In 2011 CASP Research Associate Lynne Bradley performed an extended interview with the Canadian creators of Kill Shakespeare, a 12-book graphic novel series soon to be a film. CASP is pleased to publish this interview in full, along with a critical introduction by Bradley and a trailer of the film.

 

 

Graphic and Novel: An Interview With the Creators of Kill Shakespeare by Lynne Bradley

 

In our age of rampant multimediality, the mashup has become a flashy and expedient way of highlighting cultural activity, expressing approbation or dissent, conveying personal talents, or simply playing.  Now, two Canadian entrepreneurs are bringing this technique to Shakespeare in a new comic book series that is both graphic and novel.

 

Released in April 2010 Kill Shakespeare asks what would happen if Hamlet ended up in the kingdom of Richard III, joined forces with Othello, Juliet and Falstaff, and tried to rescue the author-god Shakespeare from tyranny and self-doubt.  Published by IDW and written by Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col with illustrations by Andy Belanger, the series is carried in roughly 700 stores in six different countries, and has sold approximately 25,000 copies so far.  Issues one and two sold out within days.  A collected edition of the first six issues released in November 2010, and copies of individual issues are available digitally on iTunes, PSP, and other formats. 

 

Since its release, Kill Shakespeare has garnered an unprecedented amount of critical attention from print and online media.  The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star have both profiled the series, and CBC radio and television have interviewed the creators.  The web site, Kill Shakespeare, and Facebook page have been inundated with rave reviews and positive comments from thousands of fans.  Nick West from WatchPlayRead called the comic “damn clever” and “a 21st century classic;” Noel Bartocci thought it “a fun and thoughtful romp;” and Ain’t It Cool News branded it “a great read.”  Graeme McMillan from Savage Critic was more ambivalent—it “dances across the line of genius and stupid so often …that I really don’t know which side it really belongs on”—but on the whole he found the comic “entirely enjoyable.” 

 

Kill Shakespeare is more than a clever romp.  In order first to illustrate, then adapt, and finally leave Shakespeare’s story behind, McCreery and Del Col use a series of sophisticated adaptive strategies.  The first issue of Kill Shakespeare is particularly rich and varied in its technique.  Initial frames depict events inspired by or extrapolated from the story of Hamlet, such as the funeral of Hamlet’s father.  While the funeral is not actually dramatized in Hamlet, it is mentioned repeatedly, and Kill Shakespeare’s depiction of the event is consistent with what readers will remember or imagine from the original.  In this section, McCreery and Del Col make use of captions to identify Helsingor and characters such as Gertrude and Claudius, a technique that helps readers consolidate the new visual elements with textual referents in Hamlet.  

 

 

The subsequent scene, in which the prince kills Polonius, is the first in which the graphic novel illustrates an event directly portrayed in the original text, and in which dialogue—“How now? A rat? Dead, for a ducat dead” (III.4.21-24)—is directly taken from Shakespeare. The effect here is to reinforce the link between certain visual elements (what Hamlet looks like, what Helsingor looks like, essentially what Hamlet looks like) with readers’ recollections of the text so that when the graphic novel does eventually depart from the script, these visual elements retain meaning for readers.  Quickly enough, Kill Shakespeare does depart from the script.  As Hamlet prepares to leave Denmark the comic begins to introduce dialogue not written by Shakespeare; the conversation between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has no Shakespearean precedent, but the images are by now familiar and these events are conceivable within the context of Shakespeare’s play.  Up until this point, readers are asked to engage in no more than a straightforward process of identifying in the graphic novel what is recalled and familiar or conceivable from the original text. 

 

But as Hamlet sets sail, what is familiar begins to drop away.  Increasingly, new dialogue, events, and characters appear and readers are challenged to compare what they remember from the original with what is now new and unfamiliar.  By the time Hamlet is shipwrecked and washes ashore in a foreign land, the graphic novel has ceased entirely to depict elements from Hamlet.  Here, McCreery and Del Col introduce characters from other plays—Richard III and Lady Macbeth, and later Iago, Falstaff, Othello and Juliet—and readers are asked to cross reference Hamlet with other plays.  As these characters and plots begin to intermingle, they depart radically from their Shakespearean predecessors—Othello spares Iago’s life, Hamlet becomes a warrior—encouraging readers not only to compare and contrast these new elements, but also to evaluate the nature of their differences: does Othello’s newfound mercy towards Iago atone for past vindictiveness? Is Hamlet’s decisiveness learned from new experiences or was it a latent part of his character all along?  Because readers see familiar characters and events in startlingly new contexts, they are encouraged to re-evaluate these elements, to see them again for the first time, and to forge new opinions about them.

