The comic series Kill Shakespeare launched from IDW in the Spring of 2010, featuring the work of co-creators Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, and the artist Andy Belanger [aka Andy B.] and turns on the premise that some of Shakespeare's most famous heroes (Hamlet, Juliet, Falstaff, Othello, Romeo, Puck) undertake a journey to find hermit-like Wizard William Shakespeare to aid them in their fight against some of Shakespeare's most famous villains (Richard III, Iago, Lady Macbeth). Three hefty collected editions later, the comic is still going strong, with possible announcements in Spring of 2014 about future arcs.
In fact, what started off as a project with a fair chance of catching the attention of comics fans, educators, and Shakespeare buffs has spiraled into a pop cultural phenomenon of its own as demand for the series increases and the concepts for the book morph into other media incarnations, including shockingly successful stage productions, film development, and most recently, a board game as part of IDW's new games property line. The creators have actively pursued this expansion as part of their general agenda of spreading enthusiasm for Shakespeare's work and for the comic, and they show no signs of slowing down. It really begs the question, where does this all end? With Kill Shakespeare in comic shops, on stage, and headed for screens and table tops, the series is pretty much a contender for geek world domination. Co-creator Anthony Del Col spoke with me at the Kill Shakespeare booth at New York Comic Con about the formative ideas behind the influential series and also some of the remarkable media crossovers currently underway.
Hannah Means-Shannon: So, why Shakespeare for you guys? Why not some other literary or cultural figure?
Anthony Del Col: Well, the genesis of the idea was to play off the title of the film, Kill Bill. It was kind of like "Kill Bill Shakespeare". Conor McCreery and I have both been fans of Shakespeare for years. We were both introduced to him through very good English teachers in high school and that kind of brought Shakespeare to life for us. It also came to life for us through seeing Shakespeare, through going to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We're very fortunate being based in Toronto, having access to the festival, the largest Shakespeare festival in North America. My sister has a Masters in English Lit, so I learned a lot from her through osmosis. We've always just enjoyed his stories and his characters. The ability to bring him to life in a whole new way through this is exciting. If you ask, why are we not doing this with other authors, it's tough. With Dickens, the average person can only name three or four characters tops. With Jane Austen, you have the hard core Austenites, but that's more of a niche group. If you look at any of the big authors, it's tough to name more than a handful of characters whereas with Shakespeare, even if you haven't seen Othello, you know who Othello is. He's universal that way.
HMS: He's more part of the public consciousness. There's a practical aspect, then? People know these characters.
ADC: Yes, that was big for us. We wanted the brand. We wanted to shine a whole new spotlight on him. It just has that universal appeal. Through the Western world, everyone studies two to five plays at various points in their education, so people are aware. Shakespeare's been around for 400 years, he'll be around for another 400 years. They often say he's the greatest writer of all time, I would say he's the greatest entertainer of all time.
HMS: He has an established fan-base, you might say!
ADC: (laughs) Yes, and part of the point is we're trying to grow that fan-base. The whole point of Kill Shakespeare is to get people excited about Shakespeare in a whole new way. Because there are so many people who, unfortunately, have bad experiences with Shakespeare, bad teachers who don't realize that when Shakespeare wrote his plays, he wrote them to be performed. He did not write them to be read in class.
HMS: Do you intentionally put in Easter eggs for big Shakespeare fans when it comes to the artwork?
ADC: Oh yes. Andy Belanger [aka Andy B.], our artist, has probably listened to and read more about Shakespeare than even we have, and he places some of those Easter eggs in there. We also place some in there. We're trying to write for two levels, though. For those who know nothing about Shakespeare, it's very easy to get into. It's action, adventure, drama, and there are the characters. But for those who do know Shakespeare, we throw in those Easter eggs. We always compare it to Pixar. So Pixar makes their films for young children, but also there are a bunch of references that are slyly put in for the adults, to keep them entertained. Whether it's a pop culture reference or a plot point, anything like that. And we're just fortunate because a lot of professors like Kill Shakespeare. For a lot of professors, they just feel like Shakespeare is under appreciated, so if anyone does a unique take on Shakespeare, they are all behind that. There are some that have rebelled against us, though*.
[* Most famously Kimberly Cox, who wanted to "bitch-slap" them here on Bleeding Cool in 2010, though they had Rich Johnston saying "blimey" as early as their preview and rightly predicting they'd be optioned]
HMS: Why did you choose the characters you have chosen from Shakespeare for the series? Why them and not others? How did you make that decision?
ADC: Well, Conor always likes to joke that we didn't choose the characters, the characters chose us. They came up and tapped us on the shoulder and said, "Hey, we want in on this". It's funny because when we first came up with the idea, we were just brainstorming off the Kill Bill character, and we thought Juliet, Othello, Richard III. And we basically went through the whole list and chose the most popular characters and the most interesting characters. The only one that's changed from the original incarnation was the main character. Because originally it was going to be someone from today, who would find this portal into the Shakespeare land and have to do battle, track down Shakespeare and kill him. But then, this character had a backstory with the loss of someone close to them, and we just thought the tone would be off. It would have been more Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure than Lord of the Rings. So we thought, if we want a character who's got some sort of family member who's just passed away, why don't we just go to the granddaddy of them all, Hamlet? The character we get the most flack about it Juliet, because people are like, "I hate her. Why couldn't you get Kate, or Helena, or Viola?"
HMS: That wasn't my reaction as a reader, actually, but it was part of my curiosity in asking that question. Because I was thinking, putting Juliet in an active role does make sense, but it's an interesting choice. And even putting Hamlet in an active role is an interesting choice.
