By Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col (writers), Andy Belanger (art), Ian Herring (colors) and Neil Uyetake (letters)

The Story: Richard fights to keep control of Macbeth’s forces while Hamlet uses his newfound powers as the Shadow King of prophesy to lead Richard’s army closer to Shakespeare. Although they encounter some unexpected opposition, Hamlet manages to escape and continue his mission led by his new confidante and best friend: the honest, honest Iago.

What’s Good: I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You know how comic book geeks (myself naturally included) can talk for hours about “who would win in a fight?” Well, Shakespeare geeks (myself included again) do much the same thing; I remember one particular instance in which an upper division literature class I was a part of nearly came to blows over the issue of whether Richard III or Iago from Othello was the greatest villain/manipulator. (Iago is the correct answer, for those keeping score at home.) I say this so you understand that I’m in a doubly unique position to love and appreciate this book: both as a comic book fan who loves a great story, and as a Shakespeare fan for whom this concept is the literary equivalent of watching the Avengers come together for the first time. In other words, this book was almost literally made for me.

You’ll recall that I gave issue #1 a less than glowing review, and expressed some reservations about the quality of the writing. Thankfully, nearly all of the problems that seemed to be present in the first issue are absent from this one; the characters and their motivations are much more clear, the plot is more focused, and the action (and blood) has much more narrative weight. Also, in addition to simply being better characterized as a whole, these characters feel much more like the ones Shakespeare wrote than they did in the first issue. This is very gratifying to see, and makes the whole book much more enjoyable. After all, what good is it to tell a story about Shakespeare’s characters run amok if they don’t act at least a little bit like the characters they’re supposed to be?

Iago’s interaction with Hamlet is easily the best part of the book. The fact that he makes friends with Hamlet so fast, and is able to influence him so well, is just perfect. (If Iago had any kind of super power, that would most certainly be it.) I can’t wait to see where that relationship goes, or more accurately, just when and how Hamlet will realize he’s being played like a fiddle. Not that you can blame him; the poor prince has the two greatest manipulators in the history of literature working against him. (The moment I’m really waiting for, actually, is when Richard and Iago finally turn on each other—inevitable, and if done the way I think it should be, it will be a battle for the ages.)

I also love the little quotes and tidbits the writers are throwing in here and there for Shakespeare fans that remember way too many details of way too many plays. Although I’m sure it wasn’t quite the horrified reaction they were hoping for, I couldn’t help but cheering, “yes! Just like Gloucester in King Lear!” when Richard cut the eyes out of that unfortunate guardsman.

See? Who says the Bard is boring! 😀

What’s Not So Good: Let me start by saying that I love Belanger’s art, and this isn’t even the sort of style I usually find myself embracing. The action and sense of motion he’s able to get across here is quite nice though, and Herring’s colors are downright beautiful in a lot of places. That said, I just don’t think they work for this story. These are not just superheroes or original characters, after all; these are characters ingrained in the western consciousness in a way that few have been or ever will be. They’ve been played by some of the greatest actors who ever lived. They live and die based on the subtle details of their gestures and expressions. (Or at least they should—did I mention I’m a theatre nerd too?)

Sadly, subtly is exactly what this art lacks. To the point where some characters—important characters like Macbeth and Richard, and Hamlet and Iago—start to look way too much alike for comfort, even when standing side by side. So while the action scenes are haunting, violent and just the right kind of bloody (I’d love to see Belanger work on a war-focused graphic novel), he just doesn’t capture the characters’ facial expressions or emotional reactions well enough for us to really connect to them. He does a decent enough job with Richard’s foreboding menace, or Iago’s smarmy assurance, but when it comes to trying to make us feel Hamlet’s pain or confusion, the images just fall flat. This is a big problem in a book where the language is (albeit beautiful) so archaic and cold. There’s not much else but the art to convey a lot of the characters’ emotion, and it just doesn’t deliver in the way it needs to.

Conclusion: In spite of my whining about the artwork not living up to the bar that Sir Ian McKellen or Sir Laurence Olivier set for some of the characters, this is a fantastic book. This is what I was hoping Kill Shakespeare would be when I opened issue #1. Now that the growing (and expositional!) pains are out of the way, it looks like this series is really coming into its own, and is set to blossom into one of the smartest and most creative things to hit comic stands in quite some time.

Grade: B+