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NEAL CONAN, host:

Here's a novel concept: take Hamlet, Richard III, Falstaff and Iago, all of Shakespeare's conflicted heroes and anguished villains, mash them up into a comic book that's part Tom Stoppard and, yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do show up, and part "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Without giving too much away, Richard III dupes the exiled Hamlet into a mission to hunt down an evil wizard and then kill Shakespeare. The authors join us in just a moment.

If you've read the new "Kill Shakespeare" book or want to pitch an idea for a Shakespearian character to include or a storyline to follow, give us a call: 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. We've also posted a number of pages from the first issue on our website. To see how the story begins, you can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. They've got some zippy new technology there, too. Makes it look great.

Conor McCreery and Anthony del Col are the co-writers of "Kill Shakespeare," issue two arrived in comic book stores yesterday. They join us now from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Conor McCreery, nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. CONOR McCREERY (Co-author, "Kill Shakespeare): Thanks very much.

CONAN: And Anthony Del Col, thanks to you.

Mr. ANTHONY DEL COL (Co-author, "Kill Shakespeare): Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And Conor, is there a large crossover audience between Shakespeare and comic books?

Mr. McCREERY: Yeah, you'd be surprised at how big the crossover is. "Kill Shakespeare" has actually really done a nice job of reaching out to both the hardcore comic fan, but we've also had a lot of first-time readers of comics come in because they're really interested about this whole mash-up of the Bard that we're doing. So it's been a really nice sweet spot we found so far for the person who grew up loving Spider-Man and the person who grew up at least curious about Hamlet, maybe not loving Hamlet.

CONAN: And, Anthony Del Col, let me ask you, the first thing that occurs to me is there - there's a time machine involved here. Some of these characters did not really exist at the same time.

Mr. DEL COL: No, that's true. I mean, we are kind of toying around with the timelines for each of the characters. I mean, with Hamlet, our main character in "Kill Shakespeare," we take him from the play, so at one point in the actual play "Hamlet," he's banished from Denmark, he's on a ship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the ship is attacked by pirates. You hear about this offstage and so we actually recreate that. And then he obviously appears on this land.

And, yeah, I mean, we have Richard, who's a historical character. We also have Juliet, we have Othello. We take them from their plays, and yeah, we put them together and we mash their timelines and their stories together.

CONAN: How many simultaneous kings of England can there be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEL COL: Well, it's amazing to me. Whether it's modern-day England, I guess, where - or in historical England, there's always a quest for power, so there's always at least two or three people questing for the golden throne.

CONAN: Well, at least in issue two, Macbeth is amassing forces along the border. So mayhem promises to ensue. And indeed, the Three Witches are important characters.

Mr. McREERY: Well, you know, you can't leave the Scots out of it. I mean, they're going to get their nose in there. They - if there's a good scrap, you know, our friends from the Scottish play want to be part of it. And, you know, how can you have a mythical mash-up without the Weird Sisters?

CONAN: Where did this idea come from?

Mr. DEL COL: We - about five or six years ago, Conor and I were just sitting around brainstorming ideas for video games. And "Kill Bill," the Quentin Tarantino films, had come out and we were just thinking, hey, it'd be cool to put together a video game of "Kill Bill." But, you know, what if we were to change it, so instead of David Carradine, it's somebody else. So it's Bill Shakespeare. It's all his characters - whoah. Wait a minute. That's a pretty cool idea. So from there we kind of drew it out and put together the story and then decided to do it as a comic book series.

CONAN: Why as a comic book rather than as a video game?

Mr. McCREERY: Well, I mean, we - actually, it's funny, the biggest reason, as we step forward, we actually, after the video game idea came forward, we actually wrote a screenplay. We actually have a background here in Canada in film and television.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCREERY: And we had the story mapped out and then we started to think like businessmen because that's actually our undergraduate degrees. We're business students. And we thought a comic book is something that we can actually accomplish. And more than that, though, the comic is great creatively because it gives you a lot of freedom, first and foremost. But the second thing is, of course, Shakespeare wrote his plays to be seen, to be performed. A comic book is visual. It's kinetic just like Shakespeare's plays were. So in a lot of ways, you know, we argue that comics are a closer kin to theater than a Shakespearean play that you just read at your desk is.

So, for us the comic was not just something we could do, but creatively, it was this perfect missing link between seeing Shakespeare and reading about it.

