Comics: Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery on Writing Kill Shakespeare

Kill Will

By , Columnist

While it’s occasionally been cited as one of the most unexpected hits of this past year by some of my peers in the comics press, the truth is that anyone possessed of even a glancing knowledge of Kill Shakespeare knew for certain why this title has proven to be increasingly popular among a rapidly growing and diverse readership.

Mixing together many of the major and minor characters, as well as various tropes and plot elements drawn directly from the Bard’s plays, Kill Shakespeare sets them at odds in a terrible and bloody game with the world itself at stake. And by the time the final issue hit the stands, the series proved that you don’t necessarily have to focus on super powered beings in tights and capes battling it out to create a good, entertaining comic.

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Well, okay. There are a surprising number of inhuman and unnaturally endowed characters wearing tights and capes kickin’ each other’s butts here—this is Shakespeare’s universe we’re talking about, after all—but they aren’t your typical superheroes or villains. As in clever Will’s plays, these players are fully realized, complicated beings with complex, often highly conflicted, motives and goals driving them.

As a result, this is a title that’s more concerned with the vagaries of the human heart than it is with fulfilling an impossible quest or presenting sweeping, cinematic shots of great battles fought upon the fields of a mythical England of old—despite the fact that it does culminate in one of the more spectacular battles captured in a comic this year, and that its creators have always hoped to bring it to life on the silver screen. In other words, it mirrors Shakespeare’s plays and their concerns, thematically and otherwise, and yet maintains a vital existence of its own.

The two main architects of the series, co-writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, took a few moments from adapting their work to the silver screen to discuss the origins of the series, the journey they undertook while writing the story, and what they’ve learned along the way.

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How do you describe Kill Shakespeare to those poor souls who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading it?

CM: I like to say Kill Shakespeare is the illegitimate love child that was spawned by the union of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Lord of the Rings and Shakespeare in Love (not sure who carried our little pup to term though).

ADC: Kill Shakespeare is an action-adventure that pits the Bard’s greatest heroes against his most menacing villains in a quest to track down and kill—or save—a reclusive wizard by the name of William Shakespeare. A 12-issue (and two collected graphic novels) comic book series by IDW Publishing, it has been nominated for a number of comic book awards.

And how much knowledge of these characters and the original plays they appeared in does a reader have to have before they can enjoy it fully?

ADC: Very little, actually. None at all. We’ve crafted it as a straight-forward action tale that involves these already-created characters that are fleshed out and detailed throughout. One does not need to have read Hamlet, Othello or Romeo & Juliet to understand who the characters are. We’ve also written it in modern-day language with some references or quotes from Shakespeare mixed in. However, we’ve also designed the tale with Easter eggs and references that those that do know their Shakespeare can appreciate and enjoy.

CM: Our goal was to make the project work on more than one level—so we wanted the “inside Shakespeare” stuff to complement the plot, not be the plot.

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Well, where’d this richly layered tale come from, and how did it change and morph during its development from an idea into a fully realized comics series?

CM: Blame Anthony, he was the first one to utter the words “kill Shakespeare.”

ADC: Conor and I were brainstorming ideas for video games and the title Kill Bill (the Tarantino film) came up and we thought it would be cool if the “Bill” would be “Bill Shakespeare.” The original idea has stayed in place—all of his characters on a journey to find their maker and wreak revenge, though some of the exact details have changed along the way. We decided on a comic book series because we found it to be the best medium to tell our intricate tale and introduce the Bard to whole new audiences.

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And what, if any, challenges did you face during that process, and how did you circumvent or surmount those?

ADC: The biggest obstacle was figuring out a way to bring our story to life. Instead of going for a traditional publishing deal that would see us relinquish a lot/most of our rights, we decided to put together a business plan and raise private equity. We both left our jobs to do so—and started to raise funds just when the economic breakdown occurred in late 2008. Worst timing possible!  However, we were persistent and eventually raised the funds necessary to bring our project to life.

CM: A lot of it was just hard work. It definitely helped that we had the business school skills, though. I think our entrepreneurial approach really aided us. 

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How about surprises? Did you encounter anything unexpected, whether it was a happy discovery or otherwise, and how did you handle those?

CM: Happy surprises were always taken out to dinner and feted as a happy surprise deserves to be. 

ADC: One of the biggest surprises—immediately negative but eventually positive—was an early review that tore our first issue to shreds. Shakespeare scholar Kimberly Cox, writing on Bleeding Cool, had such a negative viewpoint of the first issue (though the only specific thing that she focused on was that we didn’t write our dialogue in iambic pentameter, which was our point) that got people talking about our series. As they say, all publicity is good publicity, and this proved to be the case—we we immediately garnered more interest because of her post. 

And how do you collaborate while working on a project like this? Did one of you write the first scene before sending it on to the other, who then did the second one; did one of your do most of the first draft before the other came in and did rewrites, or…?

