Figured I’d get the biased part out of the way. Usually when reviewing a new series I’d start off telling you what I know about it going in, and this is the same… it’s just we’ll realize I’m a little one-sided on this very soon.
In addition to writing for The Book Closet I’m also the head of a small press publishing company, and in addition to that I’m an English major with an eye on my PhD at my local University… so, suffice to say, I’ve spent a little time on Shakespeare. I will say that, on the subject of Shakespeare, I like the comedies more than the tragedies or the historicals, but that’s really just a matter of personal taste. I will also gladly state that I don’t particularly like reading Shakespeare. It wasn’t meant to be read. Shakespeare wrote them to be performed, and you can’t tell me that if he’d realized they were going to be required reading a hundred years later he wouldn’t have made different choices. I love interpretations of the work, however… just about all interpretations. I like adaptations that take place in a historically-correct time period, I like adaptations that take place in modern times, I like other work that borrow from it like Gargoyles… I like it all.
So that’s the genre, what about the comic in particular? Well I know the writer, Conor McCreery. We met at the first Hal Con back in 2011 and played tag during my book launch of Infinity. That’s literal tag. McCreery is a kid at heart in all the best ways, and we’ve been thorns in each other’s sides every year since. I like Conor, so I’m going to say right now I am biased but will try to be fair.
I’ve also claimed to have read this before, to the point of recommending it many times… but never have. And now the sequel series is coming out and I’m getting in monthly, and I can’t review it because it would reveal I haven’t read the first series… I own the first series, I know it’s good because Ellen [Curtis] read it and loves it, and she’s a typically harsh critic. I don’t feel too bad: I’ve been busy, and to be fair, I don’t think the skinny bastard has read anything of mine yet either… so there you go. 😉
So that’s where we are. I’m going to read both Kill Shakespeare trades and then make my way into Tide of Blood. I’m going to be honest about my feelings because I’d expect the same of him, and we’re going to see how this flies.
Alright, the first thing I have to comment of is the art by Andy Belanger, because it’s some of the best I’ve seen. He never wastes space, never takes the lazy way out. Every inch of every panel is detailed, every background drawn, never left to obscure lines or nothingness. You don’t notice these touches are missing from other comics until you see one like this. It’s the difference between high-def television and regular television, and it’s going to be hard to go back once this is done. I can’t discount the colors by Ian Herring either, because without them adding that extra depth I think Belanger’s pencils would be too busy. It’s really a wonderful pairing.
But the story. We get the setting fairly quickly as taking place just a few weeks after Hamlet, with Hamlet having killed Polonius thinking he was responsible for the death of his father, the King. We see now that Hamlet has been banished, never to return to the land that is rightfully his under pain of death. He’s setting sail aboard The Antonio but is plagued by visions constantly before he even goes out to sea.
These scenes are handled expertly. McCreery shares his writing duties with Anthony Del Col 50/50 and I’m not sure how they divvy this up… does one plot and the other dialog? Do they hash it out together? I’d be interested to know… I suppose I could just email him, but that would take the mystery out of it. Some things I’d rather assume. There’s great bits of dialog, like Hamlet saying that “it’s not his land” since his father died — that’s touching and real and gives great depth. These characters are stretching their arms and stepping out of their archetypes, and I welcome it.
Sometimes the dialog makes my head hurt though. It’s the old-English way of speaking… I know it’s biased, but it just makes something between my eyes ache. It’s the same feeling I get when trying to read Thor. Thor is great… but man, that Odin-speak in Asgard can be hard to read. I would not have minded the language being a little more contemporary, but then others would be down their throat for the opposite… you can’t please everyone.
Hamlet’s ship is attacked by pirates, and he ends up washing ashore and is discovered by King Richard III, who helped orchestrate the entire event using witchcraft. He explains to Hamlet that their lives — all their lives — are under the control of a wizard with a magical quill by name of William Shakespeare. He proves, through example, that he possesses the ability to bring people back from the dead, and promises to bring back Hamlet’s father if Hamlet will kill Shakespeare (re: title) and bring the quill to him. And thus, upon agreeing, our first issue ends.