CONAN: Yet that scene that you described, the attack of the pirate ship, for example, that's in issue number one, obviously, Shakespeare for, obvious logistical reasons, says, let's just whisper about - that it happened offstage because we know we can't stage a pirate battle here at the Globe Theatre. You have a lot of advantages.

Mr. McCREERY: Well, for sure. We get to whip our artists when he doesn't draw the pirates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, you've also done very well in your choice of artists or the assignment(ph). I don't know, how did Andy arrive at your doorstep?

Mr. McCREERY: Well, we had - about a year and a half ago when we were sitting down and starting to put the project together, we had sat down with a number of artists, and Andy, right off the bat, was the right one. He was the right fit. We, first of all - we loved his art style but also, we just loved his enthusiasm for the project. I mean, within five minutes of our first conversation, he slammed his hand down on the table and said, you know what, I've always wanted to draw Lady Macbeth. She's just so hot.

And, you know, he was into it. And within the first half hour he's brainstorming ideas about what he could do in terms of the type of stories he wants to tell within the panels because if, you know, as soon as you look at the panels you'll realize that it's not just what's going on the foreground but it's what he's designed in the background. Every panel tells a story unto itself.

CONAN: I was doing an old interviewer's trick, calling him Andy in hopes that you would pronounce his last name for me. Is it Belanger or Belanger?

Mr. McCREERY: Belanger.

CONAN: Belanger.

Mr. McCREERY: As he is proud to say, he's a fighting Frenchman.

CONAN: Oh, yeah, Frenchman. Well...

Mr. McCREERY: And it's funny, most of the time people do mispronounce his name. So the Belanger, Belanger, and so sometimes he goes by Andy B.

CONAN: Andy B. Well, in any case...

Mr. McCREERY: Yeah, Andy B.

CONAN: ...there was a Belanger who used to play, in baseball, for the Baltimore Orioles. Anyway, Mark Belanger, his name originally may have been Belanger and I don't know if he could draw a lick. But in any case, Andy Belanger is doing quite a job. And the other question, though, I wanted ask you about is how far into Shakespeare did you want to go? You've set this at the level at which anybody who read Shakespeare in high school is going to be familiar, at least so far, with all these characters.

Mr. McCREERY: Well, one of the things that we decided is - I mean, if they go first with this project beyond writing an entertaining story, is to really shed light on the fact that Shakespeare's characters had stood the test of time for a very good reason. They are arguably the most brilliant characters ever created. I mean, they are so universal. So we wanted to make sure that we brought these characters out, but by the same token, we didn't want to get ourselves bogged down. So we actually made a point of - oh, we read a bunch of these plays. We made a point of not doing some sort of line-by-line exegesis so that we could get every last little bit right, because half the fun is the what-if angle, the just, you know, throwing the creative juices to the wind and seeing what came to us.

So, for us, we have been very respectful to the bard. We made sure that we're educated about bard, but we didn't want this to become a pedantic exercise. And we want it to be open for someone who maybe has never read Shakespeare to pick it up and after two or three issues have a decent sense of who Hamlet is, who Juliet is, who Othello is. And if that inspires them to then go to the plays, or maybe a teacher can help get them excited about going to the plays, that would be fantastic.

CONAN: Who do you think your audience is?

Mr. DEL COL: Our audience is wide. I mean, first of all, you've got the natural-born lovers and aficionados of Shakespeare. But, you know, we want, as Conor mentioned, I mean, we want to grow it from beyond that. We want 15-year-old boys who are stuck in the class reading "Romeo and Juliet" to not - just not appreciating it or not enjoying it - to, you know, read the comic book and then go, wow, you know, Juliet is hot.

You know, Othello is bad ass, you know, that sort of thing. And then have them, you know, as Conor says, you know, go see a play or actually pay attention in class. At the same time, we think we can get the adult males like a 50-year-old who's just had - never had any time for Shakespeare and have them read the comic book and then go, hey, this is actually pretty cool.

CONAN: We're talking with the co-authors of "Kill Shakespeare," Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col. If you'd like to join the conversation, if you have a character or a storyline to suggest: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Jamie(ph) is calling from Medford in Oregon.

JAMIE (Caller): Yeah. Good afternoon, Neal. Hey, guys, this is early, right? I'm not going pitch you anything or anything like this. But how about this, how about Macbeth where - she's going, ow, ow, ow, out damn spot, and then Titus Andronicus and his army shows up, and then Mighty Mouse comes to save the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMIE: Oh, good (unintelligible).

