Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Maybe You Should Have Thought This Through (Kill Shakespeare)

We start today with a shameful confession: I bought Kill Shakespeare over a year ago and I just finished reading it yesterday.

I guess that doesn’t sound all that shameful when I say it aloud, but really, in my mind, it’s a huge deal. And I think it hints to what would eventually be my problem with this comic.

Because on paper, this sounds like exactly my kind of story. Kill Shakespeare, an indie comic by Conor McCreary and Anthony Del Col, art by Andy Belanger, is like a Shakespearean version of Fables. All of the stories from Shakespeare’s canon are happening in the same world, at roughly the same time, and the characters have become somewhat self-aware and are seeking out William Shakespeare himself, for good and evil.

Okay, that’s the basic plot. The more complicated plot is, well, stupid. Like, I could explain it to you, but here’s the thing. I don’t care. And I’d much rather talk about that.

Kill Shakespeare is a story I absolutely should love. I’ve always been unashamedly pretentious, and a nerdgasm story like this, chock full of Shakespearean inside jokes and nerd humor seems totally up my alley. Plus, I’ve loved meta stories about characters becoming self-aware ever since I read Sophie’s World freshman year of high school and it blew my mind, man.

(As a side note, Sophie’s World really is that good, and you should totally read it. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s nearly a thousand pages long and full of long passages of straight philosophy. It’s awesome.)

I hate everything.
What I’m saying is that this story was going to have to work really hard for me not to like it, and somehow, it succeeded. Where did they go wrong?

Well, first, they made the story too damn complicated.

Ostensibly, the plot is about the good guys of Shakespeare against the bad guys, which actually sounds really cool, because Shakespeare wrote amazing characters and it would be really intriguing for them to face off. But in this case, it doesn’t work. For a couple of reasons, but the first one we’ll mention is because the plot is too freaking bizarre.

Hamlet goes off to England, like in the events of the play, but on his way there, the ship is attacked by pirates, who then dump Hamlet off the ship, and he winds up in the care of Richard III, who claims to have orchestrated the whole thing. Already it’s a bit baffling, but it gets worse. Richard III is convinced that Hamlet is the “Shadow King”, the one man who can talk to Shakespeare. Richard hates Shakespeare for reasons I guess, and wants his quill, because I guess the quill is magic and if they get the quill then they can write their own fates. Seems legit.

Richard and his witches (the witches from Macbeth, I believe) convince Hamlet to go off and find Shakespeare and steal his magic quill. If Hamlet does this, then Richard will bring Hamlet’s father back from the dead. Because that doesn’t seem like a terrible idea.

Hamlet, being an idiot in this story, agrees, and is accompanied on his quest by both Richard and Iago (from Othello, the bad guy in the story). Hamlet escapes, various things happen, and eventually he runs into the “good guys” in this story. They’re led by Falstaff, Juliet, and Othello. And they think Shakespeare is a god and Hamlet may or may not be the man to bring him back to their world.

Because I guess that’s important or something.

The problem was that the story was complicated to begin with, what with the massive cast and the really convoluted motivations and schemes of each character. When you factor in the backstabbings, side-switching, and frequent lying the characters do, it leaves you utterly confused as to who is on what side and why it matters.

Like, for serious, Iago may or may not be evil also is apparently screwing Lady Macbeth who just killed her husband in order to marry Richard III, but he doesn’t know she knows Iago and Othello can’t figure out if Iago is good or not, etc. It was a bit painfully overwrought.

Oh, and there are rebels called “Prodigals” for some reason, an evil witch who hates Shakespeare, and fairies.


The second major problem, which would have been the first, but honestly nothing can really redeem a plot that awful, is the characters. They suck. You don’t care about them. At all.

Our hero, Hamlet, isn’t the Hamlet of Shakespeare. That guy was a little whiny, but he was also impulsive, rash, witty, messed up, and most of all compelling. This Hamlet is whiny, spineless, and prone to really melodramatic speeches while staring off into the distance. Basically, this is Hamlet as played by a really bad actor, and it sucks.

The other heroes vary between the badly written and the just confusing. Juliet is a revolutionary leader, which is a cool thought for the two seconds it takes for you to realize you have no idea how that happened. She’s filled with righteousness and indignation and lots of girly spunk, which means I hate her because she has not a shred of complexity or flawed character. Blech.

Othello, dubiously made one of the heroes (I get that Iago is the villain in that story, but Othello still murdered his own wife because there was a possibility she gave away her handkerchief), is a writhing stereotype of angry black men everywhere. No, seriously. He’s constantly flying into rages, the strongman of the group, and always, always referred to in reference to how black he is. It grows tiresome.

And Falstaff is just one giant ball of comic relief, and that’s terrible. Because it isn’t even a little funny.

The villains are actually better chosen, if just as badly written. Ultimately they all fail because you just don’t care what they do. It doesn’t matter. And that brings us to the third major problem with this story:

Who cares?

It’s like they came up with the whole story, and all the issues, the characters, the designs, everything, before they thought to ask themselves the really simple but important questions of why. Why should we care that these characters all live in the same world? Why does it matter if they find Shakespeare or not? Who gives a crap?

The writers have clearly made a choice to shroud the story in mystery and danger, but in so doing, they’ve made it completely impenetrable. I have no idea what the whole thing is actually about. Not even the slightest clue, as it turns out. And without this sense of theme, or purpose, or even just the outcome, I can’t bring myself to keep reading.

Look, stories are complicated things. That’s why we’re so excited when one is good, and so annoyed when it isn’t. You can’t just think of an idea, like “What if we told the same story as Fables, only with Shakespeare characters,” and leave it there. Steps beyond this are required.

I wanted to love this story, I really did, but within five pages I was turned off, and I never got back into it. I wish I had a tidy answer here, or an explanation that made me feel better and that I could distribute as advice to keep this from ever happening again (yes, I do feel personally victimized by the crappiness of this comic, thank you very much), but I don’t.

Just, don’t do whatever it is they did, and we should be good.


Oh look, it's I Don't Care kissing Whatever.

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