 

Seeing is important in the graphic novel, a medium in which text and images interact in surprisingly complex ways.  McCreery and Del Col talk about the power of the picture to comment substantially or even ironically on the text.  A facial scowl can make a character’s comments seem wry or ominous while a smirk can reveal that character’s sense of derision or satisfaction.  Hamlet’s sheepish expression in the brothel scene in issue three conveys a sense of discomfort that his words cannot, and the way he rolls his eyes in conversations with Falstaff adds volumes of ironic subtext to ensuing dialogue. The capacity of this medium to capitalize on the interaction between visual and textual elements is, in fact, not unlike the medium of theatre itself.  In some ways, a graphic novel realization of Hamlet or Richard III is a closer approximation to a theatrical performance than a traditionally printed version of the play, allowing readers to experience the pleasurable frisson that exits when a visual element combines collaboratively or subversively with dialogue.

 

By “recreating” a theatrical performance through the interaction of visual and textual elements, Kill Shakespeare makes the contrast between Shakespeare’s original and its own adaptation even more pronounced.  This process of referencing and contrast are key features in modern adaptations of Shakespeare.  Most twentieth- and twenty-first-century adaptations incorporate a type of double gesture in which the adaptor collaborates with Shakespeare by using his characters, plots or themes, and rejects him at the same time by altering those elements.  The value of this double gesture is that it uniquely allows writers to engage with their literary heritage—to pay homage to a precursor like Shakespeare and recognize his seminal role in establishing cultural traditions—while expressing more modern opinions about gender, race, sexuality, or theology.  In Kill Shakespeare, for example, McCreery and Del Col borrow the character Juliet, and incorporate elements from Romeo and Juliet into her personal history, but reject her final characterization in the play: instead of a tragic young heroine victimized by family and fate, the writers have created a self-sufficient and proactive leader more consistent with twenty-first century expectations for women.  This double gesture of collaboration and rejection is repeated again and again in the graphic novel with characters, themes, and language from Shakespeare. 

 

 

But what makes Kill Shakespeare particularly interesting in the context of adaptation studies is the extent to which the process of adaptation itself is thematized within the story.  As characters of Shakespeare’s own imaging conspire either to collaborate with Shakespeare and save him or eradicate him altogether, audiences can see the process of adaptation unfolding before them.  Readers might also wonder at the extent to which this particular adaptive project reflects the Canadian sensibilities of its authors, writing outside of and in many ways back at the canon.  When Hamlet washes up on a foreign shore, readers experience a literalization of Shakespeare coming to Canada, where new and decidedly off-centre perspectives radically change the nature of the original work.  What emerge in the context of this brave new world are new interpretive possibilities: Hamlet can be something else and Hamlet can be something else, but a necessary change is forced upon them by virtue of their new cultural context. 

 

In this light, McCreery and Del Col are not only challenging the undisputed role that Shakespeare occupies at the centre of modern western culture, but the inviolate nature of his texts.  In the process, they re-value the interpretive perspective of colonial audiences and celebrate that audience’s ability to re-write the text and the canon.  What emerges in Kill Shakespeare is a creative call for the post-colonial re-interpretation of Shakespeare, a celebration of the ability of different cultural contexts to re-fashion meaning in old texts, and a validation of adaptation as a productive and value-forming interaction rather than a destructive act that threatens or undermines canonical texts.

 

To start with the obvious question: why Shakespeare?

 

ADC: Because he’s the greatest writer of all time, particularly in terms of character.  His characters have survived for four hundred years.  They’ve been performed time in and time out: Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, all of them.  These are the greatest characters ever created.  And his stories are the greatest; they’re so deep, so immense.  He’s got everything in the story: action, adventure, love and romance, poetry, beauty, comedy, witty pratfalls, double-crossing and cross-dressing, everything in human nature.  Shakespeare was the ultimate entertainer.  And that’s what Kill Shakespeare is about; we’re not trying to kill Shakespeare just redefine him for a whole new generation. 

