July 2, 2011

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Kill Shakespeare Volume 1

Written by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col
Illustrated by Andy Belanger
IDW

Almost from the early days of recorded literature, it's been cool to write about the same characters others used before you. The Greek tragedians took Homer's historical creations and made them into epic dramas. Chaucer took some of the same characters and re-used them. Then Shakespeare turned around and did it to Chaucer, amongst many, many others.

We see this today, with everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Doyle himself getting either re-imagined to fight zombies or used as a focal character to tell stories not unlike those written by a famous author themselves.

When done badly, it's hackery at its worst, because using someone else's toys to tell a crappy story is even worse than creating your own characters and telling a crappy story. When done well, however, it's a thing of beauty that the original writer would most likely appreciate, were he or she around to see it.

That's definitely the case for Kill Shakespeare, a story that weaves various elements of the bard's plays into a shared universe where treachery abounds and even comedic figures and romantic leads are pressed into a desperate fight to keep the worst of Shakespeare's characters from taking over the world. It's an amazingly simple concept--what if Shakespeare's characters all lived at the same time and were vaguely aware of their creator?--that plays out so very well in the hands of McCreery, Del Col, and Belanger.

Kill Shakespeare is the story of Hamlet, who instead of staying in Denmark opts to leave for England after all. He's shipwrecked and lands into the clutches of Richard III (the design for Richard is awesome, by the way), who promises that he can do the unthinkable--bring King Hamlet back from the grave. The offer, however, is a life for a life--kill Shakespeare, and Hamlet lives again.

We know Richard won't do anything of the kind, especially since he's allied with MacBeth and Iago, but in true Shakespearean fashion, Hamlet is manipulated into doing Richard's bidding, though he is far from the only one. Before we know it, Hamlet meets characters from other tragedies, who have a very different story to tell. But can one believe the words of the braggart Falstaff? Buffeted by dreams and wild accusations on every side, Hamlet seems to be out of the oven and into the frying pan. What will he do?

As the book closes on this first act, it's really hard to know, and that's part of what makes it so good. There are multiple levels of scheming going on, and just about every character has a personal agenda that doesn't quite mesh with those of their allies. I really love the way Kill Shakespeare brings home the idea that the protagonists in the bard's plays, no matter what the classification, are clearly flawed people. Hamlet may want to do the right thing, but he's a killer with severe mental issues, who can't really figure out what the right thing is. Are Juliet and Othello really after justice, or are their quests suicidal? Is Richard III really as bad as he appears to be, or is he trying to make his Kingdom a better place? (Okay, so maybe that last one isn't so hard to figure out!)

There are a lot of intricacies to the story that I'd be spoiling if I talked too much about them. Suffice it to say that each character is true to their Shakespearean original, right down to how they act with other characters. The setting may have changed, but the quest for power or revenge or pleasure, three key elements to Shakespeare's plays, are still very much in force. The fact that McCreery and Del Col can keep the story feeling original while echoing arguably the greatest writer (or team of writers) who ever lived is a testament to their writing powers.

If you ever read Shakespeare, you know his plays were generally quite dark and full of death. Kill Shakespeare definitely follows this pattern, with a heavy body count that includes ripping out body parts, decimating villages, and even a nice nod to Edgar Allan Poe. There are plenty of creepy elements, all drawn perfectly by Andy Bellenger, who manages to evoke Mike Mignola without trying to copy him. His backgrounds are extremely detailed, and I love when he is drawing Hamlet's fever-dreams or the scenes with witchcraft. Bellanger also uses heavy facial inks to good effect, which are offset by the eye-popping color choices of Ian Herring.

I rarely comment on a book's coloring, but Herring makes Bellanger's art sing. Unlike other colorists who might have muddied the book with browns, grays, an other colors that are supposed to invoke menace and add weight to the proceedings, Herring is not afraid to be almost garish in his choices, and I love the results. Blood is bright red! Good! Who cares if that's not realistic, it looks awesome! Just about all of the color choices are vivid, and I wish more creators would try that. This is colored more like a webcomic than a comic book, and I mean that as a compliment.

Kill Shakespeare is one of the best books I've read where a new author is playing with someone else's toys. This is on a par with Moore's first League book, which I think set the standard for these kinds of adaptations. I can't wait to read the second half of the series when it comes out in book form in October. Don't delay on reading this one, however: It gets my strongest possible recommendation and is definitely one of my favorite books I've read so far in 2011.