KILL SHAKESPEARE PRE-GAME: THE COMIC

My Pre-Gaming for Gideon Productions’ staging of Kill Shakespeare continues with this post about the IDW comic.

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The  comic Kill Shakespeare attempts to do for the iconic Shakespearean characters what the Avengers and Justice League comics have always done for the iconic super hero characters: establish a shared continuity and execute a massive team-up.

I should say upfront that I feel it’s an attempt that doesn’t always work perfectly, but it’s hard not to appreciate what co-writers Connor McCreey and Anthony Del Col are trying to do. Reinforced by the phantasmagoric art of Andy Belanger, the writers make great efforts to fully process the works of Shakespeare through the comic book aesthetic. It’s as though the Complete Works have been unbound and then run page by page through an old-school four-color printing press, which carefully shuffled the characters so they would click into various super hero and super villain archetypes and the beats of serialized story structure.  There’s something quaintly amusing about how logically this transposition works, probably because comic book archetypes and structure – like most narrative archetypes and structure – surely evolved and mutated from Shakespeare to begin with.

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McCreery and Del Col’s story begins in the middle of the play Hamlet, as Hamlet is attacked by pirates while he’s being shipped off to England. Rather than immediately seeing his return to Denmark as we do in the play, in Kill Shakespeare we see Hamlet wash ashore in England, where he is found by King Richard III.  As far as living between the raindrops of the works of Shakespeare goes, it’s as good a place as McCreery and Del Col could have found. The botched exile to England in Hamlet takes place over an indeterminate period of time and as Shakespeare guru Harold Bloom notes in his book Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, Hamlet seems to return in Act Five much older and as a changed man. It’s an ideal place to insert a “lost adventure.” Having only read the first six issues of the comic, I wonder if Kill Shakespeare will end with Hamlet simply returning to Denmark and finishing his own play.

All the characters believe Hamlet to be the prophesied “Shadow King,” and Richard III tells the melancholy Dane that it is his destiny to track down a powerful reclusive wizard – Shakespeare – and kill him. It seems that Shakespeare has a “magic quill” that is the source of all power and life, and the cruel Richard would like to wield its godlike power. Richard, whose own armies are bolstered by an uneasy alliance with the Macbeths in Scotland, dispatches his most loyal servant, Iago, to help Hamlet in his quest to free England of the “tyranny of William Shakespeare.”

Okay – so maybe the magic quill thing is a little on the nose, but is it really any more silly than a Cosmic Cube?  Or a Philosopher’s Stone?  Even so, I was initially put off by how non-Shakespearean the Maguffin-driven plot seemed to be. In this regard, I found that it took me a while to recalibrate my expectations for the book; I kept having to remind myself that under the hood this thing ultimately runs on comic book logic, not Shakespearean logic. The “Shadow King” title is practically a tacit admission of this – yes, in Kill Shakespeare, the most complicated character in all of Western Literature shares a moniker with a third-rate X-Men villain. Once I was able to reconcile the absurdity of this in my heart, I was able to start having fun with the series.

Plus there’s a proud tradition in comics – super hero comics anyway – of characters meeting their creators, whether it’s Grant Morrison’s appearance in Animal Man or John Byrne’s interactions with She-Hulk and the Fantastic Four. It’s a bizarre branch of metaphysical storytelling that works especially well in comics and cartoons: what happens when you look your creator in the eye? When Animal Man met his writer Grant Morrison, the hero begged him to bring his dead family back to life. Morrison refused, saying – hilariously – that it wouldn’t be realistic.

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The idea of this kind of confrontation is particularly potent with the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies, who have all been made to suffer some of the most imaginative cruelties in all of fiction. I’m thinking about Titus Andronicus’s daughter, or the painful scene at the end of King Lear where Lear and Cordelia are arrested, but he’s happy they’ll be able to spend so much time together, saying “We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.” Except we the readers basically know that at this point they’re both doomed. It’s something that continually kills me about Shakespeare; these are fake characters, but there is real pain there. Real pain spun out of words and thin air. And here I am, at this moment, thinking about that interaction between two fake people while I’m on the 6:34 Metro North train to Mount Kisco 400 years later and somehow I feel that pain like it’s my own.