CM: It’s worked a few different ways. Sometimes we traded off scenes, sometimes one of us wrote and the other story edited. But we always sit down to hash out the main arcs together.

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I was curious if you had any disagreements over a scene or lines, and if so, how did you resolve those differences?

CM: Oh sure, we’ve argued over directions for characters and stories. But usually one of us is more passionate than the other and that passion generally carries the day. 

ADC: And then if there’s still a stalemate, we’ll use rock-paper-scissors to decide what direction to go in.

One thing that struck me about the story is how similar in structure it is to the plays, in the sense that you’ve several scenes building to release points—battles, revelations, reversal of fortunes, etc.—that in a real sense serve the same function as the soliloquies. Which led me to wonder if this was planned, or just came unbidden and naturally?

CM: I wish we were that clever…

ADC: We made a point to avoid writing soliloquies in our tale as that’s a storytelling device that works well on stage, but not quite as much in comics. So in lieu of that we needed to introduce dramatic sequences that would bring out those thoughts for each of the characters. I’m glad that you appreciated them.

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Now, what relationship, if any, does Kill Shakespeare have with the plays? Is it an imaginative supplement to those revered texts, a replacement of sorts for them, or is it something else entirely, and in a real sense separate from them?

CM: While the series does work independently of the Bard, I think the series is really at its best when it’s used as a compliment. We’ll never claim you “get” Shakespeare by reading our series, and we don’t think you need to have read to Shakespeare to enjoy the core story, but we’re happiest when we hear people tell us how the comic has inspired them to go back and read or re-read one of Shakey’s works.

ADC: One of the best pieces of fan mail we’ve received was a letter from a 15-year-old girl in Canada who said that, prior to reading Kill Shakespeare, she hated studying the Bard in class. Now she’s looking forward to reading a play next semester. That letter made our day.

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With very good reason; a note like that can make a writer’s week.

I’ve got to ask: What lessons, if any, did you learn about Shakespeare’s characters and work that you can apply to your own efforts?

CM: Shakespeare had this rare gift of humanism. You get the sense that he loved all his characters, none of them were throwaways. That’s something I strive for in Kill Shakespeare—to make all the characters matter and, ultimately, to make them all redeemable in some way. 

ADC: I agree with Conor’s point, and in addition, I’ve learned to not be afraid and to simply be entertaining. Shakespeare’s plays are always viewed with such prestige, but at the end of the day his major goal was to entertain the crowds.

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How about life lessons, as they’re so often called these days. Did working on this project offer you anything of practical use in real life?

CM: The value of hard work.

ADC: Persistence and positioning. Spearheading a creative venture is extremely difficult, so one needs to really be persistent, even on the dark days. And also figure out how to position yourself and compare/differentiate yourself from anyone or anything else that’s already in the market.

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Well, aside from the award nominations and the continuing accolades from critics and fans alike, what did you get from doing this book? And what about your creative work, in general? What do you get from pursuing your muse?

ADC: The fact that we’ve taken something that a few years ago was simply an idea and brought it to life (to the point) where other people are reading and enjoying it is the greatest thing one can do. It puts a huge smile on my face. I love that we’re not only entertaining people, but even inspiring some and enlightening others.

CM: It’s a mixed bag. I think I suffer from the “artist’s malaise” where I get caught thinking of where we need to go next or how the work could be improved. I hope that as I progress and feel like I have more of a mastery over this craft that that will go away. On the positive side, I love getting a chance to talk with fellow readers and creators at conventions—that’s really energizing.

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How about your readers? What would you like them to get from Kill Shakespeare? Is it all about entertainment, or is there something a little more substantial on offer there if they want it?

ADC: The goal for me from the beginning of the project has been to shine a new spotlight on Shakespeare and his characters. So often they are taught/introduced through boring means and we want to shake the dust off some of them and get people excited about knowledgeable about them.

CM: I certainly want them to be entertained. As for “wanting” them to get “more” I’m uneasy saying that just because I don’t want to put my interpretations of the characters or the story on anyone else. But I do hope people find it more than just a ripping yarn.

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So what’s next for these characters? Will we be seeing more of them in the future, or has their tale been told?

ADC: We just finished doing a stage production of our story with Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, which was a hybrid of a comic presentation and stage play. The two shows were amazing and we’re looking to tour the production in 2012. We’re also deeply immersed in the writing of the screenplay of our series.

CM: We have a few tricks up our sleeves for another comic series—quite apart from all the cool stuff Anthony mentioned.

How about you? What’s coming up in the short and long terms that you can talk about at this point?

ADC: We could tell you—but then we’d have to kill you.

CM: It’s almost all Kill Shakespeare for us—we’re boring.

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Anything else to add before I let you get back to work?

CM: My main thing is for the people who don’t read a great deal of comics—I hope you dive into the medium more in 2012. It’s a fantastic avenue to tell all sorts of stories. If you’re curious you can always go to our website or our Kill Shakespeare Facebook page and ask us and the community for suggestions of graphic novels that you might like given what you already love to read.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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