This comic has a lot on its hands and does it very well. On the one hand it’s the first issue of a new comic book series, so it has to explain the world a little… and it trusts that you’ll know at least a little before picking it up. But on the other hand, it’s the first part of an epic crossover, so it has to set that up too: that’s no easy task. Like, imagine trying to have the first issue of Superman also be the first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths? Or the first issue of Spider-Man also be the first issue of Secret Wars? That’s damn near impossible, but they pull it off. Would I have preferred a few more characters… maybe. But anyone picking this up as a trade doesn’t have anything to complain about. And that’s how I view this — this is Crisis for Shakespeare. This is an event comic take on the best-known canon of stories anywhere, ever. And I think that’s bloody genius.
Issue #2 is much more fast-paced, quickly introducing Iago and setting up Macbeth to appear later. Hamlet also gets taken away from King Richard’s camp after being attacked by the priests of William Shakespeare — and Richard proves himself quite the villain. Cutting off hands and then squeezing the stumps to torture, burning villages to the ground, killing children… and gruesomely cutting out a man’s eyes for falling asleep on the job. All rendered frighteningly well by Belanger. Conor once described this to me as “the best heroes and the worst villains of Shakespeare doing battle,” and I totally see that here. Combine all this with a last-minute plot-twist betrayal by Iago, and this is a great issue.
Hamlet wakes up in issue #3 next to Falstaff, who attempts to feed him, but Hamlet vomits — he’s got vertigo from a knock on the head. It’s here that things really start to come along, not from a plot-driven place like last issue but more of a character-driven place. The dialog between Falstaff and Hamlet throughout the issue is witty and fun. It’s like watching a buddy-cop movie set 500 years ago. They venture to a… gentleman’s establishment, and are having some fun when their pursuers find them, and they pull the “let’s dress up as women” routine. It only lasts a moment, but it’s fun while it lasts. And for anyone who thinks humor and cross-dressing don’t belong in Shakespeare… well, you just plain haven’t read much Shakespeare, have you? Everyone cross-dresses in Shakespeare. It’s actually one of him recurring motifs — somehow.
The issue ends with the two villains behind all this doing a sexual magical spell that’s very disconcerting to look at, as the female kills her husband by burying him in the wall. Not a nice way to go.
Things really pick up in issue #4. I feel like with every issue we get a little more of the whole concept, with this issue introducing Othello and Juliet — Juliet didn’t die at the end of her story, as it turns out, and gets the Zelda treatment… by which I mean she goes from demure thing-to-be-saved to extreme warrior woman somewhere between stories. Falstaff has brought Hamlet back to meet them, but they’re dubious of him — probably because he’s still in a dress. It’s here that I finally get what’s been going on: if this is the “Crisis” of the Shakespearian world, then we are meeting The Justice League.
Othello (my favorite dramatic Shakespearian character) is handled very well here. He’s a little more savage then I recall him being, but the whole purpose of this series is that it presents characters as different than they were in the original text. The issue ends with Iago reappearing and saving Hamlet’s life, only to be attacked by Othello.
The next issue begins where the last left, with Iago about to meet his end: but he offers his life freely to Othello as penance for his jealous crimes. Given the choice to kill a man on his knees not out of anger but as a calculated act, Othello drops his sword and steps away.
The rest of this issue – and the next – deals with Iago and whether or not he can be trusted. Eventually in the heat of battle Othello himself cuts Iago’s bonds and gives him a sword, trusting the man who wronged him so much to watch his back… and Iago holds true, fighting alongside Othello as a brother once again.
And the first trade ends with Iago breaking off from the rest of the troops and casting a spell to open a door, then stepping through it — to discover the same witch King Richard had been sleeping with there waiting for him.
This trade is great fun and worthwhile for anyone to pick up. The art by Belanger, as stated above, is amazing and the writing is just top notch. But I could gush on and on – these people are friends of mine after all, McCreery especially. the man’s bought me drinks, the least I can do is sport him a good review. So I guess in a review like this, the question is: what didn’t I like?
To be honest the pacing is the biggest problem in this book. Things seem far, far too rushed in some places, yet drag in others… sometimes I wish there were more pages to allow a scene to breathe, and other times I can’t wait for it to end. And — to be fair — that’s pretty much my experience reading Shakespeare. So can I really complain? If I enjoy Shakespeare but have a hard time reading it, is it the this comic’s fault that I enjoy it but have a hard time reading it at times as well? Is that McCreery and Del Col’s fault, or just a problem with the material?
