NYCC 2011: “Kill Shakespeare” Co-Creator, Conor McCreery

At New York Comic Con, we had the privilege of speaking with Conor McCreery, co-writer and co-creator of the fantastic comic Kill Shakespeare, brought to the masses by IDW Publishing.  McCreery works with Anthony Del Col, his fellow writer/creator, and artist Andy Belanger to bring us this unusual and action-packed twist on the some of the Bard’s most famous characters.  All hail from Toronto, and share both a deep love of Shakespeare and a passion for bringing the rich and varied tales to life in this new way.

In this interview, McCreery sits down with Open the Fridge and tells us everything we need to know about the creation of the ongoing epic known as Kill Shakespeare.

Open the Fridge: Please tell us a little bit about the comic, and about your role in developing the world of Kill Shakespeare.

Conor McCreery: Well, first of all, despite the title, we come to praise the Bard, not bury him! Kill Shakespeare is an action-adventure comic that takes all of the Bard’s greatest heroes and most menacing villains and puts them into the same world and same story and pits them against each other on a quest to either save or kill a mysterious wizard by the name of William Shakespeare.  Our story is not a retelling of the plays.  In our world, Juliet meets Hamlet. Lady Macbeth is sleeping with Richard III both literally and figuratively. Iago comes to Othello and says, “Look, I know I ruined your life but if you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I swear I will be your brother again.”

And in that space, our main character is Hamlet, and he’s washed ashore in this strange Shakespearian land.  He’s torn between two factions, both who believe he is a figure of prophecy; one who believes he’s fated to kill this wizard Shakespeare, who they say is the source of all woe, and one that says he is actually fated to save this benevolent creator, William Shakespeare, who’s been pushed away from the world and only Hamlet can bring him back.  And, “oh, don’t worry about why he was sent away in the first place, Hamlet, just bring Shakespeare back.” So in a nutshell, that’s Hamlet having to kind of go through the shifting sands of allegiance – people trying to befriend him, people trying to use him, and people ultimately betraying him.

OTF: How far have you progressed in the story line?

CM: There are 12 issues and we’ve written all of them.  The first six have been in a volume in trade for about six months and the second six we actually have here at the con, it’s a NYCC con exclusive and won’t be released in stores until about mid-November.  And that’s the entirety of the first arc – does Shakespeare exist, is he an evil wizard, a benevolent creator, or something in between and what choice does Hamlet finally make?  And yes, I did use “choice” and “Hamlet” in the same sentence. Going forward we have two more arcs that we’ve played with, sort of like the Hamlet trilogy, involving some characters we’d like to get involved in the story – Prospero from The Tempest, Titus, Beatrice and Benedict, and plans for some other characters as we flesh out this Shakespearian universe.

OTF: Are you going to focus solely on Hamlet as the hero throughout, or are you going to hand off the torch at some point?

CM: For what we’ve imagined right now, this is the story of Hamlet dealing with his father.  One way or another, Hamlet is going to get some sort of resolution with what happened in Denmark where his father’s ghost is concerned.  Going forward, he’s still going to be part of the story and will still in many ways be the hero, but we’ve thought the arc will flip to Juliet.  In our world, it’s been 8 or 9 years since she ‘died,’ but of course she didn’t die and was saved at the last minute.  Romeo died. So our Juliet isn’t going to be all about love again.  But she’s still the same strong-willed woman who drove her play.  She’s going to be about something that’s bigger than love, bigger than herself.  She’s going to be the Joan of Arc character of her story, the leader of the rebellion and she’s the one who is ultimately telling Hamlet that he was to save Shakespeare because that will bring this world back to paradise and back to health.

OTF: Are there any plans for Juliet and Hamlet?  It sounds like they are put together a lot.

CM: All I can say is there MAY be a reverse balcony scene.

OTF: Talk a little bit about the individual comics.

CM: My favorite was issue #7 and, I also really like issue #3 because that is the first time I felt that we found our voice and came into our own in this world. And because it has Falstaff in it.  It’s basically a buddy comedy in drag with Falstaff and Hamlet.  With Issue 7, Andy did a phenomenal job. It’s the most dreamlike and surreal of all the issues, and it’s definitely the one that plays the most with reality in terms of what you see on the page. It’s also the one with the most significant change to the Shakespeare plays in terms of Hamlet’s relationship to his father. Or, as some Shakespeare scholars have told us, “oh, we’ve been playing with that forever.” Which is the great thing about Shakespeare, because there’s always somebody who’s analyzed Shakespeare and tells us “oh yeah, what you did there makes total sense!”

OTF: How do you feel about entering into that conversation of literary criticism that spans generations of people who are studying and writing about Shakespeare?  Were you mindful of that while you were creating the story, and did it influence you at all?

