Hugh Likes Comics: Toil and Trouble

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Toil and Trouble #1
Written by Mairghread Scott
Drawn by Kelly and Nichole Matthews
Published by Archaia
Shakespeare enjoys a peculiar place in the canon of English literature.  Both a foundational document and endlessly mutable, it is performed, reenacted, remixed, and endlessly reinterpreted.  Romeo and Juliet inspired the musical West Side Story.  King Lear was translated into Akira Kurosawa’s opus film Ran.  Recently, the tragedy of Hamlet was remixed into the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game-book, To Be or Not To Be.  Toil and Trouble takes up from Macbeth, focusing not on the Thane, but the Witches.
Structurally, it resembles the Tom Stoppard Play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which follows the two titular henchmen from before their introduction and up to their bumbling, offstage demise. (Spoiler alert for a four-hundred and a fifty year old play, respectively.)  The comic follows Smertae, one of the three witches, returning to Scotland after being banished.  The reason for her banishment is unclear, but seems to involve Macbeth.  Like the Stoppard play, the action of the original Shakespeare drifts around and through the dialog of the comic. In this first issue, the reader sees an expanded version of the opening scene.
In Scott’s version of events, the witches are agents of Fate, tasked with ensuring the continuity of Scottish royalty.  To accomplish this, they mean to strike down Macbeth in order to give Prince Malcolm a trial to ready him for the throne.  Smertae is against the plan, but reluctantly agrees.  We then follow the witches in their work cursing Macbeth’s camp, and in the battle the next day, where Smertae makes a decision that goes against fate.
I was drawn to this comic because I am a huge fan of the Scottish Play.  The plot is an interesting take, and I’m excited to see how it interacts with the original.  The writing is actually quite solid, and the dips into 17th Century language feel natural with the rest of the dialog.  The world building is the biggest break from the original, but I’m a sucker for the concept of a fading magical world, struggling in the face of onrushing modernity, and Scott absolutely nails this fantasy milieu.
What surprised me is the exceptional quality of the art.  The Matthewses style is absolutely gorgeous, and the designs, particularly of the three witches, are immediately eye-grabbing and carry a lot of the story’s weight.  The three represent Sea, Earth, and Sky. Smertae has crab-like spikes jutting from her body, and her sisters equally expressive of their elements.  The ‘acting’ of the characters is also very well done.  The meeting scene is wonderfully emotional without relying too heavily on the dialog to convey meaning, for example.  The art is helped by bright and detailed coloring and inventive layouts, such as the climactic battle splash page, which features small circular insets showing the effects of the witches curses in the epic clash.
“Toil and Trouble” is the first part of a series I can’t wait to read more of.  Find it on Comixolgy, or in the rack at your local comics shop.