 

How exactly are you redefining Shakespeare?

 

ADC: Well, there are two aspects to this: we’re redefining Shakespeare’s works but we’re also redefining Shakespeare as a character. 

 

In terms of recreating Shakespeare’s work, we’re trying to shed new light on his characters.  We’re putting them in different situations, making them come out as individuals. Often they’re so tied into their own stories in the plays—and let’s face it, a lot of people have difficulty getting into Shakespeare because of the language and often the stories are a little difficult to understand—so we’re getting the characters away from that difficult context, mixing them all together, bringing them to life in a new way.  Juliet, for instance, was a selfish, immature girl in Romeo and Juliet but in our story she’s survived and moved on and become something more, so we’re shedding new light on her character.  We want our readers to think about who these characters are at the very essence, even if it’s as simple as people thinking that Othello’s a badass or Juliet’s hot. 

 

And hopefully this will get people interested in Shakespeare who might otherwise not be. Maybe the fifteen-year-old kid that doesn’t want to read Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school might read Kill Shakespeare and think “hey, I want to read more about this guy Hamlet.”  It’s like a gateway drug into Shakespeare.  And that was one of our goals: to get people excited about Shakespeare and redefine his work for a whole new generation.

 

In terms of how we’re redefining Shakespeare as a character, as you find out over the course of the series: we’re portraying him as the Creator.  The question in the story is whether he exists or not.  He exists as a ghost in the eyes of a lot of the characters.  But whether he exists or not, the characters talk about him not as the writer of who they are—it’s not a meta-thing, not the kind of thing where a writer meets his own creations—but as a creator figure.  He’s a character that exists in his own right in this.

 

So Shakespeare exists alongside his own characters, he shares the same reality?

 

ADC: Yeah.  What was interesting is that we kind of knew who Shakespeare was going to be right off the bat.  We had that initial scene where Hamlet goes in to meet Shakespeare, and we knew exactly what Shakespeare would look like, what condition he’d be in…

 

How did you know what Shakespeare was going to look like?

 

CM: We went with a really traditional image of Shakespeare

 

Traditional from where?

 

CM: I guess from the paintings.

 

ADC: The paintings—the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare, the Chandos—right off the bat, based on those traditional images, we knew that we wanted him to look a certain way.

 

CM: A little nod to the traditionalists.  We wanted to acknowledge where he had come from—and our image of him does that—but to play with that a little, play off that a little.

 

So you’re playing with people’s expectations of who Shakespeare is?

 

ADC: If you look at the various portraits they’re so ambiguous.  You look at those images and you think that’s the genius everyone’s talking about?  And that’s kind of the first impression we want people to have when they encounter Shakespeare for the first time here. They’ll have been reading this series for nine issues, and when they finally come across him, he’s hard to see, he’s in the shadows.  We really tease it out. 

 

CM: But also in terms of who Shakespeare was going to be, we wanted Hamlet and Shakespeare to be very much reflections of each other.  In our world, they both have the same problem: they took action and it didn’t work and they decided not to take any other action.  Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake and then decides to stop trying.  He doesn’t choose to go to Polonius’s family or apologize or try to work off the debt.  There are a lot of things he could have done to redeem himself but he chose not to.  Similarly Shakespeare, in our world, realizes that he’s created this world that’s imperfect and he can’t make it better so he just retreats from the world.  In a weird way, they’re kind of similar.  But by allowing Hamlet to learn that lesson, the “get busy living or get busy dying lesson,” we made Hamlet into a softer, nicer guy, a guy who has the patience to go back to Shakespeare again and again, not just to try to win the war but because he sees somebody going through exactly the same thing that he’s been going through and wants to help him. 

 

ADC: Shakespeare is also kind of a replacement for Hamlet’s father.  In their conversations it becomes clear that Hamlet is exorcizing his own ghosts with regards to his father.  Throughout the story, Hamlet’s been dealing with all these issues and when he meets Shakespeare he finds a way to resolve them and move forward.

