Conor McCreery is one half of the writing team behind KILL SHAKESPEARE. The comic is about Shakespearean characters uniting to kill the source of their tragedies—a wizard named William Shakespeare. The story has recently been adapted into a play and a board game. I sat down with Conor over Skype to discuss his favorite Shakespearean characters and lousy English teachers.

ComicsVerse: What are the challenges of translating Shakespeare characters into comics? Does it feel natural and make sense to you?

Conor McCreery: That’s a good question. I do feel it’s kind of a natural transition. I think one thing about Shakespeare’s characters is that they’re kind of like superheroes. I mean, they make grand, dramatic pronouncements. They wear fancy costumes. Everything is heightened drama. You never catch Hamlet worrying about a date. Aside from Peter Parker, you don’t get a lot of that from the superhero world. I think in that sense, the larger-than-life stakes and the huge personalities do really lend themselves to comics. Comics and theater are sort of similar in that when you read a comic, you know you’re reading a comic because you can see the art and the panel borders.

There’s something different from a comic compared to a book because it’s all in your own mind. You kind of lose the reality of “I’m reading a story.” Movies and TV shows do the same thing where they hide the fact that you’re watching something that was scripted and put together for you. But when you see a theater show, you can’t help but be aware that you’re watching a performance. You see the staging, the curtains. I think, in that sense, comics and the theater are both kind of magical in a way.

I think that’s why so many stories in comics so comfortably deal with magical elements. Whether it’s something like a superhero, or if it’s genre stuff that is more horrific, or even the way a lot of biographies in comics are told-where it’s always kind of strange. There’s often magical moments in these things that aren’t really true to the reality of the story, but really fit the tone of the story. I think comics are great for us to do things that feel like Shakespeare, and in some ways look like Shakespeare. But it’s fine that it’s not Shakespeare.

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CV: What’s it like working with established literary characters? Every Shakespeare character has their own history, so what’s it like writing characters with that sort of  background?

CM: It’s great! One thing I think Anthony Del Col, the co-writer, really appreciates about this book is that all these characters already have such great backstories. We don’t have to sit there and think, “What would be a cool thing for our main character to have gone through?” It’s all there in arguably the greatest play in the history of mankind. So on one hand it kind of makes our job easy. We get to pick through all these amazing characters and backstories.

I guess the challenge comes in making sure that we can do something interesting and fresh. I think the whole reason we wanted to do KILL SHAKESPEARE was we were like, “What if these characters interacted?”, which isn’t really something you’ve seen a ton. When KILL SHAKESPEARE came out, there wasn’t all that much of that yet. I think we wanted to do something interesting, and that’s probably the biggest challenge.

Shakespeare has already given Hamlet the greatest lines any character will ever be given. How do you top that? The answer is you can’t. We just try to do something we think is fun and interesting and dramatic. We don’t walk around saying we’re improving Shakespeare. Anthony made a joke one time about how we’re just the most well-known Shakespearean fanfic. It’s true in a lot of ways. It’s a big mash note to Shakespeare.

CV: Who’s your favorite character to write in this book and why?

CM: I gotta say it’s a tie between Falstaff and Iago. They’re both fun for me to write because, it’s going to sound weird, but they’re both so incredibly honest. Falstaff knows he’s a rogue. He knows he’s going to drink too much and chase women. He’s fun because he’s not trying to pretend he’s anything he’s not. Our Falstaff is very much from The Merry Wives of Windsor. He’s joyous and he can laugh at himself, so he’s fun to write.

Iago is great because we make him like he is in the play. He’s telling you flat out that he’s not a good person. And yet he still goes around  and gets to do all these evil things under people’s noses. Nobody quite sees what he really is. He’s a guy who, on one level, is totally honest about who he is but, on the other level, is always lying. That’s always a fun character to write.

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CV: What is it about Shakespeare that drew you to him as source material for this book? How is he as a character and how does he relate to all of his creations in the story?

