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Interview: Mairghread Scott on TOIL AND TROUBLE

Something wicked this way comes with the launching of brand new series Toil and Trouble from BOOM! Studios, created and written by Mairghread Scott (Transformers: Windblade, Lantern City) and with art by newcomers Kelly Matthews and Nichole Matthews, both celebrating their official debut in the comics industry.

This six issue miniseries weaves together the story of Macbeth from the point of view of the three witches, offering a unique glimpse into the world of one of Shakespeare’s biggest tragedies and delivering a closer examination into the darker parts of the human soul. It’s a tale shrouded in mystery, a lesson in magic and consequences and the witches behind the curtain who hold the fate of Scotland and its royal line in their hands. After a disagreement among the sisters, the third witch, Smertae, makes a choice that nudges Macbeth to take a throne never meant for him. Dork Shelf was lucky enough to be able to chat with Scott more in depth about her new creator-owned series, and the sheer majesty of Macbeth itself.

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Dork Shelf: While they drive both the first and second half of the play with their prophecies, the witches are very anonymous in their telling. Much like the Fates in classical stories, only there to speak prophecies and then stand back to watch the inevitable mad scramble. Their familiars have names, but they do not. How do you imagine them outside of what little we’re given in the text? Where does that inspiration to tell their stories come from?

Mairghread Scott: You’re right to say that the witches of Macbeth are essentially the Fates, so Toil and Trouble is a story about what kind of person becomes a Fate. Our witches (Smertae, Riata and Cait) are all from different time periods in history, but all of them have dedicated themselves to protecting and bettering their people. They are essentially Scotland’s guardians and guides.

And in many ways that’s really difficult. How do you best guide people who were born hundreds of years after you? What happens when the country you’ve loved is barely recognizable? What if you were the last of your kind? Smertae and her sisters are struggling with these very questions when the worst possible thing that can happen to a Fate happens—one of them disagrees.

DS: Why do you think the story of Macbeth can be so unpopular with the Shakespeare-loving crowd? The witches are arguably a fan favorite, but they aren’t necessarily the main focus of the play by any means. Macbeth, the main character, becomes a very unlikable person. A lot of what’s appealing about the story to me (the large battles, the magic and supernatural elements that drive it) are mostly off-stage. What appeals to you about Macbeth? How do you plan to balance the formula of the play while also making it your own brand of story?

MWS: In the play Macbeth, Macbeth goes from being a loyal subject fighting for his king to becoming a murderous, paranoid tyrant, and I think that can be off-putting for people because we like to think that we’re better than that. We want to believe that we wouldn’t succumb to temptation or paranoia. We don’t want to think of ourselves as Macbeth.

But we are. Over and over again, things like the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment show us how easy it is to do terrible things to others, to unleash that darkest part of our soul. In Toil and Trouble, we took special care to make you feel what all our characters feel. These aren’t people who awoke one morning and decided to be evil; they’re people who are struggling to hold back that dark part of themselves that we all have. Everyone in Toil and Trouble should be someone you can get behind, even those that fall “over the edge.”

DS: How much of the contents of the play is actually going to be featured in your story, or are you only going to be focusing on certain parts of it? Since the story is being told by the third witch, Smertae’s, point of view, how is your interpretation going to differ from the text, and to what end?

MWS: Very little of the play is actually shown because we didn’t want you to feel like you had to know Macbeth to know Toil and Trouble. But the play is happening all around our story, and much of it results from the actions of our witches. Our characters are fighting over Macbeth, so his actions and reactions are central to our conflict. Think of us as the photo negative of the play: all the same events, but with a completely different focus on them. Some elements that once seemed unimportant will stand out, others will fade to the background. But, like our witches, they’re always there.

DS: What about the other characters in the story? Anyone or anything you have plans for that may expand on, or even contradict certain beliefs held about the sequence of events in the play?

MWS: Well, the main difference in my book is that I have a very different take on the morality of the play than a lot of traditional versions. No one is “evil” and no one is “good.” We try to depict them all as real people with real conflicts who are struggling with their lives. I think you’ll be very surprised by whom you end up rooting for and how you end up feeling about these characters by the end of the story.

DS: What are your thoughts on Lady Macbeth? I’ve always been really interested in her characterization. At the beginning, she is the one seen to really be urging Macbeth to fulfill the prophecy, even questioning his manhood if he doesn’t go through with it. When he starts to have his “fits” in front of the lords, she is the stern voice telling him to get a grip on himself. At the end of the play she suddenly pulls an Ophelia 180, allegedly going mad and killing herself, which I always thought was strange considering how much of a force she was in the beginning (maybe she began to see ghosts too?). Will we see much of her in your story?