ADC: Yeah, Hamlet, after putting him in the books, and then adapting the books to a stage play, the more we work with him, the more we realize what a complex character he is. And even now he's changing in every incarnation. In the comic he's one way, then in the stage play, he's a little more active, and in the screenplay, even more. We're adding on layers. Regarding Juliet, I spoke to a scholar when I gave a lecture at Oxford University over the summer, and she understood why I had chosen Juliet because she felt that Juliet really drives the action of the play. To talk like Beyonce for a minute, "If you want it, then you got to put a ring on my finger". She's the one who comes up with a plan. You could argue that she drives the plot more than any other character does, both in terms of action and in terms of speech.
HMS: How did you decide on an art style or an artist that would suit the series?
ADC: Conor [McCreery] and I sat down with a bunch of artists from around Canada and the USA, and Andy [Belanger] was the one who just stepped up right away. We liked his art, more importantly, we liked his vision for the project. Within 10 minutes of first talking with him, he said, "Because it's Shakespeare and because I really love the world that you're creating, I think I really want to do a lot of work on the backgrounds". A lot of American comics just focus on the foreground, in the mainstream, on the characters, and they just ignore the background. So, he said, "I want to treat every panel as a story unto itself". That was the vision he had right away and we loved his energy for it. He slammed his hand on the table within five minutes and said, "I've always wanted to draw Lady Macbeth. I want in". It's always important to work with someone you enjoy working with, and we liked his style. He has a lot of influences in terms of horror comics and horror movies and we really wanted to play that up. Because we didn't want this to be soft. We wanted to make it a little violent, a little edgy. So we liked the idea of putting a lot in the background as well as making it dark that way.
HMS: Tell me more about the live performance aspect of Kill Shakespeare.
ADC: We have played in about 12 cities so far worldwide. We debuted it at Soulpepper Theatre, which is the top theatre company in the city [of Toronto]. So what it is, it's a unique stage show. It's a hybrid of the comic and a theatre show. So what we do is we take the images from the comic and project them up onto a screen like a panel, and the actors are seated on stage and they read out the dialogue, create the sound effects, do the voice work. And they do the music live, so it's like a radio play and comic book come to life. It debuted in Toronto in November 2011, and last year it played in 7 or 8 cities, ran for one week in Halifax, where it was named the best show of the year there. It played in Chicago for 3 weeks, and it premiered internationally in Dubai.
We're going to do an LA show at Comikaze. There's going to a unique take on it at Kitchener-Waterloo in Canada in November, where they are going to bring in circus performers and animators. The whole thing with the play is that we've kind of adapted Shakespeare's characters and made them our own, so we open it up to people. We say, "Here's the script and here are the images, but you can fool around with it however you want". The Chicago performance, for instance, had rotating screens, and instead of having the actor on stage, the actors were seated behind the stage so you're watching the comic book and hearing everything around you in surround sound.
HMS: I think you might be onto something!
ADC: Well, we'd love to turn it into a kind of Rocky Horror Picture Show for the comics scene. There was one production last year where they actually did it interactively, passed out cutlery silverware, and when they flashed the sign for "battle scene", that was the sound for swords. The swords clashing. And you could just see all the glee, the laughter, the look on peoples' faces. It was amazing. We don't force that on anyone. They can do what they want. We give it to them license and royalty free. All we ask is that if they turn a profit somehow, they give that to charity. We aren't in the production to become millionaires. If it's a way to get people excited about Shakespeare or the comic, that's what it is.
HMS: It's intriguing that you're interested in the scope of the Kill Shakespeare concept well beyond comics.
ADC: Well, that's the thing. Not everyone reads comics, but if there's a stage production and a film, that can attract other audiences too. A video game, a board game, too. My mom and her friends, would they read a comic? Probably not, though some of them have. If not, they wouldn't, they'd see a film or play a game or go to a stage show.
HMS: That's surprisingly pertinent, right? You're part of the new gaming incentive from IDW that was just announced, aren't you?
ADC: Yes. They announced that last week. IDW officially launched a week ago. IDW games. The two titles they are going to do first are 30 Days of Night and Kill Shakespeare. That was something they approached us with about two months ago and asked us if we'd be interested and we said yes. We've explored board games in the past but we decided not to do that. Hardcore board game geeks can get into Shakespeare. I know nothing about writing board games and neither does Conor, but we'll learn along the way and we're excited about it. We'll probably be writing some content for the game.
They've just brought in the designers on it and it'll be very much like a game called Yaido. We're looking at late Spring, early Summer release, and hopefully have it ready for San Diego Comic Con next year. There will be some big gaming conventions in the spring and summer that we hope it'll be ready for.
HMS: So you have three volumes collected already. How far does this go for you? Is this your opus?
ADC: Well, I'd love to do it for the next 25 years! I hope I have many opuses, but when we first launched Kill Shakespeare, we knew what the first three stories would be. The first story is the first two trades. The second story is the third trade. And we have an idea for a third one. But because it's going very well and we've just enjoyed doing it so much, we've realized that there are so many characters that we haven't been able to incorporate yet. A lot of the comedy characters we haven't been able to put in yet, so we're toying around with an idea for the next series which we haven't even had a chance to start working on yet. Sometime next year, hopefully, there'll be an announcement about that. But yes, we'd love to have Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing, or Kate from The Taming of the Shrew. We have an idea for that which would not involve the main characters like Juliet, but new characters. So there are hundreds of possible characters. People come up to us and they want King Lear…
ADC: We've always said that there are a lot of Shakespeare geeks and there are a lot of comic geeks. Comics are the kind of thing that if you're at a party, you don't necessarily say, "Have you read the latest Batman?", but as soon as someone mentions it, you are able to, and you can geek out about it. And it's the same with Shakespeare. That's why we do it. We hit the cross section between comic fans and Shakespeare fans.
Hannah Means-Shannon is Senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.