CM: Both Anthony and I talk about looking back at English class. He was reading THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and had a really lousy English teacher. It inspired him to be like, “Shakespeare is supposed to be amazing, but this is really dull.” So he went to find out for himself and did his own research. He looked into THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and he walked away going, “Oh my gosh, this story is so cool! I wish my teacher had done this better.” And then the next year he got a great English teacher. That set him on fire for Shakespeare.

For me, it was a similar story. I had a good English teacher that I liked. We were studying THE TEMPEST and I kind of got it, but it wasn’t until I went to see the play at Stratford, here in Ontario. They have this amazing festival; it’s arguably the best Shakespeare festival in North America. It’s about an hour and a half from Toronto, which is where I live. And I saw THE TEMPEST. It was like this alternate version of Wolverine running around there in the character Caliban. It had this awesome wizard. And being this comics-obsessed fourteen-year-old, I was like, “Whoa, this stuff is so cool.” In THE TEMPEST, people talk about how the main character, Prospero, is supposed to be like a parallel to Shakespeare—this powerful wizard who isn’t really sure what to do with his creations. We kind of expanded on that.

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We knew that for us one of the things that makes KILL SHAKESPEARE unique is the fact that Shakespeare is in it. There’s been a lot of twists in Shakespeare’s existing tales, but there’s not a lot that actually puts him in the story. We were curious about—some writers talk about writing a character, and they’re not doing what you want them to do. You have this idea of what the story should be, yet your character is refusing to do things because they’re screaming at you from the page, “This doesn’t make any sense! I would never do that!” And it’s frustrating because you know they’re right, and you have to come up with a better story to get to where you want to go.

I feel like Shakespeare for us is a bit of that. He’s created all these fantastic characters, and at a certain point, he had to set them free. He trapped them in their stories. Unless he gave them some sort of freedom, (A) their lives would never change and (B) he would be stuck watching the same tales. In our story, the mythology is that he set his characters free, and when things didn’t go his way when they weren’t all happy endings and there were more tragedies than comedies, he wasn’t sure how to deal with it. That’s where we pick up in our story. This Shakespeare character is gone and nobody really knows if he was this flawed hero, or this cruel, judgmental wizard, or if he’s written himself out of existence entirely.

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CV: Shakespeare has written so many characters in so many different times and places. How do you handle characters interacting with each other across these temporal and physical barriers?

CM: That was one of our biggest challenges. Some of these plays are hundreds of years apart. We decided to create our own Shakespearean Pangea. We called it Illyria, named it after one of the fictional countries in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Illyria is sort of this strange land where all of Shakespeare’s worlds exist on one continent. We say, “It’s kind of like Elsinor is standing in for Denmark, Avalon is Britain.” It’s not where they’d be in real Europe, but they have that kind of relationship. That was the first thing, and we said, “Okay they all exist in the same place.”

And the second thing we had to decide was that people like Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra-we know those characters from our history. We know they come from a very specific time and we know at that time is actually pretty different from Shakespeare’s Victorian time. So that was something we were like, “Okay, that’s got to be the history of our world. But really, if you’re reading King John, which is set in 1260 or something like that, or Richard III, or Romeo and Juliet, which is set in the 1400s, and Richard III is set in 15-something. Really, all that for us is kind of just medieval. We decided that everything was going to be roughly set for Shakespeare’s life as far as clothing and technology and the like. For the most part, not a lot of people are going to be like, “Well, that character is from 300 years before that other play. They shouldn’t have access to that kind of clothing, or tool.” I think people just accept the “vaguely medieval” setting of our story. They enjoy it for that. I think people who are really into Shakespeare giggle at some of the weird anachronisms that are in our story.

CV: What was it like adapting the comic into a play and into a board game? Why did you choose to do these adaptations?

CM: The play was something that came to us because Soulpepper Theatre here in Toronto is a huge Shakespeare theater, one of the tops. I talked about Stratford, and Soulpepper is the other big one in our neck of the woods. They were doing a festival and were interested in some cool Shakespeare stuff. Some of the actors and such had come across the graphic novels and reached out to us and said, “Hey, would you ever consider doing a KILL SHAKESPEARE play?” And we thought about for about two minutes and said, “Yeah, that’d be amazing!”

