Friday, June 22, 2012

Recommended Reading for 6/22: Kill Shakespeare

I love the theatre. I graduated college with degrees in English Lit and Theatre Arts, focusing both in dramatic literature. My day job, so to speak, has been in the theatre since I graduated. I see plays as often as I can, which frankly isn't often enough. As you might imagine, my passions for theatre, specifically the works of William Shakespeare, and comics don't cross paths very often. Until a few years ago, it was really limited to Neil Gaiman's Sandman issues featuring Shakespeare. But then a new series was announced through IDW, and I took notice.

Kill Shakespeare is a series that takes many of the Bard's famous and infamous characters and tosses them together into a stew. If you ever wanted to see Hamlet throw down with Richard III or pal around with Falstaff, then this is the comic for you. And for someone who loves Shakespeare, it is a joy to read.

The central character of the series is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; appropriate as he is believed by many to be the greatest character in all the canon. In Act four of Hamlet, Hamlet's uncle sends him off to England, and he disappears for a bit of the play. He eventually returns and tells a story of adventure on the high sea involving pirates. It's an odd little jump that many scholars have looked at askance. But it's this particular moment that writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery use as the point that starts their story. After the pirates sink the ship Hamlet was on, he drifts on wreckage, arrives at England and is met by Richard III, king of England, and one of Shakespeare's greatest villains.

Kill Shakespeare Vol. 1

Those of you with a background in either history or theatre might be a little confused by this meeting. After all, the historical Richard III lived in the fifteenth century, while any possible historical Hamlet would have existed centuries before. But that's something you just have to shrug your shoulders at and go with it. As other characters pop up, there is a mish mash of characters from different eras and locations, and characters who are clearly dead at the end of their plays show up alive and, if not well, at least intact. But that's fun! This is the equivalent of the classic comic book debates, "Who's stronger, Superman or the Hulk?" only with characters on doublets.

I should also say here that if you have no background with Shakespeare, you should not be scared off of the series. What little background you need from the source materials, the plays, is presented in context of the series. And more than that, the great strength of Shakespeare's plays are in the richness of the characters, and the characters, while in different places and times, are all the characters from those plays presented in these new situations. The cast is diverse and enjoyable, with noble heroes, vile villains, and a fool or two who will surprise you. These are all characters you know from a million stories, but Shakespeare did them first, and arguably best.

The main plot of the story involves Hamlet, who many believe is Shadow King, travelling England in the company of different factions, all with an interest in the prophecy that says the Shadow King is the one who can find Shakespeare. Shakespeare is believed by some to be wizard of great power, and by others a god, who has a mystical quill that can alter reality. It seems like a pretty standard comic book/fantasy plot, with the young hero searching for the mentor and the mystical item, but the real pleasure of the story is in how it is told.

The tragic flaw of Hamlet as a character in the play is that he is indecisive; he can never make up his mind about what to do with his treacherous uncle. Only after his return from England in the play does he become a proactive force. Part of Kill Shakespeare is watching Hamlet grow as a character, moving from the character that makes every excuse not to act into someone who makes a choice that seals the fate of nations, and moves out of the shadow of the father who plagues his thoughts and whose ghost plagues him for the early issues of the series.


Among the other characters that form the principle cast are Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet fame, who has survived her suicide attempt and now is the leader of the Prodigal Rebellion, the force that stands against the tyrannical rule of Richard III. Juliet is a strong female character, fighting for her cause, and travels with a group of rogues and rebels. She actually reminds me of another rebel princess, when you get down to it... Juliet's two trusted advisors are other classics of Shakespeare; Othello, Moor of Venice, who seeks redemption for the crime of passion he performed at the end of his play, and Sir John Falstaff, a character of brilliant comedy who some dub Shakespeare's greatest creation, who serves as Hamlet's friend and guide in England and tries to win him to the Prodigal cause, to find Shakespeare and use his mystic quill to set the world right.

And what would the plays of Shakespeare be without villains? Shakespeare did a brilliant job of crafting villains who were sympathetic, or at least multidimensional, and two of the greatest are the central antagonists of the story here. I've already talked about Richard III, the hunchbacked king of England who hopes Hamlet will provide him with the quill to cement his rule. Working with Richard is Lady Macbeth, ruler of Scotland, who has her own nefarious plans for the quill and the land. Throughout the series, it's great fun to watch the two villains scheming both together and against each other, playing shadow games of cross and double cross.

Lady Macbeth

The third major villain of the piece is my favorite character in the entire Shakespearean canon: Iago, former ensign to Othello, who with nothing more than a glance, a handkerchief, and the words, "I like not that'" destroyed Othello's life. Iago is the consummate villain, whispering in Hamlet's ear as the demon to Falstaff's angel, setting up Hamlet to do what Iago (or maybe a figure Iago is working for) wants. Throughout the series, Iago is responsible for many twists and turns, and his seemingly constantly shifting allegiance keeps the reader guessing until the climax.

There are a ton of easter eggs for fans of Shakespeare as well. Characters that appear in cameos are from other plays in the canon, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Much Ado About Nothing. If you know the plays, you will be pleasantly surprised. If you don't, then hopefully you'll go check out a good production of some of the bard's work and when certain characters pop up, you'll smile knowing they fought alongside Hamlet and Juliet against Richard.

Now comes the hardest part of a discussion of anything that uses the characters of Shakespeare: the language. Aside from his use of character, the use of language is the thing that makes a play by Shakespeare a play by Shakespeare. The writers do a great job of making the language natural; they don't try to make it sound "Shakespearean," with a lot of archaic conjugation, but keep the language in a different tone for characters of different class, and don't fall into using modern colloquialism or speech patterns. I have actually gotten into discussions over the years about people in different media attempting to ape Shakespeare, and frankly, I feel like if you're not the Bard, don't try it, so I was happy to see language that fits the world but doesn't seem like it's trying too hard to make the world the world of Shakespeare; the brilliant characters do that.

The principal artist on the series is Andy Belanger, and his artwork is astounding. His characters are distinct and well rendered, and his continuity and pacing are excellent. But the richness of his designs are what makes the series. The forests, towns, and other locales pop off the page, and his creatures, spirits, and sprites are wonderfully rendered. Like the best stage sets, the world around the characters transcends what is actually there and becomes real, aiding the writers' words in creating an engrossing tale.

At this past year's NYCC, I stopped by the Kill Shakespeare booth and picked up what has become one of my favorite t-shirts ever: Shakespeare in mortal combat with The Bear from The Winter's Tale. I would be remiss in any discussion of Shakespeare to not mention that at the theatre where I spend my days, The McCarter Theatre, will be producing The Winter's Tale from April 2-21 2013, directed by the brilliant Rebecca Taichman. If you're in the New Jersey area, or might be visiting, this is a must see production. A few seasons ago, Ms. Taichman directed a production of Twelfth Night at McCarter, and it was the best production of one of the great comedies I have ever seen. I can't wait to see what she'll do with this play. Tickets go on sale on July 30th. And now ends the digression.

Your humble host in the T-shirt

Kill Shakespeare is an excellent series that not just takes literary characters and recasts them, but casts new light on them. The series is charming, and has enough action, drama, and comedy to keep everyone entranced, even if you've never walked into a theatre in your life.

Kill Shakespeare ran twelve issues, and has been reprinted in two trades, which are available from any good comic shop. You can learn more about the series at

Kill Shakespeare Vol. 2

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