Sunday, February 13, 2011

With a bare bodkin

Everything my daughter knows about Shakespeare she learned from watching Doctor Who. (And she's known it for a couple years already, since first that Shakespeare episode aired.)

She knows "To be or not to be," that he wrote comedies and tragedies, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day," about the Globe Theatre, that he had a son Hamnet, who died, and that he wrote about witches. That may not sound like a lot, but it's enough to surprise grown-ups at brunch, and it's more than I knew at the age of 8 (it wasn't till grade 7 that I played the role of Polonius; although, there was that story we read in grade 2, about the girl who loved her father as much as meat loves salt, which sentiment was reason enough to disown her — oh, I loved that story). (Helena can also tell you about Charles Dickens, Vincent van Gogh, the destruction of Pompeii, and Madame de Pompadour, thank you, Doctor.)

This to say: I'm all for using popular culture as a vehicle to the classics. There's nothing so sacred about Shakespeare that a divide should be drawn to keep him unsullied. Let his blood mingle with the rest of our entertainments — let him be popular culture.

So I was thrilled to receive a copy of Kill Shakespeare, graphic novel, created and written by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Cor, and drawn by Andy Belanger.



Think Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next world, only less tongue in cheek and populated exclusively by Shakespearean characters. The politics are of a more vicious time, and the characters' awareness that they are literary creations has a more metaphysically somber tone.

Kill Shakespeare, as you might divine by the title, involves a plot to kill Shakespeare.

As summed up in the foreword by Darwyn Cooke, "All of Shakespeare's 'creations' live in a kingdom ruled by their deity: the Bard himself. The good and evil forces within this kingdom are in a race to possess the Bard's mythical quill — the source of all power and life."

It starts off with a touch of Rosencrantz, a bit of Guildenstern (รก la Tom Stoppard), and pirates! Then Hamlet's Act IV takes a different turn.

Before you know it, Hamlet agrees to do the bidding of Richard III, on the promise that his father be returned to life.

Oh, and, as the witches tell it, there's a prophecy about the Shadow King:
The father's gated shall open swing,
A welcome to the Shadow King.
The two shall clash and blood will pour,
And things that were shall be no more.

Soon enough, we encounter Falstaff (about which all I know is from the post-apocalyptic Mad Maxified version of Henry IV, part something, I saw staged, one high school field trip), and Juliet and Othello and Lady MacBeth, among others.

There's enough action, threats, blood, and double-crossing to equal any of Shakespeare's histories.

The artwork is expressive, but dark, almost unrelentingly so, like the pace, that I wish Hamlet might've dallied more with characters from the comedies. I suppose Shrewsbury is meant to reference Katherine, and there's a lovely Adriana, but if there were any further invocation of the Bard's lighter works meant to give respite, it was lost on me. (Also, I did have trouble keeping a couple of the characters straight, but then, I'm not a particularly practiced reader of comic books — or graphic novels, or whatever the preferred sensitive yet serious-while-unpretentious term of choice is these days.)

I'm not convinced the characters are true to the natures Shakespeare devised for them. I have to agree with Cooke in his encapsulation of Hamlet as "emo douche," and I'm not sure he'd really want his father back. And while Shakespeare's Juliet does show a great deal of strength and courage, I'm sceptical that she has it in her to rally the people behind her to rise up. (When I heard the people calling for Lady Capulet, I was sure they meant her mother.)

Also, I'm not entirely sure what the rules are: If you die in Act II or earlier, well, you're really dead, in this world too it seems. But if you don't die till the final scenes these new creators are OK with pretending those pages were never written. I mean: at what point are Shakespeare's characters plucked to populate this world? And what about Ophelia? But I guess Hamlet, at sea with R&G, beset by pirates, doesn't know about her yet.

So it may sound like I have a lot of little gripes with this work, but it's been a gripey kind of week, and I wouldn't take me too seriously on these points. The fact is: I ate it up, and I'm on the lookout for subsequent volumes.

It's original, and gives new life, and liveliness, to a set of dusty old names that not many people other than dead academics pay much attention to.

I can't wait till my daughter discovers this book on my shelf.

Official Kill Shakespeare website.

The creators of Kill Shakespeare are at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC on February 15. (Really, Ivonna, you should go.)
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