September 14, 2012 12:25 am

‘Kill Shakespeare’: A comic book where the superpower is literary wizardry

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MONTREAL – Some of their heroes wear capes and tights but don’t expect the comic book creations of Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery to leap a tall building in a single bound or stop bullets with their invulnerability.

Their work is inspired by a different kind of superpower: wizardry with words.

The dynamic duo’s popular “Kill Shakespeare” draws its characters from the works of the venerable Bard, not only in a comic book but also a stage production that has played in Canada and the U.S. and is in negotiations to go to Dubai.

The stage show, “Kill Shakespeare Live!,” is at Montreal’s Comiccon on Saturday before heading to New York and Halifax next month, where it will be part of the bill for comic conventions in those cities before brief runs in local theatres. A feature film is also in development.

“Kill Shakespeare” has gotten nods of approval from several Shakespearean scholars, says Del Col – although one hated it, complaining it wasn’t written in iambic pentameter.

The comic book builds on the Bard’s universe and then runs with it.

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“We like to call it ‘Avengers With Shakespeare’ or the ‘Justice League of Shakespeare’,” joked Del Col, referring to the Marvel and DC Entertainment superhero teams as he talked about his story, which brings together some of the iconic writer’s greatest heroes and villains.

The Toronto-based team got the idea for the acclaimed comic series about a decade ago while brainstorming for a possible video game – a future that hasn’t been ruled out for the comic book’s expanding universe.

They first considered doing a video-game version of the Quentin Tarantino film “Kill Bill,” but quickly rejected that, figuring somebody was already working on it.

“Somehow we went from ‘Kill Bill’ to Kill Bill Shakespeare,” Del Col said. “That was a huge lightbulb moment, a eureka moment. We were, like, ‘Oh, my God. That is the coolest thing ever. It would be all his characters together in the same world and they’d all be out to get revenge against their creator. Whoa, that’s amazing.'”

But the project got shelved when the demands of Del Col’s work in the music industry and McCreery’s work as a journalist took over. They didn’t give up, however.

“This was the idea that kept grawing away at us,” said Del Col, a Shakespeare fan since high school. “We knew there was something there.”

About five years ago, they took another crack at it. But making a movie or a video game was expensive. Theatre, at that point, seemed too traditional.

McCreery, who had worked in a comic book store, had sold Del Col on some popular titles such as “The Walking Dead,” now a hit TV series.

“I started to realize it’s a really interesting medium,” said Del Col, who hadn’t been a comic fan until then. “You can tell some fascinating stories.”

A “Kill Shakespeare” comic seemed like a good idea. For one thing, the creators could throw in such things as grand battle scenes which would have cost plenty on film.

Considering different platforms for their story was one of the things Del Col said helped to sell it to U.S.-based IDW in the first place. Besides just pitching their idea, he and McCreery had shown the publisher an extensive marketing plan which IDW told them was the best they’d ever seen.

That’s especially key as publishers look to the success of such films as the DC Entertainment’s “Batman” franchise and Marvel superheroes like “Spider-Man” and “The Avengers” on the big screen.

“These days it’s so tough to get a comic out there that creators have to know not only what the story is that they’re telling and what it’s going to look like but how they’re going to sell it,” said Del Col, who has a business degree.

“Kill Shakespeare,” which is now available in two trade paperbacks from IDW Publishing, is a mashup of Shakespeare’s heroes and villains in one adventure, with the famous playwright himself playing a role.

In the tale, Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Falstaff and Puck search for a reclusive wizard to help them battle evil forces led by Richard III, Lady Macbeth and Iago. Considering all the magic he put on the page, the wizard is Shakespeare himself.

The tale got new life about 18 months ago. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company reached out to the creators, interested in including an adaptation of the 12-issue comic series in a festival celebrating Shakespeare’s work.

“They were fans of ‘Kill Shakespeare’,” said Del Col. “We sat down with them and started to riff on ideas of what was possible. One of the ideas was, ‘What if we did a reading of the comic series?'”

In it, the comic is projected panel-by-panel – about 750 images – onto screens. Sound effects and music add to the experience as actors read their lines.

“It was a cool way of bringing the comic book to life,” said Del Col, who with McCreery is a two-time winner of the Joe Shuster Award for best writing in a comic-book series. The award is named for the Canadian-born co-creator of “Superman.”

He’s pleased with the reaction to “Kill Shakespeare,” saying he hopes it will spur more interest in the Bard’s work.

The duo is working with an academic at Oxford University and a teacher in New Jersey now to put together a teachers’ guide so “Kill Shakespeare” can possibly get into classrooms next year.

Del Col says he’s pleased at least one person benefited from the book.

He cited a fan letter from a 16-year-old in Saint John’s, N.L., who wrote him last year to say she’d gotten a copy of the comic from a “cool aunt” for Christmas.

The teen had read “Romeo and Juliet” before that and didn’t like it. Then she checked out “Kill Shakespeare.”

“Now I understand who Juliet is. Now I’m looking forward to reading ‘Hamlet’ next year,” said Del Col, quoting her.

“Those are the best reviews you can get.”

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