Whether with highfalutin literary pastiche or lowly fan fiction, writers love to play with other people’s toys—paying tribute to the stories that nurtured them, arguing with their cultural predecessors, extending and embroidering shared worlds of fiction.
But it is a perilous exercise. To invoke another writer is to invite comparison, and so to invite disgrace. Easy though it may be to imitate stylistic surfaces, it’s a killer getting to what makes a writer truly great. Many authors, for example, have attempted to conjure Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled style by piling on the baroque similes—e.g., the cigarette that “tasted like a plumber's handkerchief”—and only ended up embarrassing themselves; they’re missing Chandler’s elegance, his pacing, the cool stalking rhythm of his phrasing. Similarly, persons assaying the witty style of Oscar Wilde are doomed to disappoint, unless their wit is, in fact, equal to that of Wilde himself. (No one’s is.)
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Now take those concerns and multiply them by a factor of William Bleedin’ Shakespeare. The Bard comes down to us as the greatest writer in the English vernacular. Indeed, he practically invented the English vernacular—along with the conflict between introspection and action that defines the modern condition. His creations are still alive for us, centuries on, and theater companies and filmmakers are still finding new ways to stage his plays. But the roadside of literature is littered with attempts to build upon or extend his works. Tom Stoppard just about managed it—managed it twice, in fact, first with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, then with Shakespeare In Love—but that’s because Tom Stoppard is a goddam genius. As for the others—well, does Lee Blessing’s 1991 Hamlet sequel Fortinbras get a lot of play on your local repertory stage?
Into these treacherous waters plunge Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, writers of the comics series Kill Shakespeare, now collected into a pair of snazzy trade paperbacks. Kill Shakespeare begins with Hamlet, prince of Denmark, sailing off to his exile. After his ship is attacked by pirates, he washes up on the shores of England—an England neither of history nor of legend, but a catch-all Shakespeare Country. The tyrant Richard III rules with the assistance of the powerful sorceress Lady Macbeth. They befriend the unsuspecting Hamlet, and dispatch him on a quest to kill a mysterious wizard and retrieve the wizard’s magical quill. The wizard’s name? William Shakespeare!
Oh, it gets better. Richard sends the double-dealing Iago along to keep an eye on Hamlet, but they are separated along the way, and Hamlet falls in with the rascally Sir John Falstaff, who is part of a rebel underground who worship Shakespeare as a god. The rebels are led by Juliet Capulet, who, along with her intrepid bodyguard Othello...
Must I go on? Surely you’ve got the idea by now. This is shameless Hollywood-style high concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself; Kill Shakespeare’s two primary antecedents in comics, Bill Willingham’s Fables and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, are similarly reducible to punchy marketing taglines—“Fairy tale characters exiled to the real world” and “Heroes of weird Victorian fiction team up,” respectively. But while Fables and League bring a conceptual purity to their metafictional shenanigans, Kill Shakespeare is all over the place.
Though Shakespeare himself worked in a vast variety of modes—a single play might have moments of comedy, action, pathos, even horror—he never sacrificed his relentless narrative motion. But in shoehorning characters from many different plays into a single story, Del Col and McReery create more problems than they solve. Kill Shakespeare never finds a consistent tone.
Artist Andy Belanger does his best, and if the artwork doesn’t elevate the book exactly, it is easy on the eyes. Belanger is part of the Toronto-based studio cheekily named the Royal Academy of Illustration and Design, and his soft-edged, cartoony brushwork recalls fellow RAID alum Cameron Stewart’s work on Batman and Robin, with a dollop of Britcomics fan-favorite Philip Bond. The layouts are often intriguingly fractured, but always clear and easy to follow.
Volume 2 has a two-page spread set in a house of mirrors that’s nothing short of a tour de force of storytelling. The costuming and scenery are all well up to snuff, with a few witty touches—Richard’s minions all have a big Roman-numeral “III” painted on each shoulder of their armor, which is kind of silly but makes me smile anyway—but overall it suffers from overfamiliarity, that is, it looks pretty much like you’d expect a comic book adaptation of Shakespeare to look, with no surprises. The art’s major downfall, either fittingly or ironically, is the acting. Hamlet’s rubber-faced gurning, in particular, would get him laughed off the stage at the Globe.
But the conceptual hook is the big draw here, and so the writers must shoulder most of the blame or praise. They know their Shakespeare, inasmuch as they can drop quotes and allusions—but there’s so much about Will and his work that they get spectacularly wrong. Most egregiously, the master narrative of Kill Shakespeare is fatally at odds with the conceit. It’s a hack fantasy setup. Hamlet is assumed to be the Shadow King of ancient prophecy, the one whose coming was foretold, and whose destiny is to unseat the tyrant wizard (and steal, let us not forget, his magic quill. His magic quill, for cry-eye). But that stuff was old hat when the Bard was a pup, and Shakespeare—ever the humanist—rarely uses such devices except to mock them. He does so most explicitly in Macbeth, but throughout his plays, the fates of his characters are not thrust upon them by destiny, but arise from their own choices and actions. “The fault…lies not in our stars, but in ourselves,” remember?
And if the setup does violence to the Bard’s themes, it does worse to his people. Even more than he was a master of language, Shakespeare was a keen observer of human nature, and in his plays, character is expressed in actions as well as in words. To take these characters out of their narrative arcs destroys something essential about them. A Juliet who does not die young for ill-starred love, for instance, can scarcely be said to be Juliet at all.
Again and again, the characters are twisted to suit the demands of their roles in the fairy-tale narrative. Richard III loses his occasional flashes of humor and self-awareness, and plays the cartoon supervillain. Lady Macbeth is stripped of the doubts and guilt that drive her to madness—along with most of her clothes—and becomes a lip-licking wanton. The plotting, overanalytical Hamlet becomes a bewildered innocent abroad, and an unconscionable rube to boot. By the time the meat grinder of Kill Shakespeare’s plot has its way with them, these aren’t Shakespeare’s people at all. So what, exactly, is the point?
Jack Feerick, Critic at Large for Popdose, was flattered to hear himself described in Shakespearean terms, until he realized that “what a piece of work” no longer means what it once did.