The Gamer’s Guide to Writing #4: Final Fantasy IX: The Princess and the Play

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Welcome back to the Gamer’s Guide to Writing!  Previously, we discovered that Tantalus, a gang of thieves, were hatching a plot to kidnap princess Garnet disguised as a troop of actors.  Today, we’ll see how their heist goes off.
This sequence gives us a pair of very interesting contrasting viewpoints:  Steiner and Zidane.  While both are playable characters, they have opposing goals.  Steiner’s job as the head of the Knights of Pluto is to defend Princess Garnet, and Zidane’s job is to kidnap her.  Of course, Garnet has plans of her own.  The play begins with a spray of fireworks and trumpets, which delight Queen Brahne.  This will be an interesting little contrast to the end of this scene.  Tantalus plays their part, telling the story of a doomed romance between a warrior and a princess.  After a scene on stage in which the player controls a few swordfights in the midst of some pseudo-Shakespearian poetry.  There is also a mini-game in which you must press the correct sequence of buttons to wow the crowd.
Afterwards, you control Zidane as he sneaks into the castle and tries to abscond with the princess.  He in fact literally runs into her, disguised in a red-lined white hood that long-time fans of the franchise should recognize.  She leads him on a chase through the castle while the control shifts to Steiner, her protector who has noticed she is missing.  With news of the plot spreading though the palace, he has to rally his knights, all of whom aren’t terribly dedicated to the profession, and find her.  The action switches several times, from Steiner to Zidane as he chases the thief through the castle and the Buena Vista airship before ending up on the stage itself.
But in spite of Steiner’s noble dedication, not all is right in Alexandria Castle, and Garnet pleads with Zidane to kidnap her right away, to which he agrees.  On stage, Garnet tries to blend into the play, taking the role of the tragic princess in the story.  Her cover is blown when Vivi, pursued by guards after sneaking in, accidentally sets her hood ablaze with his magic.  With the jig up, Tantalus tries to make a quick exit, but Brahne launches a broadside of chain shot, and even a bomb at them.  Although damaged by the explosion, the Prima Vista limps out into the night and away from the castle.  Queen Brahne orders that they be followed, adding ominously that they “need her alive.”
This scene works really well on a variety of levels.  It draws the player in with a lot of action and things to do.  The castle is a huge area, and while a lot of it is unavailable, it does drop some tantalizing hints.  It also establishes the characters and conflicts that drive most of the first disc’s action.  The rivalry between Zidane and Steiner is a nice microcosm of the greater conflict between Garnet and her mother, which will be explored further.  It’s also a really fun, high-energy chase sequence.  It’s quite spirited and cartoonish, making Steiner the butt of a series of pratfalls and sight gags.  It’s a great contrast to “I Want to be your Canary,” the play Tantalus is performing, which is a classical tragedy.
The play-within-a-play, or in this case play-within-a-game, is a great technique for drawing parallels and establishing theme.  Probably the best known examples come from Shakespeare, who uses it to interesting effect in “Hamlet” to prove Claudius’s guilt, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where it serves as comic relief.  Here, the play is a plot point for getting Zidane and company in the door, but it does a hefty bit of world building and character development as well.  The theme of an impossible affair between a princess and a commoner echoes Zidane and Garnet’s relationship, and the play will come up several more times throughout the plot.
Next time, we’ll explore The Evil Forest and discuss worldbuilding!

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Review: Henry V (Shakespeare In Delaware Park)

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The 39th season of Shakespeare in Delaware Park has begun, and this year’s first play is a history, “Henry V.” The play is very well staged and performed, with Patrick Moltane as Henry. The set design is based on original productions with minimal props and a three-level stage painted in abstract branching patterns of brown, black, and gold. The costumes evoke dress of the period, with Henry and his lords in Plantagenet tunics, and Katherine’s maid wearing an impressive wimple. The exception is The Chorus, played by veteran Tim Newell. He’s dressed in a cyberpunky outfit capped with sunglasses and a black trench coat.

While not his most problematic play, “Henry V” is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s bro-iest. It is the culmination of the English histories begun in Richard II and leading up to Henry’s ultimate triumph at the Battle of Agincourt. It was probably one of the first plays performed at The Globe in 1599, and it is sort of an Elizabethan blockbuster.

It is a direct sequel to Henry IV parts I and II. No longer the carousing and conflicted Prince Hal, Henry V has turned his back on his misspent youth, and his old friend Sir John Falstaff. But with trouble at home and a rebellious Scotland to the north, Henry decides a nice, distracting foreign war is just the thing, and so he picks a fight with France.

While Henry has some great speeches, and Moltane’s performance of the St. Crispin’s Day speech is especially effective, there isn’t a great deal of complexity or weight to Henry V. It feels almost like Shakespeare’s riff on a 40’s comic book. Henry and his forces are the fiercely patriotic English, off to fight the decadent, cowardly, and generally just all-around bad French. The French aren’t up to anything in particular, they’re just holding some lands Henry feels belong to him, and are generally jerks about it.

In spite of being greatly outnumbered, Henry cuts a swath through France. At Agincourt, where the English forces are outnumbered “five to one,” He wins a decisive victory, and the play claims that he loses less than thirty men. He attributes the victory not to himself or his men, but to God. The end is a bit disappointing in that they stage the battle with the English forces lined up facing the audience, and there is no direct fight between Hal and the Dauphin, whom he’s traded insults with via messenger the whole play. I suppose this is a more realistic depiction of Fourteenth Century warfare, but it left me wanting just a bit.

Even though this is not one of Shakespeare’s more famous comedies or tragedies, I recommend taking in “Henry V” this month. Performances run Tuesdays through Sundays until July 13th, 7:30PM at Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park. I’m also looking forward to this season’s second show, a Steampunk production of The Comedy of Errors that begins July 24th. The show is free, but donations are appreciated. Find out more at shakespeareindelawarepark.org.