With his partner Colin McCreery back home waiting for his wife to give birth, Anthony Del Col–co-creator of the comic book series Kill Shakespeare–goes solo as he addresses an audience at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse about his unique literary project. The evening is part of a series of talks hosted at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre examining those inspired by Shakespeare’s works. Described by its masterminds as Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones meets Shakespeare in Love, the comic serves as a perfect example of utilising popular culture and mediums to reconnect the millennial generation with classic literature. Del Col, a self-confessed Shakespeare enthusiast, describes his fascination with the plays and the characters, the choice to venture into the world of comic books and his mission to acquaint a wider audience with the power of Shakespeare’s words.
Whilst sat brainstorming ideas for a new console game with Connor McCreery, Anthony Del Col was struck with the notion of focusing a video game around Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. ‘We were sure it would already be a game though,’ he says, ‘but we started spit-balling all the different Bills out there that we could kill’. Thus was born the decision to kill Bill Shakespeare.
So why Shakespeare?
Stood on a stage dedicated to showcasing the works of this phenomenal playwright, it is clear that Del Col is eager to express his adoration of Shakespeare. ‘I’ve been a fan for 20 years,’ he proclaims proudly. Growing up in a small town in Canada, Del Col admits to having suffered through the terrible lessons of a high school English teacher who left him feeling alienated and disconnected from the play he was studying in class. He recalls fondly that it was The Merchant of Venice. ‘But I’d heard Shakespeare was the best and so I thought that there must be more to the material than this.’ Taking the initiative, Del Col purchased a reading guide of the play and discovered the tension, poignant dialogue and disturbing messages present in the play which his teacher had managed to gloss over. Having discovered Shakespeare outside of the classroom, through his own research and after watching powerful and enlightening performances at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Del Col summarised that ‘teachers who do not know how to teach Shakespeare ruin it for their students; if their teachers are not enthusiastic about Shakespeare, then the children will never be.’
‘I want to kill this perception that Shakespeare is bad and boring’, Del Col declares animatedly, ‘the comic is a bridge that makes visual what is hidden in the words.’
He calls upon the violence in King Lear and Titus Andronicus to illustrate his point. ‘The eye-gouging and the human meat pies – people miss all these things because of their lack of understanding of the language.’ Not only were the themes and imagery set in place hundreds of years before Del Col and McCreery began fantasising about slaughtering Shakespeare but so were the characters. Cheekily skimming over the fact that the characters made for a cheap artistic choice because they were in the public domain, Del Col makes the point that Shakespeare’s characters were also in the public domain in the sense that they were embedded in peoples’ consciousness. ‘Everyone has heard of Romeo, Juliet and Hamlet. Using these pre-established characters helps people get into the story easier and assists the plot in rising above the noise.’
What is the comic about?
Imitating the concept of the story ‘mashup’ genre made popular in films and TV shows like The Avengers and Once Upon a Time, Del Col and McCreery relished the idea of placing all of Shakespeare’s infamous characters in the same universe where they had to the potential to meet. Together, they devised a plot wherein the righteous Prodigals band together to save their great creator William Shakespeare from their enemies. Headed by Lady Macbeth and King Richard III, the ‘baddies’ seek to kill him, believing him to be an evil wizard equipped with a powerful quill that can shape reality. With a few invocations of artistic license which leave all of the tragic heroes and villains alive and well, the comic serves as a thrilling exploration of what could have happened to Shakespeare’s characters outside the events of their respective plays. Thanks to Del Col and McCreery’s creative storytelling, Juliet – hardened by the supposed loss of Romeo – proves to be a brave young woman resolved to save Shakespeare at any cost; Lady Macbeth is a raging femme fatale who finally kills her husband for his ineptitude; Othello and Hamlet are turned into a sword-for-hire and the ‘Shadow King’ tasked with locating the illusive Shakespeare whilst Falstaff provides the bawdy comic relief.
Why produce it as a comic book?
Having learnt to truly appreciate the plays after seeing them dramatized in performance, Del Col recognised the power of visually realising the Bard’s material. As such, he claims he was inspired by the thought of bringing the works and the characters to life through the vivid artwork of comic books. He admits that Shakespeare – considered to be very ‘high-brow’ – was a bizarre choice to combine with the supposedly ‘low-brow’ format of the comic.
‘But comics are the best way to present Shakespeare because you are only limited by your imagination!’
Del Col exclaims excitedly, ‘With plays and film you are limited by the set or the CGI but with a comic that just isn’t the case.’ For me, this is the most striking thing that Del Col says about Kill Shakespeare. Whether intentional or not, he has overcome a flaw that Shakespeare himself lamented in his plays: the walls of the theatre. The chorus of Henry V asks the audience to excuse the ‘wooden O’ they actually see before them and imagine the thousands of soldiers that covered the French fields of Agincourt. In contrast, artist Andy Belanger’s paintbrush provides a magnificent backdrop of sprawling wildernesses, epic castles and allows for endless scene changes and thousands of background extras.
Not only did the Bard’s unlikely union with the modern-day comic book format allow for the epic events of the plays to be realised, but Del Col was also keen to express his belief that our contemporary age of technology was actually making the source material more accessible to a larger audience. ‘People are smarter in a popular culture sense’ he asserts, ‘things are easier to discover and understand because you can just hop on your smartphone or tablet and find yourself an explanation. Our readers will find something in the comic, look it up and see what parts of the text actually come from the original plays.’ Not only were the Kill Shakespeare team familiarising the technophiles with Shakespeare but Del Col claims that the comics were attracting a very diverse readership from 12-13 years High School students, at whom the graphic novels were aimed, to the older generation. ‘We actually received an email from an 80 year reader of Kill Shakespeare who said she hadn’t read a comic book since Archives in the 1950’s!’
What’s next for Kill Shakespeare?
Now in its 4th volume and having picked up multiple awards and stores of critical praise, Kill Shakespeare has also been turned into a board game and the creators are in talks to make an animated TV show of the popular series. With more volumes of the comic in the pipelines as well, Kill Shakespeare will continue to, in the words of Del Col, ‘generate excitement and shine a spotlight on Shakespeare in a way that has never been done before’. Their unique project has not killed Shakespeare but re-incarnated him, transforming the Bard from a classroom bore into a stimulating pastime.