 

CM: Falstaff also fulfills a kind of father role for Hamlet.  But ultimately Hamlet realizes that his father is gone and he now has to take on that role in his own life.  So often stories like these end with somebody getting a direct replacement for a lost father and that’s nice and all, but at the end of the day they haven’t progressed much as a character.  We wanted Hamlet to take that last half step, to take control of his own life but still to have mentor figures.

 

So, Shakespeare’s sort of a father-figure, but he’s also a god …?

 

ADC: We’ve been warned not to use the term “god.”

 

Ok, creator-figure …

 

ADC: Yeah, we call him the Creator with a capital “C” but he is very much a god-like character.  And that’s one of the things that really intrigued us.  Hamlet enters the story with no idea of who Shakespeare is, and then he’s given an opinion that Shakespeare’s this crazy-wizard, and then other people tell him, no, he’s really this nice god that’s just confused so you have to bring him out from hiding.

 

So Shakespeare is different things to different people but the reader shouldn’t really know what to make of him initially?

 

ADC: Yeah.  And we just loved all the mystery in the story around Shakespeare.  There’s this big build up.  You never really know who he is.  Somebody suggested that Shakespeare should be our hero—people keep expecting this to be a grand, meta-thing about authorship—but Shakespeare’s a different type of character.  It’s Hamlet who’s the ultimate reluctant hero so that’s why we chose him.  We were more interested in Shakespeare as a metaphor for God.

 

CM: Shakespeare’s character gave us a chance to talk about what happens when you have a creator who can create but who can’t undo.  With the stroke of his quill he creates these worlds but once things are set in motion he finds that he can’t change what has been set in motion.

 

ADC: His quill doesn’t have an eraser at the end of it.

 

And you’re saying this isn’t a metaphor for authorship?

 

CM: Well, we’re representing Shakespeare as a god who is flawed so I guess that’s a statement about the author as end-all-be-all. 

 

But you didn’t intend for it to be a fantasy of authorship in any way? 

 

ADC: For me, what’s interesting is that our readers all see different things in our work.  We have a librarian in Philadelphia who reads over all our work and she sees all sorts of things that we didn’t necessarily intend or that we’d never even thought about.  What’s fascinating about that is that we’re the authors and we’ve put this out there but it’s taken on its own life.  Much like Shakespeare, we created this world, these characters, these individuals, and they’ve become real in their own way.  Things that weren’t even a conscious decision have taken on their own life in the minds of the readers.

 

There are some similarities, then, between what you see Shakespeare doing in the story and what you’re doing yourselves as authors? Can you expand on that a bit?

 

CM: Well, when you consider Shakespeare, to the extent that his work was created as drama, theatre was a collaborative medium.  And although we didn’t intend a parallel, comics and theatre are closer kin than people realize because they’re both immensely collaborative.  Even if it was only one of us doing the writing, we would still have had to collaborate with the artists.  And even if we had come from that comic tradition where the writer controls everything, like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore who are reportedly more autocratic with their illustrations, even there, the artists come back to the writers and make suggestions. Comic books by nature have to work that way because there are times when the artist can’t draw what you suggest and other times when the artist simply won’t.  And what are you supposed to do when that happens, fire the guy?

 

ADC: Yes!

 

CM: Sometimes the illustrator simply says he’s not going to draw it the way you want him to, it’s too boring or it’s just not interesting.  And we have to talk him down and collaborate and find out how to compromise.

 

ADC: Bribery is useful.

 

CM: There are parts of the comic that Anthony doesn’t like and he knows there are parts that I don’t like, and there are parts where we know Andy couldn’t believe he had to draw this stuff, but together we worked through it.

 

ADC: That was the part of the process that I enjoyed the most; working with Conor, and Andy and with Ian Herring and Kagan McLeod, everyone brought different things to it that I hadn’t even thought of in the past. 

 

That’s an interesting comment about comics being a lot like theatre.  There are also similarities in the way that comics and theatre allow the text to interact with a visual or performative element.  Can you talk a bit about how the illustrations interact with your text?

 

ADC: Illustrations can really affect the interpretation.  Conor and I can write a panel and imagine it in a certain way, and then Andy will come along and question that or suggest something we had never thought of.

