On Borrowed Tales

I should posit that I haven’t actually read Kill Shakespeare yet.  I’ve checked out comic’s website  and read this post in the Globe and Mail.  I will most likely read it in the future and provide an addendum either reiterating my dubiousness or reiterating the fact that I’m an idiot (or both—quite likely).   The series like a mixture of fan fiction, intertexuality, meta-fiction, tempered with perverse comments in iambic pentameter and epic action.  That does actually sound like Shakespeare.

But I’m dubious about a venture that sets out from the beginning to compare itself to the Lord of the Rings and other highly epic and influential material.  I also found the comment that if Shakespeare was alive today, he’s be doing comics.  Those comments seem to undermine the ability to think creatively and perform some amazing linguistic and psychological feats with characters that represented Shakespeare.  I’m not positing that Shakespeare is the end-all be-all, but he did some amazing feats, and his work has left an indelible mark on the modern world, regardless if that’s what he intended (favorite Isaac Asimov story!).  The comments by the creators sound more like bravado before actually providing substance.

The series would not be the first to rework and evolve a previous body of literary works.  There have been numerous efforts within comics to craft intelligent and compelling stories that creatively appropriate textual (and sometimes cinematic works:  consider the range of licensing titles that Dark Horse holds from film, video games, etc).

Mythological Spin-Offs

Probably the three most famous series that playfully manipulate previously established “literature” include Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and Fables.  Of the three, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman does it least directly and consistently; but directly invokes many different tales, mythologies, and even has Shakespeare as an reoccurring character.  Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman focuses almost solely on novels of the 1800s and early 1900s (including the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and others).  Additionally, Moore’s series for all intents and purposes seems to be a limited self-contained series.  Fables on the other hand is an every-expanding and evolving narrative from Bill Willingham (Note:  I am totally ga-ga over this series).  Fables does some amazing things as it builds off the characters’ original motivations and plots and weave it into a larger tapestry of world events.  Sandman takes the ideas from other literature and crafts them into an intriguing mythology of the universe while Moore craftily interweaves believable but different manifestations of the characters from more than a dozen worlds.  Willingham uses the stories as a starting point or rather the character origin, but then launches them into new and challenging events.      

Zenescope Entertainment  has been building a series of ongoing narratives based upon fairy tales and children stories that work with them in different ways, but seem to fixate on the sex and violence element to a blatant degree.  It can certainly be enjoyable to some people and yet by comparison to how Willingham deals with such characters, it does feel cheap.  Granted, Moore has gone the route of sex with his Lost Girls series and yet, the approach there seems to be different than the short skirts and bounding cleavage as suggested by the Beyond Wonderland image.

Getting back to Shakespeare; it gets harder with something like his plays because they do have specific lines and plot elements.  Granted, some of these have been presented/interpretated differently; and many of Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from previous stories and plays.  One can retool fairy tales since they exist in a nether-region.  Yes, we have them written down, but for most of their existence, they were passed down by word of mouth.  Thus, deviations or creative manipulations from the canon is part of the norm.  Even with Moore’s work deals with more dubious characters since the 19th century seemed to be pushing more towards less clearer villains and heroes (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mina Harker, and the Invisible Man are great examples here).  By contrast, launching tragic characters (many of whom we know to die within their story) across time and space for a quest for a mighty quill doesn’t seem to live up to the material it is borrowing from.

Creating and interweaving narrative with a previous existing text is certainly fun.  I’ve talked elsewhere here about pieces like Wicked, The Dracula Tape, Grendel, etc.  But some can be a bit too much gimmick and not enough gumption.  This seems to be the case with the new onslaught of titles that insert (even more?) ridiculous events into older stories (mash up stories).  Originally triggered by Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  The more successful ones seem to pay homage to the original while also looking to tell powerful and compelling stories.  In this regard, Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Fables seem to the more impressive pieces.  It will be interesting to see where Kill Shakespeare fits in.


What’s appeals to readers about mash-up novels, or texts that build off a previous mythology/narrative/collection of works?

Some argue that this is uncreative or lacking substance?  Agree?  Disagree?  Why?

What do these kind of works suggest about the nature of story telling?  Why can we deduce from their ability to leap different media and form?

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  1. In my opinion, the appeal of this surge of cooler, sexier, and, at times, more adult interpretations of classic stories is due to this 21st century’s failure to provide the type of brilliant literature that defines each generation. In all honesty, I do enjoy darker retellings of children’s stories that defined my childhood, but that just means I am an equally guilty proprietor of the unoriginality that pervades this age of 80’s film remakes and lust for the retro. A majority of people these days are so used to having a veritable library of information at their fingertips (literally) that to delve deeper into literature that is meant to be mind invoking when they could just flip through a picture book with “explosions and guns and stuff” makes much more sense to their lifestyle. Sure, personally, I enjoy explosions and guns but I separate the true merit of a classic work from stylistic interpretation. Adding this twisted reimagining to literature just seeks to dumb it down for a wider audience who, in turn, feels they are being clever in indulging in such silliness. I like to think it is the author’s hope that this wider audience will recognize that not all traditional literature is bone-dry boring and actually set out to explore the timeless confines of the classics, but perhaps that is hoping for too much.

