Not Your Father’s Classics Illustrated

“Who’s there?”

It’s the opening line of William Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, and it’s also one of the most important.  Like all great opening lines, “Who’s there?” sets the tone for the entire story.  The first scene begins in the middle of the night during the changing of the castle guard, and while the opening line itself might seem innocuous, it’s significant because it’s not spoken by the guard on duty, but rather by the relief guard.

Which, of course, is wrong.  “Who’s there?” shouldn’t be the relief guard’s line.  Anyone who has ever seen a cheesy Hollywood movie knows that.  The line might be a little more fancy—“Hark! Who goes there?”—but it clearly belongs to the guard on duty.  Shakespeare just gets it wrong.

Ah, but perhaps there is method in such madness, for in this play it’s not just the guards who are reversed.  Things truly are rotten in Denmark.  The old king has died, and before his son can even make it home for the funeral to assume the throne, the dead king’s brother has married the widowed queen and taken the crown.  In other words, the wrong guy’s king.

Over the course of the next four-plus hours, Shakespeare gives us a world where nothing is as it seems, and he focuses on a character, Hamlet, who continually asks deep, probing, metaphysical questions:  Is the ghost really my father?  Should I take revenge?  What did my mother know?  Should I kill myself?  What happens to us when we die?  Is there an afterlife?  Is there a “Providence” or god-like figure watching out for us?

Or, if someone wanted to boil it all down to two words, “Who’s there?”

Given all this, perhaps it’s appropriate that in the comic book series, Kill Shakespeare, Hamlet is commissioned to search for a god-like figure—Will Shakespeare—whose existence is not fully verified.  Moreover, Hamlet has been given an order to kill Shakespeare by the English King Richard III, a villain who pretends to be friendly.  Nothing in Kill Shakespeare is as it seems, and nothing is verifiable.  Who’s there?  Indeed.

Kill Shakespeare is one of the more unusual mainstream comics of the past few years—unusual because it’s paradoxically both daring and conventional.  Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col present a large cast of Shakespearian characters, many of whom are given little introduction or explanation, in a shared universe seemingly designed to appeal to Shakespeare buffs.  And yet, the story is presented as a potboiler—a fantasy quest with lots of action driven by mystery—and the cast is clearly divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.”

In other words, it’s a very conventional mainstream comic book story.  Prior to Kill Shakespeare, the most recognizable “Shakespeare comics” were probably Shakespeare’s three appearances in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  But those stories were introspective and restrained, and Gaiman countered the fantasy elements with lots of historical detail and plausibility.  Had Gaiman written his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” a bit differently so that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, was turned into a vampire and Shakespeare and Richard Burbage had to team up in order to hunt him down and kill him, we’d have something a little closer in tone to Kill Shakespeare.

The template for the series, of course, comes primarily from Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Bill Willingham’s Fables.  However, in both those instances, the characters seem perfectly at home in the world of genre comics, so there’s not much of a stretch involved.  On the other hand, Shakespeare’s characters, despite their populist origins, have since been entombed under the glass casing of the literary canon.

And yet, it’s the ill-fitting and unapologetically conventional approach of this story that makes it work.  It’s designed to be fun, and it mostly is.  The glee with which the creators embrace their pulpy handling of the material gives the whole series a very ironic, post-modern feel, much like a Jane Austen action figure or my wife’s prize collection of “Literary Theorist” bubble gum cards.

And the central conceit relies on a somewhat illogical shared universe concept.  It reminds me of an episode of the old Buck Rogers TV show where the Defense Directorate has to rely on a collection of new pilots to fight off the bad guys.

(Author’s note:  Yes I know that’s a pitiful summary, but being more precise would mean sitting through a whole hour of Twiki, and I really haven’t the stomach for it tonight.  Maybe next time.)

Anyway, one of the “special” pilots was played by Buster Crabbe, star of the Flash Gordon serials (as well as the original Buck Rogers serial).  When Buck congratulates the new pilots, Crabbe introduces himself as Brigadier Gordon.  It’s only a walk-on really, a glorified cameo, but the implication is clear.  Flash Gordon just shared a moment with Buck Rogers.

I first saw this episode as an adult, but had I seen it as a kid and had I grasped its full meaning, it would’ve seemed quite familiar.  After all, in my imagination, the U.S.S. Enterprise and the Battlestar Galactica were both part of the same fleet, and they counted among their fighter pilots Han Solo, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon.  There was no real logic to it and no copyright lawyers.  It was just fun.

That sense of childish fun that comes with a shared universe is a big part of what drives Kill Shakespeare.  I think we comics readers take this concept a little for granted given the way it’s dominated the medium for so long now.  But removed from the pages of comics, we still see the power of the concept.

Take the movies, for example.  As the Marvel Studios films began teasing audiences with those Samuel L. Jackson post-credits cameos, part of the thrill was the sense that somehow they were breaking the rules by suggesting that Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark existed in the same movie universe as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.  After all, James Bond and Jason Bourne never teamed up to hunt down the Jackal.

But strangely enough there is some literary precedent.  Most of J.D. Salinger’s stories feature members of the same family, and a great many of William Faulkner’s novels take place in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictionalized version of the Mississippi county where Faulkner lived.  Throughout the novels, Faulkner returns to some of the same characters and families, though he’s not always consistent.  Perhaps Jack Daniels doesn’t make for the best of continuity cops.

But the shared universe concept is enormously satisfying in Kill Shakespeare.  The idea of Richard III and Macbeth as rivals with vague references to a powerful “King Lear” all seems quite natural.  In fact, the political intrigue of these royal houses works the best here, much more than the roughly aligned “good guys” like Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, and Falstaff.  Their connections don’t seem nearly as organic.

And you certainly don’t want to think too closely about any of it.  In one bonus feature, we learn that the characters from Julius Caesar exist in the same universe but from the past.  However, Richard III refers to a threat from “Titus,” which I took to mean the Roman general, Titus Andronicus.  Why is he in the same era as Hamlet and the others?  And there are also references to King Lear, though the “historical” Lear, such as he was, would’ve actually pre-dated even the Romans.

And there are many unexplained changes—Othello and Juliet are both alive but Desdemona and Romeo are dead, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inexplicably remain loyal to Hamlet.  But perhaps the greatest surprise involves Lady Macbeth’s betrayal of her husband.  Given that the Macbeths have what is arguably the closest and most affectionate marriage in all of Shakespeare, it seems a particularly odd choice.[1]

But no matter.  You shouldn’t read a book like Kill Shakespeare in order to see your interpretations of the plays fully validated any more than you should listen to Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” for hints of “Moonlight Sonata.”  This isn’t Classics Illustrated, though I love the idea of teenagers encountering these characters in this format before leaping into the iambic pentameter.

That’s not to say that the book is a masterpiece.  At its core, Kill Shakespeare is a romp, offering good, unpretentious fun.

Unpretentious except, I guess, for all that Shakespeare stuff.

[1] I have only read the first volume, so perhaps this is developed in a more satisfactory manner later in the series.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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