Creators Workshop member Shaun Manning partners with artist Anna Wieszczyk once more for a haunting (pun intended) new look at a Shakespeare classic. Macbeth: The Red King, now up on Kickstarter, provides an alternative view of what sort of man Macbeth really was
Comics Experience: The campaign mentions The Red King’s potential as a valuable educational material. What are some of the ways you recommend teachers, parents, librarians, and students engage with the narrative to get the most out of it? What is the educational potential of comics in general?
Shaun Manning: For one, I can imagine this would be an engaging way to get reluctant students interested in Shakespeare. I’ve really enjoyed Shakespeare for as long as I can remember, especially as someone who’s really interested in language and the way it works. But I know that’s also a hurdle for a lot of folks, the unfamiliarity tripping them up. Macbeth: The Red King is in modern English, and is a bit more action-focused that Shakespeare’s tragedy. I’ve also got a good deal of family and political drama, but it’s all different from what’s in the play.
What I think could be really valuable, though, especially in our current age, is the opportunity to contrast the story Shakespeare tells about Macbeth to what Anna and I have done, to demonstrate that writing history is all about choosing what story to tell. Teachers might mention that Old Billy wrote the play to please the new King James, but they might not get into as much who the “real” Macbeth actually was. Here, you can see that it’s very possible to portray him as the hero. Macbeth: The Red King is still fiction, and there are a few episodes that are entirely my invention, but I actually think it tracks a bit better to what we know of the historical Macbeth’s acts and deeds than does Shakespeare’s play. Someone who could reign for 15 years, who could make a long pilgrimage to Rome and come back to find that he hadn’t been overthrown, was probably a pretty strong ruler. He and his wife built monasteries, and his name — Mac Bethad, which is his first name rather than his surname — can be read as “Son of Life,” an overtly Christian name. So there was at least some aspiration to holiness, whatever that might have meant for an 11th-century Scottish king.
So yes, I think there’s a media literacy lesson here. I’m not telling the whole truth, but neither was Shakespeare.
Comics in general can be used a lot of ways. My daughter really enjoys Reading with Pictures, which was designed as a textbook that uses comics stories, but she’s also deep into the Babysitter’s Club graphic novels. On the most basic level, comics get kids reading when there are a million things competing for their attention, and that’s valuable in itself. And then there’s things like Brad Meltzer and Chris Giarusso’s I am… biographies, which can teach about history in an accessible way. It’s been encouraging to see how folks are coming round to the potential of comics.
CE: What is your working relationship like with Anna Wieszczyk?
SM: Anna and I started working together nearly ten years ago on Interesting Drug. I had a first issue script from the Comics Experience Advanced Writers Workshop, and was casting about for an artist. I put out an ad, thinking I knew what I wanted, then Anna’s work came through and blew me away. And that sold the book. When I showed a sample to an editor at Archaia, he literally said out loud, “holy shit!”
Since then, we’ve also done Hell, Nebraska and now Macbeth: The Red King. She’s done stellar work, and keeps getting better. I think we have a good shorthand going now, where if I describe a panel a certain way I know she’ll give me something better than if I gave her paragraphs of description.
CE: What aspects of the Macbeth story do you find most compelling? Why the decision to deepdive into his backstory?
SM: I love the dark, obscure corners of history, and I was fascinated by the idea that we’ve been getting this infamous villain wrong for more than 400 years because the Greatest Writer in the English Language cast him as a tyrant. I mean, the vilification of Macbeth was already complete by Shakespeare’s era, 500 years after the events in question, but without Shakespeare he’d probably be a footnote in history. There’s no reason to look at this blip in Scottish history if Shakespeare hadn’t written the play. But when you look at what’s there, it’s fascinating. A life takes shape. And then there’s the bit about his stepson Lulach — whose epithet is “The Stupid!” — and how that family came together. There’s nothing about him in the play, except for Lady Macbeth’s line about caring for infants and then dashing their brains out.
CE: How did you work with Comics Experience and the Creator’s Workshop help shape this project?
SM: I’d workshopped the first issue way, way back, so that was very helpful in getting early comments about the shape and tone of the story. Workshop discussions and live sessions were also a big help in sorting out how and where to pitch the book. I’ve always found the group’s comments and critiques incredibly valuable to the revision process — so thanks!
You can support the Macbeth: The Red King Kickstarter here.
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Posted by Meredith Nudo