Mr. McCREERY: Who let you into our meetings?

JAMIE: Yes.

CONAN: I see. Well, Titus Andronicus is, I think, more experienced handling large-sized forces, so it might be an advantage in his behalf.

Mr. McCREERY: I'm pretty sure Titus can unleash the dogs of war upon those that mouse and get rid of them.

Mr. DEL COL: Yeah, Mighty Mouse is tough. Mighty Mouse is really - I grew up on Mighty Mouse cartoons. I don't know who wins that one. That is a tough call.

CONAN: Tom(ph)...

Mr. DEL COL: Although it's funny...

CONAN: Tom's on the line from Fort Dodge in Iowa, excuse me.

TOM (Caller): Yes. I just think that after you finally have King Richard kill Shakespeare, you really got to have Falstaff kill all the lawyers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: I think we would have all be very grateful as a society and probably better off as a world.

CONAN: Falstaff is...

Mr. McCREERY: You'd be amazed how nervous the Hollywood people are when they meet with us because of - we do bring Falstaff in the meetings and we've had actually really good response from that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Falstaff has just made his vow at the end of issue number two, which is as far I've gotten because that's the only one that's in the comic bookstore. So he's clearly - is Hamlet going to be his Hotspur?

Mr. McCREERY: Well, Neal, you are revealing way too much information.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry.

Mr. McCREERY: No, I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. We have had a request - actually one of the great comic writers of our day, Bill Willingham, who does "Fables"...

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. McCREERY: ...has asked us to put Hotspur somewhere in the story so...

Mr. DEL COL: Yeah.

Mr. McCREERY: ...keep your eyes peeled.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. DEL COL: Yeah, the very interesting thing is that, you know, everyone we talked to, you know, it seems that they all have their own individual characters that they enjoy the most. I mean, I think the most popular ones are Lady Macbeth and Iago and King Lear. But, yeah, I mean, it's the characters like Hotspur that show up or, you know, like small little characters like Lysander...

CONAN: Or Puck.

Mr. DEL COL: ...or Puck that always show up, and everyone has their favorites.

CONAN: And there are characters like Puck who come from mythology. I assume they're going to show up in the - when - in the forest that we're marching through at some point.

Mr. McCREERY: Again, people - obviously, somebody is getting in to our creative meetings because there are leaks everywhere. We need to...

Mr. DEL COL: Spoiler alert. Yeah, the thing is that Puck is probably one of Shakespeare's most favorite characters, so how could we not put Puck into this? So, yeah, Puck does make an appearance, and I will reveal something to the world here, he shows up in issue number three.

CONAN: All right. Well, that's upcoming next week, or I guess next month. Anyway, Tom, thanks for the call.

TOM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with the creators of co-creators of "Kill Shakespeare," Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Peter(ph), Peter with us from Dayton, Ohio.

PETER (Caller): Hi. You actually just answered my other - my first question about Puck, but I was wondering if you guys had gotten any inspiration or had read a comic by Bill Willingham called "Fables"?

Mr. McCREERY: Yes. Yes. We definitely have - we're both huge "Fables" fans. And actually, one of the biggest thrills we've had in our young comic career is meeting Mr. Willingham in San Diego and telling him about our idea, because obviously there's a bit of an homage to his work. And he looked at us, nodded and said, do it quick or I'm going to steal it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PETER: Awesome. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. You mentioned your young comic career. Is this your first co-production?

Mr. McCREERY: In comics, yeah. We do have some past up here in Canada, in film and television. Anthony produced a couple of feature films. And we've had a development deal from the television world. But, yeah, this is our first comic rodeo, I guess.

CONAN: And as I understand the economics of the industry, this is - you're going to be able to retire, probably next year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCREERY: Well, Canada has a great social system, so yes.

CONAN: Yeah. So that's possible. So you're just doing it for the big bucks. In other words, you could've gotten a lot more if you've done the video game.

Mr. DEL COL: It's true, but I mean, we have actually found that it's really liberating putting together a comic book series like that because we have so much freedom because the stakes are not as high as if they were - if we were putting them a couple of million dollars into a game, or tens of millions of dollars in to a film. I mean, we have this creative freedom which has allowed us to grow the story and grow the characters and make it as great as possible. And then beyond this, I mean, we could potentially do a video game or a film after this.

