‘Kill Shakespeare’ Gives Life to Graphic Novel

Each year, dozens of published and self-published novelists and poets congregate along East Ponce de Leon Avenue as part of the annual Decatur Book Festival. Though lines of tents occupy the downtown square, one tent in particular boasts some curious merchandise, including a shirt that displays a certain literary Bard fighting off a feral bear and a book cover displaying a limp hand holding a feathered quill as blood collects around the off-screen body. The name of this book is equally eye catching. Kill Shakespeare, it reads, with blood splattered across Shakespeare’s name.

“We come not to bury Shakespeare but to praise him,” comic co-author and Toronto native Conor McCreery assures a curious passer-by who wanders by their festival booth.

Contrary to its appearance, praising Shakespeare is what the book is all about. For anyone ever forced to trudge through a line-by-line analysis of Romeo and Juliet in high school or traumatized by a stiff, interminable production of one of the Bard’s plays, Kill Shakespeare will be a welcomed change of pace.

The premise of the book sounds like a possible film pitch from a bright, if nerdy, teenager scribbled down after a night of Dungeons and Dragons coupled with J.R.R. Tolkien’s complete works. The series imagines a world in which all of Shakespeare’s characters exist simultaneously.

The first issue debuted in April 2010, earning praise from comic-friendly sites such as Ain’t It Cool News and Comic Book Resources, as well as in national publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times.

With all the critical attention, Hollywood inevitably came calling. McCreery said he and co-author Anthony Del Col have received numerous offers from producers and studios in both the United States and Canada to adapt their book. The two are currently crafting a script of their property. Whether it will be developed as a feature film or television series is still up in the air.

The central story finds a handful of Shakespeare’s protagonists — including Hamlet, Juliet, Othello and Falstaff — embarking on a quest to find a reclusive wizard figure whose magical quill may serve as the key to their victory over the tyrannical forces controlling the kingdom (led, naturally, by Richard III and Lady Macbeth). Oh, and the wizard’s name just happens to be Will Shakespeare.

This is a tale in which Hamlet and Juliet encounter romantic tension, the deformed King Richard III matches wits with the duplicitous Lady Macbeth and the boisterous Falstaff acts as a guiding Obi-Wan Kenobi figure.

Despite the comic’s high concept, however, Kill Shakespeare is far from a cynical attempt at reinventing Shakespeare for a generation defined by Internet-addled ADD, dwindling print sales and movies about transforming robots. Beneath the book’s exhilarating battle sequences and “Lost”-like twists lies the passion of a true Shakespeare fan. According to McCreery, the Decatur Book Festival provides an ideal venue to publicize the book and introduce new readers to the creative potential of the graphic novel as a medium.

“Book festivals are a place for people to remember that books and writing and storytelling matter,” McCreery said in an interview with the Wheel. “My goal in coming to festivals like this is really to find a few people and say, ‘look, I know you don’t read comic books, but that’s only because you don’t understand comic books as a medium … It’s such a great storytelling medium.'”

Kill Shakespeare offers an exciting adventure tale for Shakespeare neophytes while offering clever Easter eggs for the Shakespeare connoisseur.

McCreery had his view of Shakespeare forever altered after he witnessed a production of “The Tempest” as a youth. His attention was immediately drawn to the actor playing Caliban, one of the play’s primary antagonists.

“I remember seeing the actor jumping the stage and looming, menacing over [the actress playing] Miranda,” he recalls. “All I could think was, ‘my God, he’s planning on raping her!’ I kept thinking, ‘am I allowed to watch this?’ That’s when I suddenly realized how much was in Shakespeare.”

That being said, there was another, far nerdier reason that McCreery was drawn to Caliban in particular.

“Caliban was kind of like Wolverine,” he said with a laugh.

Prior to his work on the book, McCreery made his living as a broadcast journalist, covering everything from sports to the financial market. During this time he also pursued success in the entertainment industry. His idea for a children’s television program got optioned but was never aired. Later, he was set for an animated feature, but the company that was to produce the film went bankrupt.

His fortunes changed when he teamed up with Del Col, a manager in the music industry. Initially, McCreery and Del Col envisioned the story of Kill Shakespeare as an epic, “Lord of the Rings”-esque movie. Eventually, however, the two found that their revisionist tale was best suited for the visual language of comic books. They enlisted the help of artist Andy Belanger, and things fell into place.

“I don’t think I ever thought I’d want to be a comic book writer,” McCreery said. “I always wanted to tell stories, but I never locked into one way of doing it. It’s certainly a dream come true.”

The road to translating Shakespeare’s beloved characters into comic book form was not an easy one. McCreery and Del Col underwent many different drafts of the scripts. In the process, however, they also added a few new layers to familiar characters. Most notably, Juliet — having survived her suicide attempt at the end of Romeo and Juliet — has developed from a sheltered teenager into a strong-willed young woman capable of leading armies.

“We certainly had planned things out plot-wise, but a lot of those character moments reveal themselves in the writing,” McCreery explained. “We tend to come up with a thesis for these characters and just play it out.”

Although the series has garnered much praise, it is not without detractors. New York-based Shakespearean scholar Kimberly Cox (who also just happens to be the girlfriend of legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller) wrote a blistering critique of the series, taking particular aim at its lack of iambic pentameter, the rhyming scheme present in all of Shakespeare’s plays. She likewise expressed a desire to “bitch slap” whoever was responsible for the series.

“Anytime you engender a reaction that strong, you know you got something,” McCreery said. “It may not be something good, but you got something.”

McCreery appears to take some amusement from Cox’s reaction. On the booth, he displays quotes from Cox’s vicious article alongside a glowing hand-written letter from legendary playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard. No stranger to the Bard, Stoppard helped pen the script for the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love,” which also took many creative liberties with Shakespeare’s life.

“It’s weird because Shakespeare adapted his own stuff, and Shakespeare has been adapted so many ways,” McCreery said. “To me, the rabbit is out of the hat. As far as we can tell, no one has really done quite what we’ve done here before. People have been chomping and changing Shakespeare since the First Folio was printed.”

Upon departing the booth, McCreery offered me a signed copy of a tradeback. Above the signature, he wrote, “Bash the Bard.”

Surely, if Shakespeare is to be deconstructed and reimagined, you couldn’t ask for a better set of people to wield the hammer and do the bashing.

— By Mark Rozeman