By Connor McCreery and Anthony Del Col (writers), Andy Belanger (art), Ian Herring (colors) and Robbie Robbins (letters)
The Story: Prince Hamlet of Denmark finds himself pulled off a ship and into a magical portal (created by Macbeth’s witches) that transports him into another realm. After nearly drowning at sea, he is found and rescued by a lord who introduces himself as Richard the Third. Although he seems reasonable enough to begin with, we soon learn that Richard has brought Hamlet into his world for a specific purpose: recruiting the young prince to steal the quill—and power source—of a great “wizard” named William Shakespeare.
The Good: Watching a writer pull classic characters like Hamlet and Richard III off the shelf to play with is like watching someone trying to juggle fine china: it’s exciting when it works, but even the slightest mistake can cause one hell of a mess. Stray too far from the classic, revered source material and the writer loses all connection to it. Stick too close, and they become a mere parrot of greatness. So as much as I adore the concept of this book (and believe me, as an English-majoring literature nerd it makes me very happy indeed) I would not want to be the one tasked to write it.
Fortunately, McCreery and Del Col handle themselves quite well in this first issue, and give the series a solid place to progress from. Both major characters introduced here are fairly recognizable, and nothing about them seems terribly out of place—Hamlet is as gloomy and father-obsessed as ever, and Richard is still two-faced and conniving. (I love the fact that it is Richard engineering this whole ‘killing Shakespeare’ plot; after the Weird sisters showed up I was convinced we’d be meeting Macbeth, but no, it turns out they’re working with Richard instead. Perfect.) There are a few details that seem off—Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being true and loyal friends, for example—but they make me more curious than upset. The authors don’t seem sloppy or unaware of the source material, so I can only conjecture that changing a small (but significant) detail like that will have relevance in the future.
Anthony Belanger’s art works very, very well for this book. It’s not a style I would usually be enamored with (I much prefer the realism of someone like Steve Epting), but I have to admit that Belanger does a great job here. All of the panels have a dark and almost dreamlike quality about them that emphasizes the multiple levels of fantasy inherent in this story. He also does a great job with the characters, making them look unique and interesting without ever sacrificing the general look (and important details, like Richard’s withered arm) that fans of the plays would be looking for.
What’s Not So Good: The plot itself is a fairly generic “young man gets pulled into an unexpected adventure” series opener. Although a little more imagination couldn’t have hurt, I will admit that having the plot take a backseat does allow the characters to take center stage. This is a good thing when you’re simultaneously trying to (re)introduce them to longtime fans of the plays, and to make them comprehensible to people who have never read a word of Shakespeare in their lives. (Belanger’s artwork makes up for a lot too; the scenes on the boat with the portal—arguably the biggest ‘what the heck?!’ moment of the book—are quite compellingly drawn.) So it’s not a huge drawback in the end, but when you’re borrowing intellectual property from one of the greatest writers the English language has ever produced, it would behoove the creators to come up with an opening chapter that is a little less generic. (Or at least a little less reminiscent of the beginning of Final Fantasy X.)
Now…the language. McCreery and Del Col do a pretty good job of having the characters talk in Elizabethan (esque) speech, but the big problem is that it does not feel consistent. Richard, for instance, is much more likely to throw in the requisite “thees” and “thous” than Hamlet is. This may actually be intentional—Hamlet is young, after all, and it would make sense that (if you felt the need to differentiate the characters via the way they speak) Richard would be the one to speak in the more ‘classical’ style. Intentional or not though, going back and forth between the more-formal and less-formal Elizabethan English feels jarring, and makes Richard’s speech seem out of place. If this disconnect is intentional, I owe McCreery and Del Col an apology; but as of now the changes in writing feel more irritating than purposeful, and I have a feeling it is more the product of having two writers with two different voices on the project than anything deliberately scripted.
Conclusion: This is a hugely ambitious book with a great deal of potential. The first chapter is off to a slightly shaky start (initial exposition, especially with characters like these, is the most difficult part of any arc), but it does lay the groundwork for the meat of the story to come. McCreery and Del Col demonstrate that they have sufficient control of the characters and narrative to convince me it’s worth giving them another issue or two to introduce the rest of the cast, complete the exposition, and find their footing. If they can pull all of these elements together into a coherent narrative, this book is going to be one heck of a ride.