At this year’s Comic Con, I had the chance to sit down with Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, the two men behind the Kill Shakespeare plot.
Karyn Pinter: First things first, why kill Shakespeare? What inspired this story?
Anthony Del Col: Well, there were a couple of things that inspired this story — one was just we’re both big Shakespeare fans, and we wanted to create something that would get people excited about Shakespeare and help redefine it for a new generation. Get away from the stigma that it’s always done by an older British gentleman in tights, and to show and highlight these characters and these stories that are the greatest ever created. If you just go down the list — Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, Richard III, Lady Macbeth — these are characters that even if you’ve never read the plays before, you still know who they are.
Conor McCreery: As for the inspiration or how we came up with the idea, we were just trying to come up with new ideas and it all kind of started as a joke. We were joking about Kill Bill, and instead of killing David Carradine we should kill Bill Shakespeare, and, you know, maybe these characters would want to kill him and these others would want to save him. I think what took it beyond just “hey, that’d be a neat idea” and “let’s keep brainstorming” was just how interesting it became to do something different. Shakespeare has been re-imagined in so many different ways and it says a lot about why Shakespeare is relevant in today’s culture, because people continue to want to tell these stories. We were given the opportunity to not tell the story over again, or in a different way, but to tell a new story using these characters. For the longest while we looked around and thought, for the exception of a couple of plays, no one had really done this, and we were kind of shocked. We kept waiting to stumble upon this big, Shakespeare meta-story that we just didn’t know about, and we never found it. Then we thought, we’re actually going to be the ones to write this; that’s pretty exciting.
Del Col: The real untold story though is we were originally going to call it Kill Bill, and it was going to be all the Baldwin brothers, and they were all going to be hunting down and trying to kill Billy Baldwin. But we thought we couldn’t get the rights, we couldn’t get the Baldwin rights.
Pinter: So the villains, and their motives for killing Shakespeare –
Del Col: The Baldwins you mean?
Pinter: Um, no, the Sheens. Sheens vs. Baldwins.
Del Col: Wow, that’s West Side Story all over again.
Pinter: Or the Fondas vs. the Baldwins.
Pinter: I wanna see Jane Fonda in a fight.
McCreery: She would rock.
Del Col: Like Jane Fonda in the Barbarella era?
Pinter: She would own it, she wants it. She wants it more. But no, the villains — like Richard III and Lady Macbeth, why choose these villains? Was it because they are the most famously evil?
McCreery: A little bit. The villains kind of came to us. The heroes were obvious. We knew Hamlet was going to be the main character, we knew Juliet had to be in it and that opened up the possibility of Romeo having a part in the story. But those villains just came to us. They are as you said, the most famous, but Lady Macbeth and Richard, they wormed their way into the story, especially Lady Macbeth.
Pinter: Well, that’s understandable because of her character.
McCreery: Yeah, it’s very much like the character. We were writing Lady Macbeth as a threat, and anyone who has read the first three issues will have an idea of how that power struggle is going. She wouldn’t let us marginalize her.
Del Col: You are right when you say these are the most famous, and most of the time when scholars or Shakespeare buffs put together a list of the top ten villains of all time, Iago normally shows up as the top one, and Richard III is always there and Lady Macbeth. It just felt natural. One thing about this project is that we didn’t want to put in all obscure characters because we wanted to make it accessible to everyone.
Pinter: So you’ve got Richard III and Lady Macbeth, but there are also characters like Falstaff that not everyone will know.
Del Col: Yeah, out of all the major characters, Falstaff is probably the least well known, but for Shakespeare fans he’s one of everyone’s favorites.
McCreery: He’s just a natural storytelling device. As we write Kill Shakespeare, we start to gain a little more insight into the mind of The Bard. We started to see why Shakespeare kept Falstaff around for so many of his works, because Falstaff is a great character. Here’s a guy who’s interested in wine, women, and song, but has time to do something of substance occasionally — between drinking binges. You need someone like that, who’s not uber heroic. Sometimes he the easiest character to write because he’s the one that’s most accessible; there’s a lot of us in Falstaff.