 

CM: The biggest time is often spent on the littlest things, like the fights we have over something like an eyebrow.  For example: we’ll imagine a character delivering a line and it’s our intention that that line be seen as slightly ironic.  If the first drawing doesn’t work, we’ll go back to Andy and say: can we raise an eyebrow a little or turn up the corner of a mouth a bit?  And suddenly the text is ironic.  Where a good actor can make a lot out of very average written material, a good illustrator can do the same. And unfortunately that goes both ways; if the writer writes a brilliant speech and the actor can’t handle it or the illustrator can’t imagine it, then it’s just words sitting there.  And in a comic particularly the words just sit there if they don’t have good illustration; you read them and you have no idea what’s going on if the illustrations don’t work. And Andy’s really creative in his own right and he does challenge us a lot about why are we doing this.

 

Can you talk a bit more about how you adapted Shakespeare’s text, particularly in the first few scenes that have direct analogues in Hamlet?  You use a combination of verbatim quotations, paraphrases of Shakespeare, and narrative captions.

 

CM: This is the first mistake we made. We start off with this text that’s half Shakespeare and half not.  We adapted it much more than we should have. I really wish we’d just taken the actual text from the scene, kept it all verbatim.  I think going forward we’re going to pick and choose the actual, exact text. We may not use the entire line, but what we will use will be exact.

 

Why is that?

 

CM: I think it works better.  The biggest criticism we’ve gotten about Kill Shakespeare is that it’s neither fish nor fowl.  And I think, looking back, we agree.  It isn’t really either.  I think at the beginning we were worried that if we hit readers with Shakespeare, I mean real Shakespeare, some kid was going to combust and not turn to page four.  I think we have a little more faith in our storytelling now.  And I think it will be easier now, once we get to the sixth or seventh issue, to put in a little pure Shakespearean text for a page or two pages, and even the people who said that they didn’t want to read Shakespearean text will be OK with it. 

 

You make a reference to the Globe in the first issue: are you deliberately trying to remind the reader of the real world outside the comic?  Is this a deliberate disconnect?

 

CM: Not really.  We’ve worked in the Globe as part of the mythology around Shakespeare’s character.  He’s going to be found at some point in the series, and he’s going to be found in a physical place in that world but not necessarily in a theatre.

 

ADC: So the Globe is basically where Shakespeare may or may not be, depending on whether he does or does not exist.

 

That clears it up.

 

CM: It’s his Fortress of Solitude.  In the end he’s got to be somewhere. So why not have a nod to a real Shakespearean place?

 

So you’re not trying to play with the reader’s suspension of disbelief?

 

CM: No, hopefully that doesn’t happen.  A little uncertainty is OK in the beginning because we don’t necessarily want the reader to know whether or not Shakespeare even exists in this world, or what the reality of this world is.  But ideally, as this world becomes more complete in its own right, moments like that won’t cause the reader to wonder about the reality of it all but instead wonder how a reference like that is going to be used in this world.   

 

Do you have a concrete sense of where this is all set?

 

ADC: In one of the reviews we read they just naturally assumed this was set in Britain; that when Hamlet washed ashore, he was in Britain.  But we never really planned that. It’s not specifically Britain or anywhere.

 

CM: It’s a physically real place but not any place in particular.

 

How about when is this set? Is this set in the Elizabethan period?

 

CM: It’s kind of a time outside of time, but it looks vaguely Elizabethan.

 

ADC: That’s the interesting thing about Shakespeare productions and Shakespeare adaptations; they play with the time period all the time, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet set in the 1940s or the 13th century or set in Venice Beach, or Shakespeare Manga that’s set in the future.  With this, there’s no specific time in terms of a date, but it is set in a general Shakespearean / Elizabethan-type period.

 

CM: And that’s important because it limits what sort of technology is available to the characters.  Interestingly, we’re exploring a deal for a board game, a role-playing game using these characters, which will require us to get more specific about space and time because those games use maps, you always need to know where you are and where you’re going. As it stands now, the setting is sort of up to the reader’s imagination but there’s a sense that it includes all of Shakespeare’s characters.  So the beach that Hamlet washes up on is in a world that includes Richard and Lady Macbeth.  I guess it’s kind of a meta-world: if Shakespeare imagined it, lived in it or created it as a place, then it exists as a place in our story, but not necessarily where the reader would think those places would exist.

