The Man Who Laughs: grotesque Victor Hugo potboiler was the basis for The Joker

The Man Who Laughs is a graphic novel adaptation of a 1869 Victor Hugo novel that is chiefly remembered for inspiring a 1928 film whose poster-art, in turn, inspired the character of the Joker.

As legions of disappointed Batman fans have discovered, the Victor Hugo novel is just not very good. It's one of Hugo's later works, written from exile in the Channel Islands, and it's a meandering political treatise grafted onto a novel. But there is a novel in there, buried amongst the self-indulgence and sloppiness, and it's this that author David Hine and illustrator Mark Stafford have teased out to make an absolutely stunning and grotesque new work.

The titular Man of Laughs is Gwynplaine, a horribly deformed boy who rescues a blind baby from her frozen mother's breast and then rescued by a traveling doctor who takes them both in and turns them into performers. They tour the countryside, and Gwynplaine and his blind adopted sister Dea fall in love, even as their mountebank father, Ursus, teaches them about the injustices of the English monarchy and shows them the relationship between the dire poverty around them and the fatted lords and ladies in London.

Gwynplaine's destiny becomes further entangled with the English aristocracy when he is discovered to be a long-lost nobleman himself, and is inducted into the House of Lords, where he makes impassioned, revolutionary speeches that fall on deaf ears -- and is forced to confront that all the riches he's gained have cost him his family and his love.

This adaptation is remarkably streamlined and razor-sharp, flensed of Hugo's excess by Hine's pen; the accompanying grotesque illustrations by Stafford hit the perfect mix of horror and sorrow. The Man Who Laughs is out in the UK now, from the great press Self Made Hero, and will be out in the USA on Oct 1.

The Man Who Laughs


  1. Nice penultimate sentence. Good parallelism or whatever it is that makes sentences good. And, of course, “flensed”.

  2. I’m not sure legions of Batman fans can complain about a “meandering political treatise grafted onto a novel”. *cough* Frank Miller *cough*

  3. Not that good? It’s one of my favorite Hugo novels. Dark, macabre stuff that makes Clive Barker and Stephen King look like they write nursery rhymes. “It’s a political treatise grafted onto a novel”–aren’t you guilty of the same, Cory? And is this really a bad thing? All of Hugo’s novels include deep political musings, many of which helped set the stage for a modern socialist France. Another later work written in exile on the Channel Islands is Les Miserables. Again, dense and meandering, but also a masterpiece and far more political and radical than the musical suggests.

    1. I’ve never found a good translation of “L’homme qui rit” — maybe that’s what Cory’s holding against it. Victor Hugo expresses his heartfelt  convictions in such inspiring prose that I can happily take his 50-100 page meanderings.

      Incidentally, Victor Hugo’s works are enjoying a new surge of popularity in France, thanks to his timeless call for social justice.

  4. Somebody told me once that they had a hard time telling what constituted “great acting” in a silent film, since the style is so strange and dated to us today. I recommended that they watch “The Man Who Laughs”.

  5.  I agree with Cosmoe. I think that “The Man Who Laughs” is one of Hugo’s best novels. I’d rank it above “Notre Dame de Paris” (a.k.a “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”). And Cosmoe is also right that all of Hugo’s novels have a social or political meaning. Hugo wasn’t just a novelist. He was also an intellectual agitator, using his literary talents to advocate for the causes he was championing. One can’t really hold that against “The Man Who Laughs” without also holding it against his better known works like “Les Miserables” and “Notre Dame de Paris”.

  6. I’ll join the defenders of the book, which I liked enough to read more than once, though not as many times as Notre-Dame de Paris.

    Hugo, obviously, has two modes: full-on plot, and master of minutiae. His stories (shown so well in ‘Hunchback’) build for maximum emotion, with mistaken identities, tragic coincidences, and other page-turning plot devices. On the other hand, he likes to get into long explanations and scene setting (I haven’t gotten out of this part of Toilers of the Sea yet), and these can be the best part as well. Both parts are the best part, for me, when I’m in them.

    I don’t think abridgement serves Hugo well (though I’ll always stand up for the “Classics Illustrated” version of ‘Hunchback,’ with George Evans’s superb post-EC artwork). After my second reading, I realized that I was reading an abridgement, and found a longer translation. I even found out later that this one was a little bit short of a faithful rendition of the original, and found a better one.

    But always, if you’re going to read Hugo, remember that the irony knob is set to 11. It’s like opera.

  7. I have to correct The Joker connection. This confused me for years too, because this has been repeated so often, and it seems like such a logical surmise. But here are the actual facts. Bob Kane claimed The Joker was based on this movie. Jerry Robinson, who actually created The Joker said he just based the character on the joker in a pack of cards.

  8. Yeah I’m going to have to agree that L’homme qui rit is Hugo at his best!  The whole “OMG I’m so heartbroken I have to KILL MYSELF” thing is annoying.. but it that’s romanticism for ya. 

  9. Sounds like the way William Goldman condensed and edited S. Morgenstern’s political satire The Princess Bride into something more readable by taking out the satirical political parts that go too far into minutia.

  10. “The Man Who Laughs” is also referenced in James Ellroy’s “Black Dahlia>”

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