Pinter: Writing the characters, taking on Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, and Juliet, how do you find the voices for them? Do you feel intimidated handling these characters that were created by Shakespeare and reworking them to fit your needs?
Del Col: Not really, I mean Shakespeare wrote his productions 400 years ago and they’ve been told and retold and retold in all kinds of configurations. This is just a different version of it. With respect to the voices of characters, we try to be as honest and true to the foundations of what Shakespeare created in his words, what the character of Hamlet is like, what the character of Juliet is like. For most of them we’ve just added on to them. For instance, Juliet has survived her romance with Romeo and it’s now seven or eight years later, and she’s the leader of this rebellion and we think that’s just a natural extension for her. We had to imagine what would happen if you felt you’d caused the death of your first love; how do you atone for that, and how are you now as a human being?
McCreery: It’s where we take our departures from what Shakespeare wrote is how I think the voices found us in many ways. Juliet is a distinct person in our world because it is seven years later and she’s had some experience. Hamlet is a distinct person because our Hamlet is much more public in terms of his questioning killing Polonius. Here he’s killed this guy, he did it because he thought it was the guy that killed his dad, but he still got the wrong guy. Getting into that aspect of Hamlet is what gave us this different voice, and also now Hamlet is at a distance from that problem. One of the unique things for Hamlet is he’s been sent away and he has to get some perspective, which he never could have while in that castle seeing Claudius everyday. A lot of that provides the distinct voices and why our Hamlet is a unique Hamlet. We hope it’s still a valid Hamlet.
Pinter: The artist isn’t sitting with us, bu
t let’s talk about bringing the characters to life, not verbally but visually. Richard with his deformed arm—I’ve only read Richard III once, in college; Hamlet I’ve read about five times so I know him by heart almost — but Richard, both in the play and in your comic, says that the arm is not his weakness but his power. I just like the way his arm is drawn in the comic, and how Richard is portrayed.
McCreery: You know the great thing about working with Andy [Belanger, the artist] is that he’s a storyteller in his own right. He has a couple of web comics that he does, Bottle of Awesome, which is part of the Zuda family, and something called Rising Hell with the Canadian Collective, and so he brings his own storytelling perspective. It’s frustrating sometimes because he’ll say no. We’ll give him a script and he’ll fight back and push back, but generally we get a better product because of that. And I think things like the arm — we never really said it had to be deformed. Andy sort of made those decisions and came back with his idea of the character, and most times we’re saying yeah, that’s what was in our minds. It’s always a pleasure to see his first set of pencils.
Pinter: Do you ever wonder if this is what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the characters? I can’t remember if he goes into too much detail of what Richard looks like other than he’s got a malformed arm that he keeps tucked away. Or even what Hamlet looks like.
McCreery: Well he is supposed to be deformed.
Del Col: Most of the time people portray him with a hunched back. Did Ian McKellen play him as a hunchback in his Richard III?
Pinter: Uh, you know I can’t remember. I know he kept the arm tucked away in his sleeve, but I just can’t remember about the hunched back.
Del Col: It’s seems portrayals are of him as a hunchback; Olivier’s version had a hunched back. We wanted to freshen up Shakespeare. Yes, Richard had his deformities, and that kind of defines him as a character, but we wanted to change it up a bit. With all these characters, we wanted to put fresh new perspectives on them. Along the way he’s met Juliet who is leader of this rebellion.
Pinter: So there’s going to be a little connection there between the two, Othello and Juliet?
Del Col: Yeah.
McCreery: Yeah, there’s definitely a relationship between the two of them. Othello’s a neat guy because as we get to know more about him, he just wanted to kill Iago, so now why did he get involved with Juliet’s rebellion? In a lot of ways, Othello is a lot more complex character than just a guy out for revenge.
Del Col: And the other character that shows up is Alec Baldwin. He plays himself.
McCreery: Actually there is another one of Shakespeare’s favorite villains. We’re not going to say who it is, but if you’re a big Shakespeare fan, this guy’s on a lot of the top ten lists.