 

How did you choose your characters that you did?

 

ADC: We chose the characters that were most popular, that would be most recognized. 

 

CM: But they sort of called to us, too. Iago particularly.

 

ADC: At one point, we sat down and went through lists of who were the best so-called heroes and who were the best so-called villains.  Really when it came to the villains, it was always Richard III, Iago and Lady Macbeth.  Those three came naturally to us. And with the heroes it was the same thing: Hamlet was the ultimate reluctant hero and since we were following the hero’s journey we needed the mentor/sidekick figure which we had with Falstaff and then a main female protagonist in Juliet, of course. 

 

Are there rules around your characters?  Are there boundaries, limitations?

 

ADC: We try to use the foundation of who they are in the plays and keep as close to that as possible.  For instance, we’re not going to turn Othello into a blubbering mess.

 

CM: He’s never going to be a comic sidekick.


ADC: No.

 

CM: The biggest liberty we took was with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  There’s conflicting criticism around whether they were unaware that they were betraying Hamlet or whether they knew that they were carrying Claudius’ letter but thought better them carrying it than someone worse, a true enemy.  That was one of the things we really played with.  In our world, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are true friends of Hamlet.  They make a different choice than they do in Shakespeare’s story and they die on the ship.  In part, that’s because we didn’t have a lot of time or space to convey the story.  We needed to give Hamlet friends because we needed for him to lose something and to be truly alone. 

 

Have you read much Shakespeare criticism?

 

CM: Not a ton.  We’re trying to walk a tightrope between being accurate and respectful of the original on the one hand, and being too pedantic or academic on the other.  We don’t want people to read five or six pages of old English and be put off.  We really wanted to avoid that.  So while we wanted to be aware of the criticism, we also wanted just to trust ourselves and go with what struck us from reading the plays ten or fifteen years ago.  There were things in the plays that we always wondered about and this gave us an opportunity to follow up on that, to see where those questions could lead.

 

Can somebody who hasn’t read Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet get this?

 

CM: We think so.  One of the reasons we started the first issue off where we did was that it was already halfway into the story of Hamlet, so the action would immediately grab the reader.  If the reader happens to know that Hamlet really did go off on a ship and was attacked by pirates off-stage in Shakespeare’s play and then comes back and tells the story, that’s OK, but it’s not necessary.  None of our stuff is that far off from what happened or what could happen in Shakespeare.  But whether or not you know that our story is somewhat parallel to what happens in Shakespeare, you can still recognize that this is a completely plausible story. 

 

But we do provide back stories.  With a character like Juliet, for example, we wait a while to give her back story because we trust that most people know who she is.  We wait with Othello, too, partially because his back story with Iago only becomes important as the series progresses, once he’s made a couple of choices.  Once those choices have been made, then we create a moment for him to tell us his story about Desdemona and Iago.  With a character like Lady Macbeth, we don’t need to give the background, particularly because she takes an action so early in our story which gives you as much as you need to know about her character and who she is.  And Richard gives us his background in his long speech in Issue One.  You don’t need to know how it all played out in real Shakespeare but moments like that just kind of back up what you need to know. 

 

You’ve talked about creating a role-playing game.  How would that work?

 

ADC: It would be a Dungeons and Dragons-style dice game, where we put together a book and where the focus wouldn’t so much be about the story as about the characters.

 

CM: The role playing game will do a lot more to flesh out the mythology and the geography of the Kill Shakespeare world because those games are about having maps, knowing where you’re travelling to, what the flora and the fauna are like, what kinds of monsters you encounter.  We’re interested in working with the company that did the game Mouse GuardMouse Guard focused more on the acting part of the game—that was how you got your points, not just by rolling the dice.  That’s particularly interesting to us.  They’re really jazzed about the idea of creating a theatre-sports type game that would go to all the theatre groups, maybe even acting classes, so that someday you’ll be able to go and see Shakespeare improv.

 

ADC: Kill Shakespeare improv.

