In this dark tale, the Bard’s most famous heroes embark upon a journey to discover a long-lost soul. Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, and Romeo search for a reclusive wizard who may have the ability to assist them in their battle against the evil forces led by the villains Richard III, Lady Macbeth and Iago. That reclusive wizard? William Shakespeare.
Any English majors reading that synopsis feel their heads exploding yet?
Those who survive this initial assailment on First Folio canon will want to check out Kill Shakespeare, the planned 12-issue comic book series from IDW Publishing co-created by Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery. I sat down (okay, leaned against some short book shelves) with them last weekend at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. They were attending as part of Transmission X’s entourage (Kill Shakespeare artist Andy Belanger is one of TX’s founders).
Jonathan: Can you give us a synopsis of what the comic is about?
Conor McCreery: Kill Shakespeare is an action-adventure series in which we pit all of Shakespeare’s greatest heroes against his most menacing villains. And they’re all on their way to either kill or save a reclusive wizard by the name of William Shakespeare. It’s being published by IDW, and it’s a 12-issue series.
Jonathan: Where did the idea for this story come up?
Conor: The origins are: We came up with it about six years ago. We were just brainstorming ideas for video games, and Kill Bill had just come out. We thought, hey there should be a Kill Bill video game, but instead of tracking down David Carradine, we should be tracking down Bill…Shake…speare? And we thought, ‘Oh my god, this is fantastic.’
Anthony Del Col: At first we thought of it as a massive multiplayer online role playing game, but then as we started to develop it, we just discovered how great the medium of comic books is. Conner had worked at the Silver Snail for a while, and we felt that Kill Shakespeare would be best as a comic series.
Jonathan: Where do you see this going, besides a comic book?
Conor: The first thing we really want to do is make a really good comic book. It’s perfect for Shakespeare because comics are a visual medium, and of course you’re not supposed to read his plays, you’re supposed to see them performed. So one of the neat things is that you get the sense of almost watching a performance. As we’ve gone on, we’ve had some people come to us. So someone’s said to us they want to do a role-playing game, so we’re just in the final stages of launching that product. We’ve been approached by Hollywood about whether we would want to do a film version of this.
We always wanted to do something in the online world, just because it’s a really great way to build a community. I mean, I’m a big comics geek, Anthony’s a huge Shakespeare geek, so it kind of gives us a way take two worlds that we love, and merge them. But it also lets people who are fans of Shakespeare and of comics to get together. Because it’s funny – Shakespeare and comics are still two sort of geeky pastimes. You might say that you’re a Batman fan, but you might not say that you’re a Hamlet fan. There’s something different about that. People talk about how they play video games, but a lot of comic fans are still a little nervous to get on the subway and, on a Wednesday, are they going to pull out and read their comics on the subway ride home? Some comic fans won’t because there’s still that bit of a stigma. We’d love it if we can help break down that stigma.
Jonathan: This is not a typical approach to Shakespeare, or merely an adaptation of an existing play. These characters are coming together in very unusual ways. How do you work with characters from such established roles and different backgrounds?
Conor: The big thing is that we’re not “doing Shakespeare.” We have a new story. Now we’re using Shakespeare characters, and we think we’re being respectful and honourable to what The Bard did with these characters, but we made a decision early on that it would be our own story, and also say something about us. So in a weird way, it’s not intimidating, because we aren’t pressured to use Hamlet the way the Bard did. We want to use him in a way that’s exciting for us, and both being Shakespeare fans, I think the average Shakespeare fan will say “Yeah, that makes total sense.” But yeah, we’ve had scholars come say to us “I don’t know about this. There’s something wrong about this.” What can you do?
Anthony: We want this to appeal to everybody. If you know Shakespeare, that’s great. If you know nothing about him, that’s even better. It’s the kind of thing where if you haven’t read Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet or any of these plays, you still know who these characters are. So we’ve consciously made the decision not to get too caught up in the actual stories, and to let them breathe as characters on their own. Yet you have to be somewhat faithful to these characters as they were originally conceived.
Jonathan: How do you figure out where that line is? How familiar are you guys with Shakespeare, and did you do any research specifically for this project?
Anthony: We’ve both been Shakespeare fans. We’re not English graduates or anything like that; we both went to business school. But Conor was a theatre minor, I was a film minor, and so we were just interested in that sort of thing. I’ve loved Shakespeare since high school; I go every year to the Stratford festival. Conner was moved by a production of The Tempest when he went to Stratford back in…Grade nine?
Conor: I think it was Grade seven, actually.
Anthony: Yeah, we had a really great teacher in high school. I’m from northern Ontario, and our teacher would organize a trip every year. We kind of brushed up on our Shakespeare, to paraphrase a song, but we also made a conscious decision not to read them word-for-word or line-by-line, because we didn’t want to get too caught up in that scene. Again, we wanted to make it fresh and accessible to everybody.
Conor: It was very challenging because I had to read them, every other word.
Anthony: Then it’s not iambic pentameter!
Jonathan: Yes, why did you choose not to work with iambic?
Conor: We didn’t want to write in iambic for a couple of reasons. One, because Shakespeare’s done it better than we ever will. The language is beautiful. But it’s not contemporary, and that’s kind of a problem. The vocabulary is not quite what we use nowadays. And even in Shakespeare’s time it was a little different – it was theatre speech, not common speech.
The other thing is that we wanted to create a new level of accessibility—either for someone who’s never been into Shakespeare, or for someone who’s going to return to it. We don’t want someone to not read Hamlet and read our comic instead. We want them to read them both. If dropping iambic is what gives someone the incentive to dip their first toe into Shakespeare, and then they might say “Okay, I can take on Othello now, because I kind of have a sense of what that guy’s about,” that would be awesome.
The best compliment that we’ve had so far is from a guy who said that it made him want to read other things. It made him want to read Shakespeare; it made him want to read other comics; it just made him want to be creative. If we can get that response out of a bunch of people, that would be a dream.
Jonathan: Tell us about your connection to Transmission X.
Anthony: Transmission X is a webcomic collective, from artists mostly in Toronto. Our connection is to Andy Belanger, he does one called Raising Hell. The great thing about TX is that these are some of the best artists in Toronto. It’s putting Andy into the North American comic book scene, much like how Cameron Stewart has been in the last little while. You know, people talk about Toronto being one of the hotbeds of comic book talent, and TX is really at the forefront of that.
Jonathan: What’s your favourite Shakespeare play?
Anthony: My favourite is Othello. In a lot of his plays, Shakespeare works with the fantasy element, but in Othello he just bypasses that entirely and it’s just about pure human emotion—jealousy, revenge, all the great ones. That really speaks to me.
Conor: For me it’s probably still The Tempest. I love the notion of these creatures on the island. What I really like is the notion of Prospero, who is this god who ultimately chooses to let the people make their own decisions. It was so interesting to see this powerful character decide to just let things go and see how things work out. It kind of informed a lot of my decisions about how people with power should act.