Del Col: Even if you’re not familiar with Shakespeare, this villain is kind of a scary guy, scary looking and intimidating — and his name is not Billy Baldwin.
McCreery: Yeah, Billy Baldwin isn’t intimidating.
Del Col: Stephen Baldwin.
Pinter: Oh well, Stephen Baldwin–
Del Col: Now that’s a Baldwin.
Pinter: Running around with his Hannah Montana tattoo.
Pinter: So is this going to be a multi-volume story? Or is it just going to be one complete run?
Del Col: Well, right now it’s a twelve issue series, so we know what’s going to happen over those twelve issues. We have ideas about what’s going to happen in the second series and the third series if it gets to that point. We’d love to do that, to take some of the characters that survive the first twelve.
Pinter: And have them all come back for Kill Shakespeare Volume Two, The Bloodening?
Del Col: Ha ha, yes, but the great thing about Shakespeare, and our concept, is that we’ve got the world of Shakespeare to play with. There are hundreds and hundreds of characters, and we’d love to incorporate as many of them as possible. That’s the one thing about having only twelve issues, that there were so many characters we had to leave out. As we move on we’d like to put more in, and maybe move beyond that and do a spin off or prequels.
Pinter: So, did I hear whispering that there may be a production of Kill Shakespeare happening? Movie or otherwise?
McCreery: We are actually headed, after Comic Con, up to Los Angeles because there have been companies that have read the first comic and think there might be something there. And it’s funny you say production because we’ve had a little conversation with the largest Shakespeare festival in North America, the Stratford Festival. They love it and thought about doing a stage mounting. Hopefully, it will go into different mediums.
Del Col: And Billy Baldwin’s going to be in it.
Pinter: You could sign him up to play Richard.
McCreery: It’s going to be all Baldwins. We’re going to have Baldwins playing Lady Macbeth.
Pinter: So you’re going old school, putting them in big wigs and flouncy dresses?
Del Col: It’d be very Kids in the Hall.
McCreery: But in all seriousness, movies, those are like the mass culture. Even video games, that’s the way you get most people to view your story. As storytellers who think we have a good story we want as many people as possible to at least get a chance to see it, and say yeah this is great or no it isn’t. We’re very excited with the notion that it could become something else, but we want to finish the graphic novel first.
Pinter: Now, are there a few words you’d like to get out to prospective fans to convince them to go out and read Kill Shakespeare?
Del Col: Buy it or Billy Baldwin will get you.
Pinter: I wouldn’t put it past him.
Del Col: No, I mean, Kill Shakespeare, whether you know the works of Shakespeare or not, is a story you can really get into. It’s full of fantastic characters, it’s full of action and adventure, love and romance, comedy, drama, bloody violence, double crossing, cross-dressing, all the staples of fantastic storytelling. When you think about it, I know it’s kind of cheesy to say but–
McCreery: Are you going to say it’s an adventure of Shakespearian proportions?
Del Col: It’s an adventure of Shakespearian proportions.
McCreery: You know, I think the other thing we’d say is Shakespeare is a lot more accessible than people realize, and people are telling us now that they are reading the comic and want to look into Shakespeare for the first time, or again. If there’s someone out there who’s like “I don’t know if Shakespeare is for me . . . .”
Pinter: Don’t let high school throw you off.
McCreery: Yeah, yeah!
Del Col: Yes.
McCreery: Don’t let a bad high school teacher block you from some of the best stories you will ever read. If you like stories, you will like Kill Shakespeare.
Del Col: That’s our guarantee.
Pinter: If you have a problem, take it up with the Baldwins.
McCreery: Yes, the Baldwins will give you your money back.
Pinter: You know, I’m pretty sure we’re going to get some angry letters after this — from the Baldwins. I will never work in Hollywood again.
McCreery: The Baldwins have a lot of power.
Pinter: They do.
McCreery: But we’ve got your back.
Pinter: Thanks. Well, I do believe that’s it. Let’s stop before we piss off anyone else. Thank you, guys, for talking about Kill Shakespeare.
McCreery: Thank you.
Del Col: It was a pleasure.