Mr. McCREERY: And we are fortunate that we have had really good response from librarians and educators, which, you know, we always thought there could be an angle there, but that wasn't why we were doing this.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCREERY: And now we're seeing that, whoa, this could be something that gets into eight English classes across the States and into - in Canada and the United Kingdom, India, and a lot of libraries are interested. So on that front, you know, "Kill Shakespeare" as a comic book actually could be a nice business for us just as a comic book, which is satisfying. It means that we don't have to, you know, feel pressured to sell out to another medium unless we think they're going to tell the story, you know, in a really, you know, dynamic way.

Mr. DEL COL: And in case it doesn't work out, we've invested in British Petroleum, so I think they're down, but they're doing fine.

CONAN: Yeah. That's going to be a solid retirement plan. Have you - has the Shakespeare estate been in touch with you?

Mr. McCREERY: His lawyers came to approach us with a cease and desist letter, but we killed the lawyers.

Mr. DEL COL: We killed the lawyers.

CONAN: Killed the lawyer, okay.

Mr. McCREERY: I mean, who couldn't even be mad.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. McCREERY: That was the great part.

Mr. DEL COL: He thought it was ironic.

Mr. McCREERY: Yeah.

CONAN: Corey Elena suggests Mike, tragically proud and boastful hero undone by his own emotions. Of course, that could cover a lot of - that's (unintelligible) a lot of Shakespeare's character.

Mr. McCREERY: And politicians.

Mr. DEL COL: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Irv(ph), and Irv is with us from Chico in California.

IRV (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Herb.

IRV: I wonder if they can turn Shylock into a hero and get that anti-Semitic tinge off of "Merchant of Venice."

CONAN: And off of his creator, William Shakespeare. What do you think?

IRV: He could rescue Hamlet if he falls off the boat.

CONAN: Well, Hamlet is already washed ashore. We're too late for that, but what about Shylock?

IRV: How about artificial resperation?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEL COL: Shylock is a very interesting character. The first play I ever actually studied was "The Merchant of Venice." And that's actually what triggered my real interest in Shakespeare is the dynamic nature of Shylock. I mean, he's often perceived as an anti-Semitic character, but there are so many levels to him. In some sense, he's a bad guy and in some sense he's a good guy.

And so we have actually toyed with the option of Shylock. We had him in an earlier draft of this story, but the character and the scene just didn't work out, so we - it's definitely a character we want to put in if we do a second or a third series.

Mr. McCREERY: And, you know, and then as you said, there is a very - I'm sorry, pardon?

IRV: Make sure you make him a hero.

Mr. McCREERY: Well, as you said, I mean, I think that's, one of the really tricky things with Shylock is we want to be very responsible with him. And, you know, we won't obviously use him in a way that we find dramatically interesting, but we can't be blind to the fact that Shylock has been used as evidence of some stuff that we personally think is pretty unpleasant.

IRV: He could loan money to an orphanage.

CONAN: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's a good idea. Thanks very much.

Mr. McCREERY: They charge no interest.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about the comic book business. Generally, you're signed on to do six or eight that can be collected and presented as a graphic novel. Are you inked more than that?

Mr. McCREERY: No, not right now. We have a bit of a different model, because we kind of took this from a business perspective and raised a bunch of private financing before we went out.

We, actually, had the money to really create a partnership with our publisher. So we're a partner with IDW, a great publishing company. So we hold all the copyrights, and we basically told them that we are going to be bankrolling this 12-issue series. After that, we have the freedom to continue on if we want to, but we don't - we're not obligated, too, and we can work with IDW as a partner, going forward as well.

But I mean, we'd love to do, assuming this series, you know, gets the kind of responses so far it is getting, we'd love to take "Kill Shakespeare" to a couple of more chapters. We do have, in our mind, already, where we'd take the story, (unintelligible) next. But this first 12 issues is a complete story CONAN: Anthony Del Cal and Conor McCreery, with us today from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Thanks very much for your time. Good luck.

Mr. McCREERY: Thank you very much.

Mr. DEL CAL: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, we're going to be talking with TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with the latest in stem cell research news. Plus a talk with genome pioneer Craig Venter. You heard who's mentioned earlier about his invention of a synthetic cell. He'll be on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with Ira tomorrow.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'M Neal Conan in Washington.

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