their crimes in a bottle before disappearing forever in the briny drink. The child, meanwhile, wanders barefoot through the cold and the snow, passed a man hanging from a gibbet, passed a woman frozen to death, a small just living child in her grip whom he rescues before finally arriving at a caravan belonging to a rather moody yet ultimately benevolent old man and his pet wolf who raises the children as if they were his own. The small family earn their keep performing small plays to poor folk in which Gwynplaine’s hideous face is the shocking denouement. The child he found becomes a beautiful blind young woman who loves Gwynplaine and is loved in turn, by both Gwynplaine and the old man Ursus (despite the fear they share for her and her weak heart).
Meanwhile, we learn of an intrigue in the Court of Queen Anne: Lord David Dirry-Moir, the son of a republican, Lord Clancharlie, who fled England upon the death of Cromwell, Dirry-Moir having done all he could to ingratiate himself with the returning King in order to prosper; his fiancée, Lady Josiana, who has a proclivity for monsters (she believes herself monstrous on the inside and wishes to engage in ‘irregularities’ with someone monstrous on the outside); and her ‘creature’ Barkilphedro, who has something of the Varys about him. Dirry-Moir likes to dress up, Harun al-Raschid-like, to move among common folk and it is while he is engaged in one such charade that he spies Gwynplaine and hurries to tell Josiana that he has found what she desires most in the world. Meanwhile Barkilphedro has chanced upon a crew member who didn’t perish when the ship went down at the start of the book and has discovered that Gwynplaine is in fact the bastard son of Clancharlie and is due the title, riches and engagement to Josiana his new position entitles him.
However, and it is here that The Man Who Laughs truly comes into its own, Gwynplaine’s character has been forged in poverty and, as he addresses Parliament for the first time (during a vote to try and decide whether someone who already has pots of cash warrants more), he provokes outrage by speaking up on behalf of the common man. ‘You take from worker to enrich the idle,’ Gwynplaine yells. ‘Take from the tattered to give to those who are clothes in finery, take from the beggar to give to the prince.’ His political colleagues ask ‘what is that monster doing here?’ As in Orwell’s great novels of social justice, you know it cannot end well for those who champion others above themselves and so it proves to be the case.
Self-Made Hero’s penchant for adapting literature in graphic form has never been bettered and, indeed, it is better to save a relatively obscure classic (even a classic warranting that aforementioned radical surgery) than present us with something we have already seen done a thousand times. Stafford and Hines are a terrific double act, Stafford’s art beautifully observed (his Southwark Jail is an intricate marvel), always erring just the right side of satire and caricature, while Hines’ narrative decisions make for a compelling page turner that I already know I am going to revisit in the coming weeks and months. All told, a splendid addition to the Self Made Hero back catalogue and a highly recommended read.
Any Cop?: Perfectly time to coincide with the DVD issue of Les Mis (a musical beloved by the kinds of people Hugo himself would have gladly seen lining a wall come the revolution), this is the only Victor Hugo related art you need in your life.