 

CM: Right.  In the game, there would be a game mechanic who directs from the sidelines.  For example, five minutes into the game performance, Hamlet might have to die because of a suggestion from the audience.  So the challenge to the other improvisers would be how to continue to tell Hamlet without Hamlet.  Do they switch to Hamlet’s best friend, or maybe his father’s ghost as a way to tell the story?  So, in the end, there will probably be two versions of the game:  one for the hard-core fifteen-year-old boys in their basements rolling dice and slaying monsters, and another broader game that’s more about performance and directed towards a drama class. 

 

Is it still Shakespeare if it gets retold like that, in the form of a role-playing game?

 

CM: We never claimed to be arbiters of what Shakespeare is and is not.

 

ADC: Well, what the Kill Shakespeare improv game would capture really is the essence of what Shakespeare is.  Not necessarily the stories, but the characters.  We always say this is the ultimate what if: what if we throw Hamlet in the same scene as Juliet and throw in a balcony?

 

So what motivates that?  Why not just illustrate Hamlet as is, the way Shakespeare wrote it? Why change it?

 

CM: I think it’s something that Shakespeare put in the stories himself.  He was such a keen observer of humanity; in all of his plays he made it so obvious that his characters could have gone off in any number of different ways.  All of his major characters have really well articulated moments or speeches where the audience wonders which way they’ll go.  The great thing about Shakespeare, or any good art, is that the characters are so well realized an audience can believe that the character could have chosen or acted differently and would still have been believable.  And that’s why it’s interesting to do Hamlet differently: after Hamlet kills Polonius he really struggles and Shakespeare could just as easily have written a story in which Hamlet tries to redeem himself.  It would have been a totally different story but Hamlet would still have been the same character in many ways; he would still have been torn up over how to avenge his father but he could have turned out differently.  For us, that was interesting: taking these great characters and wondering what would have happened if they had done something differently.  So we ended up with Hamlet choosing to redeem himself and somebody like Prospero choosing to damn himself. 

 

ADC: It’s intriguing to isolate these characters and shed new light on them, to take Hamlet away from all the stuff that’s happening to him and put him into a different world.

 

Why?

 

ADC: Again to put a new gloss on him, to throw him into a new scenario and highlight how great and how real the character is.  People have seen these stories time in and time out, even if Shakespeare is played in a different setting like modern-dress productions, it’s still the same character with the same outcome.  We wanted to see these characters in an altogether new context.

 

So you want people to look at Shakespeare with fresh eyes, a new perspective?

 

ADC: We wanted to shake him up a bit; redefine him for a whole new generation, bring new audiences to him. Get that fifteen-year-old kid who hates Shakespeare in English class to look at these characters and think that they’re cool.

 

CM: There’s also a bit of a fan-boy thing with us.  You read a great piece of work, and you automatically put yourself into that story and ask what would have happened if… There’s a bit of that in Kill Shakespeare.  It gives us a justifiable excuse to do something different, to continue the story.  It also illustrates how characters are not trapped by their stories but are living, breathing things.

 

Are they?

 

CM: Any writer will tell you that. 

 

ADC: Of course they are.  Whether it’s Hamlet or Holden Caulfield, you always wonder what that character is actually like.

 

CM: That’s another thing that motivated us: we didn’t want to do the Holden Caulfied Hamlet.  Hamlet isn’t always played that way, but he is played that way enough that we were sick of it.  That’s not Hamlet.  And it’s also annoying.

 

ADC: We talked about whether or not we were going to make Hamlet like that, like an Emo kid, at one point.

 

CM: Thankfully that idea got abandoned pretty early on.  But back to the question about is it Shakespeare when it comes to the role-playing game; I would argue that if somebody is truly playing King Lear it’s completely open for teachers or students to add whatever characteristics they want to the character, but if they’re playing it in a way that accurately reflects King Lear then I think that is Shakespeare.  And the great thing in a game like that is that it will create all sorts of new scenarios for the character.  Somebody can say this is who King Lear is but in this new situation, I think he would do this.  So at the end of the day, the teacher can ask why the student took the character in that direction and the student can show what they understand about the character. 

 

So it becomes a way to initiate a discussion about Shakespeare?

 

CM: Definitely.

 

Anthony, you talked about the fifteen-year-old kid who doesn’t want to read Shakespeare.  Do you think that Shakespeare needs to be adapted to survive the 21st century?

