William Shakespeare has been called many things over the past 400 years, from god to fraud. Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col have an entirely new label. To the co-creators of Kill Shakespeare, a new fantasy-adventure comic-book series they are launching in Toronto this week, the Bard is "one of the greatest aggregators in entertainment history."
Just 400 years ahead of his time.
"If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be in comic books," says Del Col, a clean-cut young businessman who has attended the Stratford Shakespeare Festival religiously every year of his adult life. "He'd be in films, he'd be in TV, he'd be in mobile content, he'd be in video games. He'd be James Cameron, basically."
"Better writing, perhaps," McCreery says, before adding his own thought. "He'd be Steven Spielberg at the absolute height of his power." The biggest "transmedia" player of the 21st century.
But comic books first – and not the usual adaptations that have been around since the mid-century heyday of Classics Illustrated. Kill Shakespeare, as audacious as its title suggests, is a mash-up of heroes and villains from a dozen plays flung together in a new, supernatural adventure. The Toronto pair are following the example of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic-book series about Victorian literary heroes that became a Hollywood film. But they're hoping for even greater success.
To that end, they recruited a group of investors to provide start-up capital of $350,000, which they are using to pay themselves and their collaborators, as well as to subsidize printing and distribution. But mainly they used the cash to retain creative control over the project as it grows to colonize other media.
"Our pitch is that this is a $6-billion project – that's billion, with a 'b' – because that's what The Lord of the Rings has made so far," McCreery says. "Tongue in cheek, but only a little bit."
Published by IDW of California, with a print run of 6,000 copies, the first issue of a planned 12-title series of Kill Shakespeare went on sale this week at comic-book stores across North America. An ambitious distribution plan includes a six-issue compilation, published as a trade paperback and available at mainstream stores beginning this fall.
In the first number, Hamlet is waylaid on his journey into exile after killing Polonius, then drawn magically into the dark realm of King Richard III, where he is greeted by the witches from Macbeth and enjoined to obtain the writing quill of "the wizard-god Shakespeare" in the company of a bodacious Juliet.
"These characters have existed for the last 400 years," McCreery says, explaining their enduring appeal. More people are taught Shakespeare than Tolkein, he adds, "and Shakespeare for me is easier to get into."
What's new is the mashed-up storyline. Already familiar with the canon by means of long exposure, the partners decided to set familiar characters loose in a new world unbounded by the analogue reality of Shakespeare's wooden O. "Forty years ago, we might have remounted an existing play in a different way," McCreery says. "Now we're in the remix culture, so we want to take it a step beyond."
Way too far, according to one early critic, Kimberly Cox, the actress partner of comic guru Frank Miller ( Sin City), who lacerated the creators in a blog post for, among other perceived sins, not writing in iambic pentameter.
Instead, the dialogue is wholly contemporary, as in this two-page fight scene involving Hamlet and two pirates:
Pirate: Die, Whelp! GRAA!
Hamlet: AAAAH! HNGG!
Second pirate: RAAAGH!
The swords go SHHH CHUNK and the kicks land with a FWOMP.
"Shakespeare's plays are filled with violence and lust and pratfalls, really low-culture stuff," McCreery says, "but he gave credence to these uneducated peasants in the audience when he wanted to talk about what makes us human. They could follow along."
Their strategy is the same, according to the Kill Shakespeare creators. "We think Shakespeare would look at what we're doing and think it was kind of cool," McCreery says.
Like innumerable other popularizers before them, the Toronto pair hope Kill Shakespeare will serve as a "gateway drug" for readers intimidated by the real thing. But more than that, they dream of building Shakespeare into a Hydra-headed entertainment empire that they alone control.
"This could be our Lord of the Rings, our Harry Potter, our Gone With the Wind," Del Col gushes. With that kind of enthusiasm, who knows, all the world may one day be their stage.