[REVIEW] A Shakin’ Good Time: ‘Kill Shakespeare’ Vol. 1

What do ‘Fables’, ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, and ‘Kill Shakespeare’ all have in common (other than being awesome)? They force differing literary worlds to collide into a single universe, watching mayhem ensue as their characters mingle with one another. The idea behind ‘Kill Shakespeare’ is quite simple yet genius, placing Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and most heinous villains in the same world to duke it out. The story is not a mere retelling of the plays, but rather it weaves entirely new twists and turns into the Shakespeare universe.

Their first venture into comics, co-creators Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery have created a wonderful realm making Shakespeare’s poetics accessible to people without English Literature degrees. Del Col and McCreery have written an audacious tribute to Billy S. all while never taking their tongues out of their cheeks. ‘Kill Shakespeare’ brings together some of the most infamous characters in English Literature for an epic action adventure that puts ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ to shame. To read, or not to read…on for the skinny…

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery
ILLUSTRATIONS BY: Andry Belanger
PUBLISHER: IDW
PRICE: $19.99

“What Fables does for fairy tales, Kill Shakespeare does with the greatest writer of all time.
This dark take on the Bard pits his greatest heroes (Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Falstaff) against his most menacing villains (Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Iago) in an epic adventure to find and kill a reclusive wizard name William Shakespeare.”

The story begins in the middle a very famous scene in ‘Hamlet’. Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, has recently been killed and now his mother sits on the thrown with her new husband, the king’s brother (Hamlet’s uncle). Mmm, yes, nothing like incest to add drama to the story… In a blind act of vengeance Hamlet accidentally murders an innocent man who he believed was his uncle. To avoid shame and death, Hamlet sets sail with his two friends. However, as he ventures further out into the waters his guilty conscience sets in and he realizes he must avenge his fathers death. After the notorious pirate attack scene, which is bloody good fun, Hamlet finds himself in the arms of Richard III, but not before he sees a whole bunch of ghostly apparitions.

Turns out that the lecherous Richard III and his creepy deformed hand only saved Prince Hamlet because the Three Witches predict that Hamlet will be the “Shadow King”. This so called Shadow King is the key to the entire story; he is the one who will face the evil wizard (and no, it’s not Sauron). Here’s where it gets weird and wild. This evil wizard is none other than William Shakespeare himself. Hamlet initially refuses to accept his fate, but after Richard III promises to bring his father back from the dead, Hamlet sees no choice but to abide. In search for Shakespeare’s magical quill, Hamlet sets off on his adventure meeting a whole slew of Shakespearian allies, enemies, and supernatural beings on the way. The story evolves to become more complex than this as you venture deeper into the action.

Before we go any further let me address the question lingering in your minds: Do you need to be a Shakespeare buff to understand the series, let alone enjoy it? Quite simply, no. Although having some prior knowledge of the great poet’s canon would give you a better understand of the characters and a greater appreciation for of jokes, it is absolutely not necessary. Simply reading brief summaries on Wikipedia will help you understand the characters motives. But it’s not necessary at all. An introduction page describing the events that occurred before the story begins would have gone a long way for those who have never read Hamlet or Richard III (shame on you!). Nonetheless, I quite like the fact that the story begins in medias res, sticking with the classical literature techniques.

The first thing you notice reading ‘Kill Bill’, err sorry, ‘Kill Shakespeare’, is that it captures the essence of Shakespeare’s plays while eliminating much of the clunky dialogue. Some hardcore Shakespearians may find it outright blasphemous that Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme is eliminated, but we live in a modern age. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and a fond adoration for Mr. Shakespeare and I tell you that this book is far from sacrilegious, and anyone complaining about it not sticking close enough to the texts needs to grow up. Whatever Del Col and McCreery are doing, it’s working.

The story mainly focuses around Shakespeare’s tragic plays such as Hamlet and Macbeth thus, most of there content is quite melancholy with loads of gory violence. Some scenes are outright horrific such as Macbeth being buried alive behind a wall in his own castle (hope you’re not claustrophobic!). There are a few whimsical moments, such as some cross-dressing antics, but then again what would a tribute to Shakespeare be without some gender bending. It actually serves its purpose quite well to mix in elements from both the tragedies and the comedies to bring in the wit that Shakespeare is so well known for. The balance between dark and light content is almost perfect throughout the volume.

Considering this is the first foray into comics the two writers do a commendable job. The writing is strong and the pacing is spot on, never leaving a dull moment. The creators are forced to juggle a massive cast of heroes and villains and somehow it’s not the clusterfuck one may expect. The character dynamics are great, specifically the interactions between Othello and Juliet, a mismatch of a pair, but they work well together. Lady Macbeth is also very well done, she is quite the ice queen, screwing and screwing over everyone and their brothers.

The dialogue is crisp, the story is engaging, and above all this it’s an impressive action adventure story. There are a few moment of awkward phrasing as they try to incorporate famous quotes into their modernized version of the language. Considering this is their first comic, it’s actually amazing there is not more to complain about.

The artwork lends an extremely helpful hand in keeping the action tense and the characters distinct. At first I was not completely sold on the art, it seemed a bit too cartoony for such highbrow literature. By the seventh page of the first issue I was eating my words and quickly realized how smooth the art is and how well it compliments the discourse. The characters fit succinctly into their archetypes making them easy to identify which is essential when working with such a large cast.

Where the artwork really comes to fruition is during the supernatural scenes with ghosts, spirits, and witches, oh my! Hamlet’s encounters with his father’s ghost are extremely eerie and contrast nicely with the rest of the pages. These scenes are dark yet bursting with colors, all wrapped up in extremely creative layouts. You can tell that Andy Belanger put his most effort into these pages. The full-page spreads are not only used tastefully but are extremely elegant forcing you to take second and even third glances.

The artwork is lacking a bit in some of the smaller panels as character faces become indistinct and frames become cramped. The book would benefit from leaving out some of these tiny panels. The artwork is quite simple aside from the supernatural pages, which helps to maintain a sense of clarity, however, I would have liked to see more sprawling landscapes to get a better feel of the world. I have a sneaking suspicion that the art in next six issues will blow me away.

‘Kill Shakespeare’ manages to stay true to its roots while simultaneously taking off in brilliant new directions. Many scenes will be familiar to Shakespeare aficionados, however, entirely new elements are added displaying creative liberties taken to produce this massive universe. After you get into the pulp of the story you realize how brilliant it is. The meta-fictional twists bringing Shakespeare himself into the book is what really brings the plot to life, unlike anything that’s been done before with Shakespeare’s work. Bottom line: ‘Kill Shakespeare’ is a bold and unflinching tale of adventure, and should not be missed.

4/5 Skulls