MWS: Lady Macbeth is probably my absolute favorite character to write in Toil and Trouble. She’s the main focus of our third issue and plays a crucial role in the war of the witches. I see her as haunted by events from long before the start of our book or Shakespeare’s play. To me, she’s not a master temptress so much as a woman struggling to keep herself and her family going every day. I think of her as the kind of person who insists that everything is fine as if it were a mantra. Emotionally she’s stuck in a self-destructive loop, and that puts her in a very dangerous place when witches are afoot.

DS: I’ve always been interested in the Scottish history behind the time that Macbeth is taking place. Do you plan to touch on anything historically based? The ongoing religious struggles in Europe and growing fear of witchcraft?

MWS: We tried to focus more on the actual historical figures of Macbeth and his wife, Gruoch, and the period of 11th-century Scotland than any other inspiration, because 11th-century Scotland is a really fascinating time. In many ways, I see it as the period when Scotland becomes Scotland as we think of it during the medieval times. Ancient traditions like electing kings are giving way to passing the title down from father to son. The nation is becoming much more centralized, the king’s power becoming more absolute. The church is becoming a lot more uniform and organized, culling away the last shadows of older beliefs. All these things fascinate me as a writer, and that general movement into the Middle Ages echoes throughout our story.

Of course, when the play conflicts with history, we generally defer to the play, but making our world as real as possible makes it that much more interesting.

DS: What’s your personal connection to Macbeth, if any? Does anything in particular draw you to it, this type of story, or Shakespeare’s work in general?

MWS: Well, my parents are huge Shakespeare nuts and apart from being pagan myself I was also a C-section, like Macduff, so there was many a Macbeth joke thrown my way as a kid. I guess that thing I find most inspiring about this play is the fact that it’s the work Shakespeare was most constrained in. There are all these strange and supernatural events off-stage because you just couldn’t perform them. The murders and wars are eloquently described, but rarely shown.

DS: What’s it like adapting a story like this from a play into a comic?

MWS: By making Toil and Trouble, I get to bring the kind of horror and tension I think the best versions of Macbeth already have. But I also get to work with my artists (the Matthews sisters, Kelly and Nichole) to bring you right into those terrible, frightening scenes that Shakespeare just didn’t have the SFX budget for. When Macbeth and Banquo meet our witches and say they look barely human, they literally look barely human. When the messengers report such and such battle was nearly lost and then the tide suddenly turned, you get to see why. So Toil and Trouble is a very visceral story designed to take you right into the heart of Macbeth.

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DS: Are there any outside influences you go to for inspiration?

MWS: Two main things drove me. My dad always liked to point out that Shakespeare had to pay his actors (unlike, say, a high school), so minor characters like the witches would likely have been played by actors who had multiple roles. The idea that if you saw a traditional version of the play, you might recognize “the witches” showing up again and again was something I found very unnerving. It makes them feel like they’re haunting and manipulating the entire play. In Toil and Trouble, they literally are, and it gives a real sense of danger to even the quietest scenes.

The other major influence I had was Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. I was fascinated by his ability to build tension and horror without a lot of jump scares. I loved the subtle cues he used to unnerve the audience (the hotel’s impossible layout, the movement of furniture from shot to shot). Most of all, I love that when he showed you something horrifying, he didn’t allow you to look away.

That idea was really central to me because a lot of the witches’ actions are very small. They are just nudging people this way and that, and I wanted the audience to see even these small things as the true threats they really are. It was also very important to find artists like the Matthews sisters, who could control the movement of your eye so well, who specialize in all those wonderful details. They’re able to hold that slow burn and quietly ratchet up the tension in Toil and Trouble to a true boiling point even without the supernatural elements. Then when those elements come into play, it’s that last horrifying push that will push you over the edge.

DS: I was also curious about the character designs of the three witches. Every design is so beautiful and unique to them! How did those come about?

MWS: The witches are all designed by a favorite artist of mine named Sarah Stone. We actually have a whole series of posts on just their designs on my website. Each witch represents a time period, a phase of life, and an element. I think what I love most about them is that they look like real women and have that diversity of body shape. Even in silhouette, you’d never mistake Smertae for Cait. I wanted them to feel both otherworldly and completely human, and Sarah did a great job giving us both.

Then the Matthews stepped in and oh my gosh! The witches not only change shape constantly (turning into animals and other people, etc.), their base designs also change throughout the story. I don’t want to spoil anything, but their transformations are going to make people’s jaws hit the floor!

DS: Is there anything you want your readers to know about this story going into it?

MWS: Well, you can always learn more about Toil and Trouble through my website, or you can pick up issue 1 [released on] September 2nd in stores and online. You can also pre-order issue 2 and 3 right now. So if you’re the kind of reader that doesn’t like being told who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, or if you’re the kind of fan who wants to dig down deep into a character and if you love gorgeous art, check us out!


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