Advance Review: Magic, Medieval Scotland, And Three Fates Revisit Macbeth

Previously titled Three Witches, but changed now to Toil and Trouble, both titles should give you a clue to what the subject matter is for this new 6 part series from Archaia arriving September 2nd. It's composed of an impressive team up between the critically praised Mairghread Scott and the sister artist team of Kelly and Nichole Matthews as they take a counter-intuitive approach to the role of the three witches so central to the plot of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

STK681890[Kyla Vanderklugt Cover for #1]

For those interested in early medieval Britain, and in particularly Scotland, the work that the creative team put in to rendering the comic semi-historical is not unfounded. I was pretty surprised when I was a teenager traveling in the parts of Scotland that are featured in the play Macbeth to find their historical roots, and echoes of many elements in history that turn up in the play. From the Thane of Cawdor to Birnam Wood, Shakespeare's Macbeth is more than just a tragedy–it's a near history play. I say "near" because the facts are pretty blurred in the mists of time. And Scott and the Matthews sisters have found ample room there to explore some very interesting ideas.

We've been fascinated in pop culture in recent years by looking through the eyes of the underdog at well-known stories. We've had Wicked, looking at the perspective of Oz's witches. More recently in comics, we've had Rasputin from Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo which takes a much maligned figure from history, takes a walk on the wild side of magic, and gives his ambiguous take on morality and decision-making. And that's a great comic.

Toil and Trouble brings us the world of three witches who are more or less the guardians of Alba (Scotland) and especially concerned with who reigns as king there. As in the play Macbeth, we witness various parties jockeying for power, with the added pressure of the arrival of the ruler of Norway and his forces to back King Duncan's side. Our three witches are reinvented in surprising terms, steeped in lore, familiar spirits, interpersonal struggles, and above all, a deep concern for "fate" and making sure things come out in the wash the way they are meant to be. It's a fascinating spider-web of reasoning that leads them to choose who must win in this race for rule and a minefield for ethics as they get involved, gently swaying the balance of battle with their powers.


[Kyla Vanderklugt Cover for #2]

Except there's going to be more conflict here than you'd expect. Among our three witches there is some dissent. The red-haired Smertae is something of our identification character, having been exiled and returning to deal with the conflict. She's an old friend of Macbeth's and is going to question things much more closely than her fellow fates might. And thereby hangs the tale.

Scott is a fantastic writer. She's proven that in other works so far. But this is her first wholly original series, having previously worked with established properties. Here she's pursuing her own concepts more fully, and it's an impressive thing to see her spread her wings in this way. Now, her writing choices veer toward the formal, and there is plenty of set up needed in the first issue, but when you consider her subject matter, making sure she's not throwing the Shakespearian baby out with the bathwater simply to make a modern fairy-tale style update to Macbeth is laudable. She's trying to create something more graceful and more meaningful than a simple update with a new slant, judging from the first issue.

Kelly and Nichole Matthews' artwork is delightful. It's energetic, bright, able to pass over detail when it's not needed and home in on specifics when it is needed. They handle big battle scenes masterfully already, making you choose to look at each sector of spreads just to make sure you've taken it all in. They design their witches in distinctive and invitingly interesting fashion–you'll spend time "reading in" plenty to the aspects of their appearance to judge their personalities. The use of clear lines and bold colors works very well with the complexity of the narrative to keep things charged with tension and movement.

I hope that readers who see the comic on the shelf when it arrives realize that Toil and Trouble is not just a take on Macbeth, but a look at myth and folklore of the British Isles, a measured attempt at untangling some of the stickier and unexplained elements of the Macbeth legend, and a study of three very interesting female characters who just happen to have a lot of power and decisions to make. From what I've seen so far, it's a confident, finely wrought comic and it'll be well worth spending some time with it.

Toil and Trouble #1 arrives in shops on September 2nd, is listed in Previews World with item code: JUL151089 and reaches FOC today, Monday the 10th of August.

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About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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