Today sees the release of Mark Stafford and David Hine’s much-anticipated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.
Less well-known – and read – than Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris, The Man Who Laughs follows the story of Gwynplaine, the two-year-old heir to a rebel lord, who is abducted upon the orders of a vindictive monarch, who has him mutilated (to produce a permanent, grisly smile), then abandoned.
Hugo’s novel is an impassioned, outrageous and bizarre book. As David Hine writes in his afterword to the adaptation, it is also the inspiration behind The Joker in Batman, and has ‘left an indelible mark upon modern popular culture’. In this superb graphic adaptation, The Man Who Laughs has found an ideal new form.
Here’s what David Hine has to say about adapting the book:
When Heath Ledger’s Joker says “Let’s put a smile on that face” in the movie The Dark Knight it’s a twisted version of Victor Hugo’s Gwynplaine who is speaking. In 1940, when Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane and Bill Finger were working on the first issue of the Batman comic, they saw a poster featuring Conrad Veidt in the 1928 movie of The Man Who Laughs and that image inspired them to create the Joker as Batman’s nemesis. In 2011, I wrote an issue of Batman and Robin for DC Comics featuring a crazy Frenchman who mutilates his own son in a perverted homage to Victor Hugo.
The story was a tip of the hat to the man who inspired the Clown Prince of Crime, but like most people outside of France, I hadn’t actually read L’Homme Qui Rit. It is nowhere near as popular as Les Misérables or Notre-Dame de Paris. When I finally managed to track down a copy of the book I soon realised why. Written in the latter part of Hugo’s career, when he was living in exile in the Channel Islands, it is rambling and crammed with repetitive details of the workings of the British aristocracy and political system. But as I struggled through the more turgid passages I became entranced by the story that lay at the heart of the book – a story of love and humanity and the struggle against the workings of fate and a corrupt society. I found myself visualizing episodes and imagining them as scenes in a comic book: the Comprachicos sinking beneath the waves as they beg forgiveness for their sins, Gwynplaine struggling through the snow with the baby Dea in his arms, the first glimpse of his mutilated features, the fearful depths of Southwark Jail, the gothic maze of Gwynplaine’s own castle.
There aren’t many artists who could capture the grotesque aspects of the story and also convey the humanity of the characters and the black humour and irony of Hugo’s prose. I worked with Mark Stafford once before on a story for SelfMadeHero’s Lovecraft Anthology: Volume I and I knew he was the perfect artist to draw this book. I just had to convince him to spend a year adapting a long and near-unreadable 19th-century tome into a gripping graphic novel for a 21st-century audience. Miraculously, Mark became as enthusiastic as I was and I couldn’t be happier with our collaboration.
This passage is an extract from David Hine’s afterword to The Man Who Laughs, which is available now.