CM: Yes and no. On one level, we knew we didn’t want it to be the UFC of Shakespeare, we didn’t want it to just be a bunch of Shakespeare characters fighting. We wanted to try to do interesting things with the characters.  We asked a lot of what-if’s, like what if Juliet survived?  And we came up with who we thought she’d be. And what if Hamlet had never returned to Denmark? How would that change his quest for revenge?  If he wasn’t looking at Claudius sitting on his father’s throne, what kind of man would he be at his core? Was he bloody-minded or was there something else to him?  We were a little worried about it at first, but after this one Shakespeare critic said she wanted to bitch-slap us in her review, it really couldn’t have gotten any worse.  That was our first Shakespeare scholar review and really the only negative one we ever got. She said we made her want to vomit, and that the comic was “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”  But her main criticism was that we didn’t write in iambic. But that was never our goal because we wanted to open up Shakespeare in a different way.  I think that because Shakespeare is so beloved, if you like our comic book, you actually like Shakespeare even if you don’t think you do.  And if you don’t like our comic book, I think maybe you like Shakespeare in a very specific way.  That’s not wrong, but maybe a little limited. The people who have the most problem with it — and there aren’t a lot — are people who have the strongest opinion that Shakespeare should be trapped in amber and left this one specific way.

OTF: I think it’s odd you got a critical response like that considering how many interpretations there are out there.  You can take Shakespeare anywhere, like the Cold War Russia setting in Patrick Stewart’s recent Macbeth interpretation or go a very traditional, Elizabethan route or even use a futuristic setting.  It’s a very human situation, and Shakespeare is a humanist. Is your background in literature? Do you have any tie to that? Or did you come into it because you loved Shakespeare or you saw a play and loved how it was performed?

CM: I’m actually a business major. I had a theater minor, and I was the only business major/theater minor in the history of my school, which was very business-focused.  I grew up in Toronto, which is about an hour and a half from Stratford, Ontario, home to a big Shakespeare festival.  I was lucky because if you went to school in Toronto you went up to Stratford at least a couple of times.  When I was 14, we went to see The Tempest and I remember seeing the actor who played Caliban hanging in the air, menacing, and I actually remembered understanding the words like, “Holy crap! He’s been talking about raping Miranda and maybe he actually already has!”  And I’m sitting there, my 14-year-old, private school self, thinking am I allowed to learn this? And it just blew my mind. Then I was thinking, “What else are in these plays?”  That really fostered my love of it.  Plus as a 14-year-old boy who loved comics, I remember thinking Caliban is kind of like Wolverine!  Also, Anthony has always loved theater, he goes to Stratford every year with his family. And it was that love of theater and comics that allowed us to brainstorm this crazy idea and now that we look at it, we think comics are the perfect medium for Shakespeare because while it is written and literary, it’s also very visual. And Shakespeare isn’t meant to be read, it’s meant to be seen.

OTF: Do you have any ideas about using these in a classroom setting, as a teaching tool?

CM: Yes, we’ve been very happy to hear from teachers and schools. We’ve spoken at schools and libraries, and recently we spoke at the Folger Institute in Washington, DC and did a seminar there.  A lot of teachers are using us unofficially.  We’re actually working with an academic in New Jersey to put together a sort of teacher’s guide for Kill Shakespeare. And we’re seeing it used in two ways.  Universities are using us as kind of a higher contextualization tool, spotting where we’ve taken a quote from the Scottish play and given it to Hamlet, and teachers are looking at that and asking students, what was the context originally, what is the context in Kill Shakespeare, does it make sense, yes or no?  Some of them are using them to write up their own Shakespeare mashups.  And in high school, teachers just love being able to hand a grade 7 student a graphic novel and say look, this isn’t Shakespeare. But it’s going to let you understand who the characters are in a different way. So if you’re a kid who now knows that Othello is a warrior who deals with racism and is betrayed and lost in his own space, you can get into the play in a different way. You can connect with the language and see it in a new light.

OTF: And you can really see the parallels between these characters and comic book characters kids already love.  Like, comic book heroes have issues with family members, have lost love, struggles with power and the like.

CM: Definitely! If you go through the 1970s DC comics, there is just so much Shakespeare in there, it’s really cool.

OTF: What elevator pitch can you leave us with to get our readers more interested in Kill Shakespeare?

CM: I would say, if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love, and Lord of the Rings had a drunken night, Kill Shakespeare would be their child, and it would be awesome.

Thanks so much to Conor for a great interview and introducing all of us at Open the Fridge to Kill Shakespeare.  I, for one, can’t wait to find out what’s in store for Hamlet, Juliet, and the rest of the rebellion. Volume 1 is available now, with volume 2 due to be released on November 22 – make sure to pick both up!  Also, Conor and Anthony are debuting a stage show of Kill Shakespeare this month at Soulpepper’s Word Festival in Toronto.  Hopefully they’ll be heading Stateside again soon – be sure to keep an eye on their website, Twitter, and Facebook pages for updates! 

Written by: Amy Imhoff

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