Personally, I think the page count is the biggest problem: I think that McCreery and Del Col had about 15 issues worth of material and packed it into a 12 issue miniseries. It feels compressed in that way, in a way I’m not used to in comics anymore. But if my biggest complaint half way through a series is that I wish it went longer, then that’s a pretty good complaint. And it’s not like they’re not delivering : Tide of Blood #2 is staring at me from my “To Read” pile right now. It’s got this amazing-looking flip cover that makes me ache to read it.
Kill Shakespeare volume one is probably the most fun I’ve had reading comics in quite a while. Anyone who’s a fan of the genre or of high-adventure storytelling should have it on their must-read list.
Now — if only I can convince McCreery to do an IDW micro-series featuring each of the main characters and to let me pen one… but which one? Othello. Yeah — get me some Othello.
Issue Seven, The Play’s the Thing is almost a standalone tale of our heroes, Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and Falstaff, out at a play that happens to be put on by a group of players made up of some of Shakespeare’s comedies. That’s enough to sell me right there: as I mentioned last time, I’m a big fan of the Shakespearian Comedies, but more than that: this issue is just perfect. This should have been issue #1 as far as I’m concerned; it is simply a perfect piece of fiction.
While at the play Hamlet is called on-stage in a bit of fun, but is overcome when the play too closely resembles his own tragic back-story. He flees and is followed by Juliet, and the two reveal their sordid pasts to each other tearfully — it’s just great, emotional, character-driven dialog and it is possibly the best thing I’ve read in quite some time. I could write a whole glowing review just on this.
The issue also functions as something of a introduction, just in case you missed the first trade. It really accomplishes a lot, introducing all the main characters and having some fun at the same time. The art by Belanger is pitch perfect. This is the rarest thing in comics — a perfect issue. Things are looking good for this trade.
Issue eight may be my favorite of the series thus far, with a strong focus on Othello and Iago’s relationship. The two, who were soldiers in their own Shakespearian epic, teach the new recruits — and as Iago narrates the best way to defeat an enemy, Othello recalls his own defeat at the hands of Iago; especially the death of Desdemona. It’s here we remember that by modern standards, Othello isn’t always a sympathetic character. These pages are done with expert writing and artistry, perfectly encapsulating the characters.
In many way the second half of this series proves a better introduction to it than the first. It functions very well giving the background of all the characters in a natural and organic way to sucks you in to the tale presented. At when you’re invested in the characters, you’re invested in what will happen to them and the story as a whole. I find that maybe that was what was missing from the collection of the first six issues, but is definitely present here.
All of the characters are getting to know each other as well — Othello and Hamlet are bonding, and Juliet and Hamlet are growing close after last issue and beginning a relationship together. All in all I’d say each issue is getting better and better, and the cliffhanger of this chapter does not involve the ongoing plot with Shakespeare, put the relationship forged in this issue — with the return of Romeo.
The story then takes an interesting turn as the players – Romeo included – descend on the Globe Woods, a place only Hamlet can enter. He then comes face to face with Shakespeare, and the two come to verbal blows just as Iago comes to physical ones with the rest outside. Iago has been revealed as a traitor, and it seems as though there are layers to the prophecy that brought them here that only he knew: about an enchanted dagger that could kill them both.
What follows is probably the best story I’ve read in quite some time — a hero’s journey for Hamlet and William Shakespeare alike, leading to the epic battle between Hamlet’s forces and King Richard, Lady MacBeth, and Iago. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment in these next few issues — they’re pretty much perfect pieces of fiction and I read them one after another, not taking the time to stop and comment on them between. They’re truly amazing works of fiction.
All the pacing problems I felt present in the first volume are gone. I feel this story had a slow build and a dramatic, wonderful conclusion — I suggest picking up the hardcover edition with all 12 issues contained therein. I think that would be the definitive way to view this title. Not as single issues, not as trades: as one massive omnibus. And it’s worth it, this is an amazing story with a great conclusion worthy of entry into the halls of epic fantasy along with The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Not only is it high-octane excitement, but the truest example of comic books as an art-form: telling a new story while paying tribute to the past. And here we are: Kill Shakespeare. Not kitsch, not the death of literature: the height of narrative storytelling in comic book form.
Kudos to McCreery, Del Col, and Belanger.