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.