  2. The reason people love these mash-up novels is because they bring new perspectives to stories that we already know. These are usually stories we loved so it is fun to see how a certain author alter the original story. Many of these stories are also retellings of old stories that were drilled into our head as children, so it is fun to see humorous interpretations on these novels. Many of these stories are based off of one character from a known story (ex. the play Wicked, Alan Moore’s Lost Girls). These two narratives are largely successful and prove that people love this idea of playing with established literature. Another highly popular facet of this story mashing is tying in violence and sex to old stories. Readers love these interpretations because it brings harsh realities of our adult world to stories we read as children.
    Many of these stories are considered uncreative but I disagree. I consider all these remakes of old movies to be uncreative, but some of them do turn out good. These ones that work add in little plot changes that give the viewer an interesting new look on the story (ex. Dawn of the Dead). The problem with having all these different authors write about the same story it lacks continuity. This has been the case with Batman and Superman. So many authors have written stories about these characters that it is hard to follow their development.
    These however are stories and are all mainly fiction. When people read these stories they are doing so for entertainment. So as long as these mash ups continue to entertain us we will read them and worry about continuity and originality another day.

  3. I think the part of the appeal of a mash-up novel is the ridiculousness of it. I did not have much interest in reading anything by Jane Austen, but when I first heard about Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, I just had to read it. And while I did enjoy it, I have to admit, it did make me want to read the original just to see how much of it Seth Grahame-Smith left alone. I think that really says that these things might be worthwhile. It is all about getting folks in the door, and I do not think it matters how they got there. And if done right, I think you should be able to appeal to both fans of the original and people who are interested in whatever elements you are adding to it.
    I feel it is rather creative. Just because you are doing something different with a pre-existing work does not mean that it will be as good. I feel that there is a lot people can do with re-examining stories. Some people may pick up on something minor and want to explore it, or see things a little differently from most and have something to add to the conversation. I also think it is an interesting exercise to look at a story and say “what would I do differently?”

  4. Reading Fables brought me back to my childhood when I had first come across the Disney classics, stories from the Brothers Grimm, and other Euro-American folklore. To be able recognize each and every character and their “background” stories made the graphic novel that much more enjoyable because you understand the humor and puns that are used by Willingham. I have also read other stories that seemed to similar to the Harry Potter books, but usually they don't live up to one's expectations or the hype when there's already a Harry Potter series and the fans want something similar but unique at the same time. I think Fables is such a success because Willingham perfectly meshes each character into adult contemporary themes of the 21st century. The characters are unlimited to the possibilities of dating, divorce, marital problems, problems at their job, murder, and the list goes on. To play on historical figures and folklore in literature is fun and not at lacking creative substance because as long as the author is able to adapt the characters and stories into a believable and interesting plot without changing the character entirely, then why not? All sorts of themes should be explored in one way or another including working on certain works that have already been established. An author just needs to be careful with how he goes about doing it.

  5. Well I have to say I do like the idea of using characters that are already in literature and turn it into their own thing. I really do like that. And I also enjoy how the original story is originally suppose to be told rather than it being child like. For instance in "Jin-Roh: The wolf brigade" they often refer to "Little Red Riding Hood" throughout the story and how it was told it's very descriptive and dark. Much like how "Fables" uses the characters and though the story is completely original the background of each character are left intact and is often told the way that it is intended. Stuff like the Grimm Fairy Tale comics are cool and all, but I do think it's a bit much when the girls where clothes that are 3 sizes too small for their voluptuous bodies. Now I do enjoy those kind of things. Like how Frank Cho draws his ladies, I often find the way that Grimm Fairy Tales makes it a bit too much. Though I do like the idea that they remain true to the story in a sense, but the sexy ladies got to go. Simply because I can't take it as seriously as other comics.

  6. Well, I must admit, when an author- be it in comics or more traditional literature- takes preexisting characters and weaves a story around them, it lacks the creativity of, say, crafting a completely new, completely unique entity, the likes of which the world has never seen before(still, there isn’t much of this with new and original characters either). But often times, they will create a new interpretation of the character that is every bit as interesting as the original concept. For example, I always thought of Goldilocks as a sweet, innocent, demure little waif lost in the woods; that is, until I read Fables. There are no words to describe my reaction to Bill Willingham’s interpretation of her as a psychotic axe-murder with a (I could have died happy without knowing this part) bestiality fetish. I mean honestly, which version do YOU think is more creative? And that really is a good portion of the appeal of such retreads and remakes. People seem to love alternate character interpretations, I can’t quite say why, though I partake in it myself. I certainly adore Fables, and to a certain extent, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen( though again, died happy, etcetera, damn you Mister Hyde!). Although, I have yet to read Kill Shakespeare myself. Might be interesting.

  7. These stories are appealing to the reader because characters that we have grown up with, grown to know, grown to love, have sort of grown up with us and are in more adult situations like violence, sex, and revolt. It is like seeing an old friend and having to catch up on all that has happened since the last time we saw each other. We can relate to these situations more now that we are grown up. Another thing that draws people to these stories is a lot like when people break character on a popular sketch television show. When they break character it is a lot like their real self is coming out. These stories are cool because people can see what their favorite characters are like when they are not in their respective stories. Another reason why people like these stories is because all of the characters are already known by the reader. The action can start immediately with no real character development. The last big reason why people like these stories is because they are in completely new stories. It is like when people listen to mash-ups in real life. It is a new song, but with the same elements that people are familiar with.


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