Better known for its legacy than anything between its pages, Victor Hugo’s ghoulish fable The Man Who Laughs inspired the silver screen classic that inspired the demented rictus of the most iconic comic-book villain of all time.
Fittingly, then, this adaptation – edited for pace and impact from the somewhat leaden pace of the original prose – comes from the prolific David Hine (Strange Embrace, Spawn), who homaged the novel in a 2011 issue of Batman And Robin.
A baroque commentary set in a sort of alternate 17th Century England as imagined by Kafka in a floppy hat, disfigured, grinning outcast Gwynplaine becomes embroiled in the drama and machinations of the royal court, pulling him away from the fragile happiness of his previous life as a wandering sideshow attraction.
It’s heavy on the symbolism, full of corrupt petty officials and debased nobility that lure our hero away from the delicately poised path of true love, but Hugo’s original was even heavier.
Hine has – with utmost respect to the spirit of the text – strapped it to the water wings of a more compelling and conventional narrative, that rather sharpens to a glistening point rather than diminish the impact of Hugo’s macabre manifesto.
Stafford, who previously teamed up with Hine for the first of SelfMadeHero’s splendid Lovecraft Anthologies, reinvents each scene like one of William Hogarth’s moral tableau, creating an ugly, deformed normality that underlines the injustice of our three protagonists – the blind beauty Dea, the elderly mountebank Ursus, and mocking Gwynplaine himself – forced to grin as his life falls apart.
Given the distended reality of Hugo’s original, Stafford and Hine’s adaptation via the distorted glass of funfair hall of mirrors is perfectly apt, and their conversion of fictionalised allegory, to a full-blown romantic tragedy, a masterstroke.