We took images from the comics and used those as a backdrop because we wanted it to be super easy to perform. We wrote it as almost a radio play. The actors do live folly, we had lots of fun, improvised music. After that went so well, they came back to us. We took the first issue and turned it into a fifteen-minute piece for one of their salons. They’d do this every month, they’d say, “Hey come on down to the theater, we’re going to show you some weird short plays!” Experimental stuff. So we were a part of that. And everybody liked it so much that they asked us to be part of the festival. We took the whole first twelve issues and turned it into its own stage play. It’s toured around 30 or 40 different cities. Mostly a few days, a week at a time. It’s cool how many different places we’ve put on the show.

And then the board game, IDW came to us when they were starting a board game division. They said, “We love your world, and we think it would be perfect for these two game designers who did this really cool game set in feudal Japan. They’d love to do another kind of history game that has to do a lot with magic.” As soon as they told us that, we thought KILL SHAKESPEARE is perfect. Thomas and Wolfe were these two very talented Belgian game designers, who came to us and said, “Hey, here’s how we want to turn your comics into a game. What do you think?” We said, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing!” The game is amazing. It’s super fun. We talk about, “Oh, we’ve done a play,” or “We’re working on TV stuff.” But you pull out a board game box and people know you’re serious.

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CV: What are you reading now?

CM: Right now, I’m reading comics biographies because I’m working on a comics biography project. I’ve been re-reading FEYNMAN, the Jim Ottaviani book about the famous scientist Richard Feynman. I also have been re-reading Ho Che Henderson’s KING, which is this very cool graphic novel retelling of Martin Luther King’s life. I’ve been reading a little BATGIRL, Cameron Stewart’s BATGIRL. And then on my pile of stuff that I need to catch up on is some MORNING GLORIES, I’m just about to jump into THE BUNKER, I’ve been reading BLACK SCIENCE. I’ve been re-reading WONDER WOMAN because I kind of want to pitch on WONDER WOMAN one day. And so I’ve been re-reading a bunch of stuff; I have this weird WONDER WOMAN idea in my head. And then, yeah, I’ve been reading some biographies on Fela Kuti. He’s this Nigerian musician who is sort of the original Black Lives Matter. He was this musician/political dissident, and he was considered so dangerous that the Nigerian government literally sent a thousand soldiers to burn down his house and shut him up. My friend and I are working on that. So yeah, a bunch of different stuff. It’s hard to find time to get caught up on comics. But there’s so many good ones, anytime I walk into my local shop, I’m just like, “Nooooooooo!”

CV: What are some of the projects you’re working on currently? 

CM: Anthony and I are writing the new ASSASSIN’S CREED series for Titan Comics, which is super cool because Ubisoft walked up to us and said, “Hey here’s a rough outline of what we’d like to do with the game in terms of the present-day story, and you guys get to pitch us whatever you want in terms of breaking out the present-day story of ASSASSIN’S CREED in a whole new direction. That’s pretty cool; it’s been really great how supportive both Ubisoft and Titan have been. It’s a great project that Anthony and I have had a lot of fun with. And we’re working on different things separately. Anthony’s working on a new book with Dynamite comics. I don’t think I can say what it is yet. We worked with them a while back. But then he’s got a couple other projects he’ll be announcing a little later.

I’m going to be writing the next chapter of KILL SHAKESPEARE flying solo on that one. That one’s going to be called “Juliet.” That one’s going to be a story that basically takes place before the very first graphic novel of KILL SHAKESPEARE, and about a month after the end of the ROMEO AND JULIET play. Kind of taking Juliet from this girl who still wants to die and putting her on the path to what she is in KILL SHAKESPEARE, which is this leader of this rebellion. There’s this Fela Kuti biography. I’m working with another couple of writers on other projects that I can’t say anything about yet because they’re not official, but hopefully in the next year or so Anthony and I will have a couple more books out together and two or three that reflect sort of our own particular tastes.

If you like the sound of Shakespearean characters run amok, check out everything KILL SHAKESPEARE right here!

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