So yeah, I guess now I’m wondering if these guys McCreery and Del Col are maybe on to something when they say this Shakespeare guy actually was some kind of wizard or sadistic god. Maybe this is a jerk who deserves to be killed?

Some characters in Kill Shakespeare would disagree.  They are called the “prodigals,” and they are a small but growing revolutionary force who wants to overthrow the tyrannical King Richard. Shakespeare is their messiah, and according to their prophesy, the “Shadow King” will help bring about his benevolent return.  This rag-tag group is lead by Juliet and also includes the badass Othello and the jovial Falstaff. Hamlet and Iago fall in with these guys, but of course tell no one of the mission they’re on for Richard.  So now Hamlet must choose – who does he believe?  Richard or Juliet? Does he kill Shakespeare or save him?  Take arms? Be? Not Be?? The guy who’s famous for not being able to has got to make up his mind.

That said, of all the characters Hamlet is probably the most “off” from his Shakespearean counterpart. This Hamlet deeply regrets the killing of Polonius – a marked contrast to his morbidly douchey line about the dead Polonius’s body in the play: “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room.” Also, Hamlet’s main motivation for helping Richard is that the evil king has promised to bring Hamlet’s father back to life; I’m not sure if that’s something the deeply ambivalent Hamlet of the play would move Heaven and Earth for. And finally – though I’m sure McCreery and Del Col are tired of hearing this from critics online – I must say that I miss the language, and even moreso dislike the parts, like Polonius’s death, where the writers “simplify” the original text. I get that no one wants to put their own Shakespearean dialogue on paper next Shakespeare’s original stuff, but I supposed I wanted them to at least create some in-story justification for why the characters aren’t speaking like do in the plays.

What I do like is that McCreery and Del Col are commenting on these characters in familiar comic book ways – Hamlet in Shakespeare was paralyzed by the choice of whether or not to take revenge upon his Uncle.  Here, Hamlet essentially has to decide whether to join the good guy team or the bad guy team. There’s something charming about simplifying that famous inner conflict down into to such a basic Comic Book scenario, and it makes for a great payoff in Issue #6 when Hamlet finally does choose.

Perhaps the best visual is right at the top of Issue #1 but it sets up one of the series’ most compelling concepts. As Hamlet sails away from Denmark, he sees ghostly visions of his father’s statue and his father’s crown emerging from the sea. These visions are flanked by dozens of daggers that are also emerging from the water. It’s a smart bit of graphic design: Belanger has drawn this surreal vista into the background of the pages, in the negative space between the main story panels, in which we see Hamlet and Rosencrantz on the boat discussing the fact that Claudius has ordered Hamlet’s death. What makes it so gorgeous is that colorist Ian Herring gives the Rosencrantz/Hamlet panels a warm orange palette, but renders this ghostly “sea of troubles” in an icy blue. (Those pages are unfortunately not online anywhere, so you’ll have to take my word for it!)

A dagger of the same design shows up later, first in the hands of Lady Macbeth and later when Richard gives it to Hamlet – it is the implement with which he is to enact this titular murder. We learn that this dagger belongs to Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, and it is the same dagger that was used by Brutus to kill Caesar.  At one point we see it floating above Hamlet while he sleeps, with Lady Macbeth’s eyes “watching” him through it. It would be safe bet that this is probably the same dagger that Macbeth saw before him prior to his murdering of King Duncan. There were no guns in Shakespeare’s day, so as a result there are a lot of dagger-related deaths in his plays.  So what if all these characters were actually killed by the same dagger? Shakespeare was very good about investing objects like daggers with power through words, but in comics (again, of the super heroic variety) things accumulate power through connectivity and shared history. This is not just a dagger Hamlet sees before him; this is the dagger. The one through which all the treachery and tragedy of Shakespeare’s plays has run. In comic book terms, that makes it a kind of super weapon.

But really, it’s just one more very smart organizing principle – one of many in Kill Shakespeare – that takes the source material and rough-hews it into comic booky shape.

 

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Gideon Productions’ staging of  Kill Shakespeare is running through March 5 at Here Arts Center. 145 Sixth Ave. (enter on Dominick Street one block south of Spring), NY, NY 10013. All performances @ 7pm. Tickets ($15) may be purchased at http://www.here.org/shows/detail/1388/  My full review will post later this week.

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