Though it rightly deserves its status as one of the English language’s great tragedies, academic discussion of Shakespeare’s Macbeth often centers around one question: do we control our fate? In some ways I find that line of thinking reductive. After all, it prevents the conversation from moving on, from spending more time considering the psychological dimension of the play’s murderers or examining the role of women in Macbeth, but perhaps that’s precisely why it’s such a hotly debated question. Both of the discussions I raised, two personal favorites, center around how the characters react to the world around them, and it’s kind of impossible to answer those questions until we know if they had the ability to chose.
With her first creator-owned series, writer Mairghread Scott seeks to explore not only that prime question but, I suspect, both of mine as well.
Formerly titled The Third Witch, which I personally find to be a catchier and more informative title, Toil and Trouble #1 introduces us to that titular hag, but with a twist. Less “eye of newt” crone and more “maw and gulf of [a] shark” demigoddess, Smertae enters the series on a viking ship, returned from a decade long exile. There’s no time to dawdle however, as Macbeth’s first act swiftly approaches and Scott still has to introduce us to Smertae’s victims, powers, and partners in crime – or is it divine law?
Accordingly there’s a lot in this issue. The longer I’ve reviewed for WCBR the more I’ve noticed a correlation between the youth of a writing career and the amount of conceptual content in an issue. I’m sure there are plenty who hear that and turn up their nose. “Kill your darlings,” I hear them say, but I’m not so sure, because Scott is just one of a series of talented new writers who has surprised and delighted me with their refusal to do away with fascinating ideas and their abilities to fit them into their work. Like the classes I mentioned above, the traditional thing to do is to focus on a single question, but like Shakespeare’s work itself, Toil and Trouble holds just close enough to the path to allow for a number of intriguing detours while still maintaining a strong narrative.
One of a number of things that can get me to nerd out over a story is an interesting magic system. On this front Toil and Trouble delivers rather nicely. The rules aren’t laid out quite as neatly as some other stories, but there’s no doubt that the creative team’s storytelling communicates it expertly. There is one line where Cait tells Smertae something that she certainly knows already, but, despite Western Europe’s dominance in our conception of magic, this feels new and exciting.
The dialogue is very natural. It’s a little elevated to communicate the age and power of the witches, but Scott is clearly appealing to the timelessness of the tale. Perhaps the greatest strength of Toil and Trouble is one shared with Scott’s work on Transformers: Windblade. While Smertae is clearly both powerful and intelligent, her doubts and struggles are expertly written. There’s something universal about the way she tackles her problems, but Smertae is beautifully specific as well. Scott definitely has a knack for writing distinct, well-characterized female characters and that’s put to great use here. There also seems to be a theme of youth continued in Scott’s work. Characters are forced into matters of life, death, and sovereignty but, despite being ancient beyond measure, the witches all remain young women and Macbeth and Malcolm are both portrayed as much younger than many might imagine. In fact, there’s actually a question as to Macbeth’s age, as he appears largely the same age in flashbacks.
That’s one of a couple of elements that aren’t explained quite as clearly as they could have been. The dialogue offers no help in decoding a couple of hard to see curses and the basis for the witches’ rules is left woefully unexplained. Plus the mystery of Smaerte’s exile, and a major deviation from the assumptions of the source material that comes with it, holds the potential to confuse as much as intrigue. But, while a couple of ideas get away from Scott, she’s impressively on top of the tone of her book and it feels like an exciting portal into her world.
Not to place undue praise at Scott’s feet, as the art is clearly the doing of Nichole and Kelly Matthews, but it she clearly has strong feelings about the look she’s going for, as much of what is best about Transformers: Windblade is present in this book as well. Indeed, whoever connected Scott and the Matthews, did this book a great service, as they deliver an aesthetic that suggests realism but is full of magic. As has become a staple of Scott’s artistic collaborators, the Matthews sisters are capable of emoting beautifully. Too often characters look cool because they’re drawn scowling or look beautiful because they’re constantly posing. Here each character has a range of emotion that’s distinct from the core vibe that they put off.
The character designs themselves are things of beauty. The three witches are lovely, with Riata’s dignified weightlessness richly depicted and Smertae’s Pictish markings and toothy grin intriguing page after page.The humans are naturally less interesting but the youthful depictions are at once respectful of the source material and appropriate for a modernization. I particularly like the restrained way the Matthews’ draw noses. It’s not quite so flat as some manga, retaining a more realistic quality, but it adds character and plays with the various faces in different and appropriate ways.
Already the creative team seems to be gelling. While there’s plenty of text to enchant the ear, much of the storytelling is entrusted to the Matthews sisters and, baring their part in the above examples, they do an excellent job. The visual depictions of spell-casting, fittingly ancient and modern, combine the weight of now forgotten cultures with a pixie’s palette and something of slick cyber-punk hacking.
There are some places, especially towards the beginning of the issue, where the art can feel a little generic or the coloring can feel somewhat unnatural, but, it quickly improves. There is the sense that the Matthews sisters do their best work when the script is more specific, and these moments have an extra spark to them, while establishing shots occasionally take a safe but unmemorable path.
The colors of the issue do bear mentioning. Toil and Trouble is awash in splendid blues, browns, and greens, but the entire issue leans towards the light and restrained without becoming desaturated. This helps bring a feeling of unity to the story and gives it an instantly unique look. The basic colors are backed up by lighting choices that bring a fiery yellow energy or a gentle red contrast into the calm blue of the night. The attention to detail and appreciation for the weight of colored lighting give it an extra draw for the eyes. All of this only makes it more striking when the flashbacks drain all but the blues from the scene. The result is equal parts nostalgic and melancholy.
Toil and Trouble possesses a few of the problems you’d expect of a first creator-owned work, but it also brings the youthful energy of a new writer to bear and demonstrates a restraint and fullness that you might expect of an industry staple. Stepping into the world of Shakespearean tragedy is no small feat, but Mairghread Scott and the Matthews sisters prove more than up to the task, delivering a modernized Alba with their unique perspective present in every stone, tree, and spirit. The art is lovely and the questions of the narrative thoughtful. Lovers of Shakespeare, feminism, magic and inventive retellings will all find something to love here. Some questions don’t have answers yet, but Toil and Trouble proves a promising debut and a fascinating read.