THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for October 2011

HAMLET Part 1: The Prequel.

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That there is a prequel to Hamlet may not be a fact readily acknowledged by many, scholars and crowds alike. To be clear, I speak not of the supposed Ur-Hamlet, a mysterious earlier version of the play, either Shakespeare’s rough draft or source document, but rather the comic book series that details his adventures at Wittenberg University. This comic book is Hamlet vs Faustus and it is written and illustrated by the good Ben Kooyman.

Hamlet vs Faustus finds the young prince battling wizards, zombies and the devil himself in the attempt to stop a serial killer haunting the halls of learning. Bodies fall from the sky in all manner of scatological moments and Faustus himself returns from the dead to enter the fray. The result is a wending, epic, where the stakes are high and nothing is sacred. Indeed, this book is not for the faint-hearted, with frequent nudity, violence, time travel, meta-narrative authorial interventions and plenty of poo jokes.

Largely, Hamlet vs Faustus is a pastiche of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Marlowe’s Faustus and the contemporary horror genre, working together as a ‘zine’ mash-up that explores high-brow, low-brow tensions in art and entertainment. Kooyman invokes the figures of Hamlet and Faustus in all their totemistic, dramatic gravitas and with decidedly contemporary psyches. In terms of continuity with the source material, you may take this comic as sequel, prequel or an entire reworking of the characters. Impressively, they maintain something of their original characterisations: Hamlet ever the moody and broody hero slowly drawn to action and Faustus the fearless and brilliant villain pushing the boundaries of reality.

The comic book, like stage drama in general, is a medium of increasing obscurity in today’s culture of electronic entertainment. As such, pop into most local comic book shops and you’ll find DVDs, toys, T-shirts and all manner of merchandise almost outnumbering the actual books in stock. The comic books you do find are increasingly cinematic, often wielding a fiercely intricate illustration that, now aided with increasing digital support, can display no end of anatomical, weaponised detail. Much of the writing, depending on the audience, is either unsettlingly cerebral or the stuff of teenage wish fulfillment. Now, I love the comic book medium in all its glory, but for the uninitiated it can often be a labrynthine realm of almost impenetrable detail.

Consequently, there is something refreshingly blunt and hand-crafted about Hamlet vs Faustus. This is DIY comic-making, and counter-culture cartoonists like Robert Crumb seem a likely influence. As far as illustration goes, Ben’s use of repeated layouts, cartoonish talking-heads and stark black and white inking makes for a book that is rhythmically sharp, humorous and darkly absurd. Hamlet of course, our goth prince who flirts with madness, seems perfectly at home in this world where all is evil and the jokes are cheap.

For those possibly interested in the unforgettable Hamlet vs Faustus, I’d recommend you drop Ben a line and he will no doubt hook you up with the books. The series is as yet unfinished with some final installments to come, but the dark and wacky adventures of the haunted prince of Denmark definitely entertain thus far. No wonder Hamlet later yearned to return to Wittenberg University, and that is indeed where we will pick up in Hamlet, Part 2





October 13, 2011 at 12:41 am

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