 

ADC: No.  But maybe adaptation helps to make him relevant.  If you’re just teaching him in a straight-up way—if you just teach the text or show the Zeffirelli version and that’s all –there’s so much that goes over their heads.  No matter how many times I see Romeo and Juliet, I still don’t get the Queen Mab speech.

 

CM: No matter how often you read it, no matter how well-educated you are, there are still parts that we won’t get because it’s four hundred years old.  The context for so much of it is gone.  But that’s also what makes it interesting.  Unfortunately, we’re so obsessed about getting it right and there’s just no way to get it right. Shakespeare shouldn’t be about getting it right.  No one can say what is right.

 

ADC: Kenneth Branagh can.

 

CM: Well, yeah, Kenneth Branagh can.  I think doing adaptations is fine, I think using adaptations to teach Shakespeare, to help with the language, that’s fine.  But is that what needs to be done to keep it alive? I would say no.  Shakespeare stands up very nicely on its own.

 

ADC: It’s nice to have both.

 

So adaptations like yours supplement and enhance Shakespeare?

 

CM: Yeah, I think that’s what gets you excited to learn.  Some kids might just need a different context to get excited about Shakespeare.   There’s much more interest now in examining Shakespeare in a different light, which is great.  Too often in the past Shakespeare’s plays got caught up in elitism.  Adaptations are no longer seen as academically or culturally inferior.  That’s not entirely what motivated this project, a reaction to that elitism, but certainly we wanted to be on the side of the anti-elite.  That’s a huge passion of Anthony’s: that Shakespeare is for everyone.  And we’re hoping this helps with that, that the fifteen-year-old kid who maybe doesn’t like Shakespeare can pick up Kill Shakespeare, and then go on to actual Shakespeare.  And will then really dig the real Shakespeare.  There’s nothing like real Shakespeare, it’s so good, so sharp.  To lose that, to adapt that away, to say that kids can’t eventually get that, that would be a pity.

 

To access more videos of Kill Shakespeare click on the links below:

Kill Shakespeare Comedic Sword Fight

Kill Shakespeare Fireside Chat (without the fire)

References / Links:

 

Ain’t It Cool News. Wed. 21 April. 2010. Web. 13 June. 2010. http://www.aintitcool.com/node/44749#2.

 

Bartocci, Noel. Broken Frontier. April 14. 2010. Web. 13 June. 2010.

http://www.brokenfrontier.com/reviews/p/detail/kill-shakespeare-1.

 

Callahan, Tim. Comic Book Resources. April 14. 2010. Web. 13 June. 2010.

 http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=user_review&id=2115.

 

McCreery, Conor and Anthony Del Col. Kill Shakespeare. Web. 13 June 2010.

www.killshakespeare.com

 

McMillan, Graeme. Savage Critic. April 17. 2010. Web. 13 June. 2010.

http://www.savagecritic.com/uncategorized/oh-i-can-smile-about-it-now/

 

West, Nick. WatchPlayRead. May 19. 2010.  Web. 13 June. 2010.

http://watchplayread.com/blog/2010/05/19/comic-book-review-kill-shakespeare-2-a-21st-century-classic/

 

 

NOTE: Kill Shakespeare is a 12-issue comic series published by IDW (Transformers, GI Joe, 30 Days of Night). The adventure series, which incorporates Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Puck and others, has been used in classrooms across Ontario, in the U.S. and in Germany. The creators Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col have spoken at schools and libraries and presented at the Folger Institute in Washington D.C., and the pair, as well as artist Andy Belanger, can be booked for presentations on the project, and the how-to of comic creation and creative entrepreneurship. 

 

The series has been praised on NPR, BBC, CBC, Wired.com and was listed as a New York Times selection for their 2010 Holiday Gift Guide.  It was also a selection on School Library Journal’s Top Comics for Kids 2010 and was a final selection on the prestigious YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

 

Published by IDW Publishing, more information about the series can be found at www.killshakespeare.com.  The graphic novel is available at all major comic and book stores.

 

To book Anthony and Conor for a speaking engagement please contact:

 

Anthony Del Col                         Conor McCreery

(416) 388-8587                          (416) 844-4122

delcol@canadianfilms.com        muchado@killshakespeare.com