Cue the scary music! A new comic book injects a little horror and occult magic into the story of the First Folio, in an effort to make Shakespeare more accessible to a younger generation.
13th Night was written to accompany the First Folio’s visit to the University of Colorado Boulder as part of the Folger’s nationwide tour, First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare, celebrating 400 years of Shakespeare in 2016.
But the comic book will live on even after the First Folio leaves Colorado at the end of August: education non-profit Pop Culture Classroom is developing a curriculum kit for teachers who want to use the comic book to teach their students about Shakespeare and the First Folio. (UPDATE: Now available online!)
“This comic offers an opportunity to develop student curiosity and create an educational hook for Shakespeare’s stories, characters, and legacy,” said Pop Culture Classroom’s director of education, Illya Kowalchuk. “What’s more, the comic reveals a bit about the printing process, and can draw students into curiosity with resulting ‘teachable moments,’ dealing with the process, background, and value of the folio.”
Deborah Hollis, associate professor in Special Collections & Archives at University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, remembers how the idea for the project first came about.
“In the spirit of making Shakespeare accessible and being inclusive, how could we reach out to the K-12 audience?” she wondered. “From the moment we received word that the First Folio! exhibit was coming to Colorado I knew we needed a comic book component.”
She assembled a crack team, starting with Kowalchuk. They brought in University of Colorado English professor William Kuskin, an expert on comic books and graphic novels, to do the first round of storytelling, which established the idea of time travel and visiting the print shop in London.
Next came Stephen Graham Jones, also a University of Colorado English professor, to do a re-write, “shaping the whole plot into a script that made sense as a horror story, giving it tension and rhythm,” as Kuskin put it.
And finally, writer and illustrator Scorpio Steele dived into the project, adding, after some meticulous research, a crucial story element: (spoiler alert!) the Greek goddess Hecate, whose name you may remember from Macbeth.
“I was fascinated to learn that Shakespeare’s contemporary, Thomas Middleton, likely wrote part of the version of Macbeth included in the First Folio, recycling some ideas and songs (!) from his play The Witch, which had only one performance, apparently,” Steele wrote in an email. “Learning that all the material featuring Hecate/Hekate was probably not Shakespeare’s work was an eye-opener (though there is still some debate about it among scholars, of course).”
Macbeth is one of 18 Shakespeare plays that appeared in print for the first time in the First Folio. Without the First Folio, these plays might have been lost.
So, how does this comic book help middle and high school students connect more with Shakespeare and the First Folio?
“Ideally they can see themselves in some of the characters, some of whom, for example, are tired of always hearing about Hamlet or “To Be, or Not to Be,” Steele said. (The First Folio on exhibit at the University of Colorado is open to Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” speech, which the comic book references in a climactic scene.) “Hopefully by the end of the story they realize why this play and its famous phrase are so important,” he added.
Most of the action takes place in the present, and the main characters are students going to see the First Folio in the University of Colorado Art Museum. This relatable setting was intentional.
“There’s kind of the misconception that Shakespeare and his plays and poetry are all mired in some ‘back there,’ when really they’re as vital now as ever,” Jones said. “Story doesn’t age away, it just gets better. Setting 13th Night in a now that middle and high school students recognize, I hope it kind of gives them a sense of how this old stuff not only undergirds our world, this text we’re living in, but maybe shows us a path forward as well.”
Looking for other Shakespeare-related comic books?
“Kevin Caron wrote and drew a comedic sequel to Hamlet called 24-Hour Hamlet. Its title comes from the fact that it was completely written and drawn during the annual 24-Hour Comic Book Days that occur each October. It is available for $6.00 from TintoPress.com.” –Scorpio Steele
“Neil Gaiman’s issue of Sandman that gives us the rest of the story of how A Midsummer Night’s Dream came to be. It’s just as magical as the story itself. First comic book to steal away with a World Fantasy Award, too.” –Stephen Graham Jones
“As Stephen said, the Neil Gaiman comic, Midsummer’s Night Dream, in the Sandman series is quite amazing. I’ve taught it a few times, and it’s a very thoughtful meditation on character, on Shakespeare’s character, and on the stakes of becoming an artist. It’s quite elegantly written and drawn as well.” –William Kuskin
“Gareth Hinds has written several phenomenal adaptations.” –Illya Kowalchuk
Imagine a comic book series in which Shakespeare’s most popular characters team up in rival, warring camps bent on seizing control of the kingdom that is the world of Shakespeare’s plays. The creators of Kill Shakespeare are interviewed on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Listen on SoundCloud or iTunes.