Transforming the Bard 1: The “Justice League” of Shakespeare

“If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare,” writes Harold Bloom in “Shakespeare’s Universalism,” the essay that introduces his epic study Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. “He has become the first universal author, replacing the Bible in the secularized consciousness.”

A famed (if controversial) literary critic, Bloom expands his exaltation of the Bard by stating that, “I hardly see how one can begin to consider Shakespeare without finding some way to account for his pervasive presence in the most unlikely contexts: here, there, and everywhere at once.”

A surprising addition to Bloom’s list of “unlikely contexts” could be the world of comics. Until recently, there have been notably few successful attempts at directly addressing or re-interpreting Shakespeare and his works in this medium. Filling this void comes Kill Shakespeare, a 12-issue series published by IDW that takes the idea of the Bard as a god to a new level.

“The title alone is a work of genius. Kill Shakespeare. I could spend a lifetime in a climate-controlled room full of monkeys with a monolithic story title matrix running 24-7 and it would never produce a better, more provocative title,” writes Eisner and Harvey Award-winning comics creator Darwyn Cooke, in his introduction to the first trade paperback collection of Kill Shakespeare.

“Then we have a premise that lives up to the title,” Cooke continues. “All of Shakespeare’s ‘creations’ live in a kingdom ruled by their deity: the Bard himself. The good and evil forces within this kingdom are in a race to possess the Bard’s mythical quill—the source of all power and life.”

Created and written by the Canadian team of Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, the series follows the adventures of Prince Hamlet through a series of magical worlds populated by Shakespeare’s characters and rife with the intrigues, romances and betrayals that fill his stories. Andy Belanger provides striking visuals with colourist Ian Herring and cover artist Kagan McCloud.

Issue nine came out at the end of February and featured the long-awaited appearance of The Bard himself, who has been an overriding and ever-present character around whom the whole story revolves. It’s an effect similar to the one in Carol Reed’s classic film The Third Man, where the character of Harry Lime looms over every aspect of the story, without actually introducing him until we’re well into the movie.

The series begins with an ominous and mysterious scene that takes place in a setting described only as “the future,” where a young man (whom we soon learn is Prince Hamlet) lies face down on a shoreline. A person stands over him and says, “Arise, Shadow King…You belong to me now.”

From there we jump into a quick and skillful recap of the first part of the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, leading up to the point where the young prince has been exiled from his land along with courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (themselves no stranger to re-interpretation via Tom Stoppard’s play about them, and the film version that followed).

As the story proceeds, a feeling of incongruity arises. Was Hamlet’s ship attacked in the original story? Did he have the same visions described here? It feels familiar but somehow different. This serves as a fantastic segue from Shakespeare’s familiar story into the world of Kill Shakespeare.

When Hamlet is thrown overboard, only to wake up in the court of Richard the Third (who asks of the young prince, “Will you free us from the tyranny of William Shakespeare?”), the concept feels right. By the time we meet the three witches and Lady Macbeth, the sense of excitement about the possibilities of this comic takes off.

This is a world where Juliet Capulet is a freedom fighter, and where Iago attempts to make amends with Othello. As always, Falstaff is a gregarious, boastful and faithful companion. Rather than accompanying Prince Hal, as he does in Shakespeare’s plays about Henry IV, here Falstaff joins Hamlet on his quest, and saves his life on more than one occasion.

Reminiscent of Bill Willingham’s Fables and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Kill Shakespeare manages to blend elements from Shakespeare’s plays—everything from major plots and themes to comparatively minor details and characters (any non-English majors remember Ratcliffe?)—while creating a story that doesn’t feel like a simple pastiche. The result is a fascinating and incredibly ambitious story that works not only on the surface level of an involving adventure, but also as a commentary and exploration of Shakespeare’s characters, stories and overall meaning.

“Can we conceive of ourselves without Shakespeare?” asks Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. “We keep returning to Shakespeare because we need him; no one else gives us so much of the world most of us take to be fact.”

“Our ideas as to what makes the self authentically human owe more to Shakespeare than ought to be possible, but then he has become a Scripture, not to be read as many of us read the Bible or the Koran or Joseph Smith’s Doctrines and Covenants, but also not to be read as we read Cervantes or Dickens or Walt Whitman. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare could as soon be called The Book of Reality, fantastic as so much of Shakespeare deliberately intends to be.”

That sense of the fantastic fits seamlessly into the world of Kill Shakespeare in terms of its premise and the theme of “what makes the self authentically human,” a question that seems to underlie the motivations of most of the characters in the story.

With issue nine, Kill Shakespeare enters its final act. Will “the wheel come full circle,” as Edmond states in King Lear? Or as Hamlet says (in the play), will “a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood”?

Prophesies, betrayals intrigues and romances abound in Kill Shakespeare. It will be a captivating experience to see how it all ends. Maybe Helena says it best in All’s Well That Ends Well, “Whate’er the course, the end is the renown.”

Official site

In part one of an exclusive three-part interview, Kill Shakespeare‘s co-creators Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery discuss the comic’s origins and their writing process.

PM: How did the comic come about? Where did the initial idea come from? How did IDW become involved?

Anthony Del Col: Conor and I were playing off of the title “Kill Bill” and it just came to us – a story about all of Shakespeare’s greatest characters in the same world trying to track down the Bard himself. It was a eureka moment for sure.

We worked out the story but then put it aside as we became busy with other events (I was in the music industry as a manager and Conor was in broadcast journalism at BNN).

Almost four years ago we realized that Kill Shakespeare should be done as a comicbook series…and we haven’t looked back since.

Conor McCreery: As for IDW we met them in New York City in 2009. Anthony hooked them with four words “Justice League of Shakespeare”. I fell off my chair, I had no idea he knew who the Justice League WAS.

ADC: I Googled it, I think…

PM: Were you already a writer-artist team? How did you meet? What do you consider each other’s strengths?

CM: Actually neither Anthony nor I draw. That’s all Andy Belanger. I’d say Andy’s most notable strength is his flair for storytelling, not just drawing what’s in a script but understanding why that story beat matters. His biggest weakness? Drawing men on horses in the background.

ADC: Conor and I both attended the same business school but were two years apart so didn’t meet each other until a year or two after graduating. We immediately realized we liked the same sort of books and films and started to work together.

We work well together – I’m always looking at the big picture of the story while Conor’s absolutely fantastic at concentrating on the small moment, the little nuances, the great dialogue, that really makes each moment come to life.

PM: Without giving away your secrets, could you talk a bit about your creative processes (how your write, how you do the artwork, how you communicate with each other and anyone else involved in producing the comic)?

ADC: Conor and I are so vain and egotistical we have assistants who pass messages between us…No, just kidding.

Conor and I will sit down and hammer out the major beats of each issue and then one of us goes off and write the first pass. We then pass it to the other and it goes back and forth until we’re both satisfied. If there’s a disagreement, we do rock-paper-scissors…And then we pass it to Andy, who brings everything to life. He mainly sticks to the script but asks us hard-hitting questions about moments, adds a bit of flair, and makes it shine.

PM: That give and take really helps improve the final product even though sometimes we’re building a camel rather than a horse (an old joke about committees).