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Review: Kill Shakespeare, Nos. 1-2

What if Shakespeare’s most famous characters turned against their creator? That’s the premise behind Kill Shakespeare, a rollicking fantasy-adventure that borrows a few pages from Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, a few pages from The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and a few lines from the Bard himself to tell a brand new version of Hamlet — one that happens to involve Iago, Richard the Third, the Three Weird Sisters, Lady Macbeth, and pirates.

Kill Shakespeare, Nos. 1-2
Written by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, Art by Andy Belanger
Ages 13 and up (Violence)
2010, IDW Publishing
28 pp., $3.99 (per issue)

Kill Shakespeare begins at a crucial moment in Hamlet’s story: his banishment to England for Polonius’ murder. (You remember that bit from sophomore English: "How now? A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!") Midway through Hamlet’s North Sea voyage, the ship is boarded by pirates, touching off a fierce battle that leaves Hamlet treading water and nursing a wound. He washes ashore in England, where Richard the Third and the Three Weird Sisters persuade Hamlet to avenge his father and reclaim his rightful throne by stealing the quill from a powerful wizard named — you guessed it — William Shakespeare.

So far, so good: any high school student with a basic knowledge of Shakespeare’s greatest hits will grasp what writers Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col are doing, even if they don’t immediately recognize the source material. McCreery and Del Col plunder a half-dozen plays: Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear, for example, is transposed to a small village where a resistance movement opposes Richard; a hapless fighter loses his "vile jelly" for refusing to divulge key information. In another scene, the witches train their powers of persuasion on Hamlet as they did on Macbeth, even intoning a few of their most famous lines over a bubbling cauldron. And Iago has been paired with Hamlet as the Dane’s new "advisor" and confidante, allowing Iago a fresh opportunity to turn a good person’s "virtue into pitch."

As imaginative as these borrowings are, there’s a drawback to this pastiche: McCreery and Del Col embed Shakespeare’s words in a script that sounds too modern for the context. Characters slip in and out of contemporary voice — there’s a lot of confusion about "you," "thou," "thy," and "thine" — and express ideas that would be anachronistic in any pre-Enlightenment setting. In one scene, for example, Richard gives a speech right out of 1776, as he extolls the virtues of libraries, courts, and schools (not to mention "managing power justly" — paging Thomas Jefferson!), while in another, the Three Weird Sisters chide Hamlet, asking him, "And what of thy father, Shadow King? You ignore a chance, no matter how slight, that he can be saved?"

Andy Belanger’s distinctive artwork goes a long way to smoothing over the rougher patches in the script. His muscular, angular characters look more like action-movie heroes than thespians, with strong jawlines, broad shoulders, and rugged faces that suggest both the ravages of time and battle — think Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or Robin Hood, rather than Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Though Belanger’s layouts are, at times, a little busy, he stages the action scenes with panache; the big pirate showdown, for example, bustles with energy and telling detail, making creative use of the page to convey the scale of the fight while suggesting the grueling intensity of hand-to-hand combat.

If the script isn’t always entirely successful — at least from the perspective of an adult well-versed in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry — Kill Shakespeare is still good fun. McCreery and Del Col are clearly in touch with their tenth-grade selves, as they make a heroic effort to tell a story that honors the spirit of Shakespeare’s plays while including all the juicy bits — the murders, sea battles, and ambushes — that usually take place off stage. As many reviewers have observed, the Bard himself might well appreciate McCreery and Del Col’s efforts, as his own works are a hodge-podge of borrowed plotlines and characters given new life through the power of his imagination. Sounds like a good place to start an English lesson to me. Best for students with at least a passing familiarity with the basics: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello.

An advance copy of issue two was provided by the author. Issue two of Kill Shakespeare will be released on Wednesday, May 19, 2010.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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