Review Fix chats with author Shaun Manning, who discusses the inspiration behind his new graphic novel, “Macbeth: The Red King.”
Review Fix: Why does Shakespeare still matter?
Shaun Manning: Well, he was an incredible storyteller with an unparalleled command of language. Acting in his plays, or just reciting lines, it all comes together so beautifully. And he’s given us so many original words and phrases. A lot of folks get hung up on how different the language is from how we’re speaking now, but Shakespeare is responsible for so much of the way we communicate.
But also he can be quite fun, and funny.
Review Fix: What inspired this comic?
Manning: I was in a production of Macbeth in college — I was one of the soldiers who just got killed over and over, about which I have a few fun stories — and one of the dramaturgy students mentioned that, oh yes, this is based on historical events and everybody in the play was real, except for Banquo and Fleance. Well, Banquo’s a pretty major character. I knew about the “impressing King James” angle, but I wanted to know more. So, this was a little over 15 years ago. It’s taken me a while to get it all down. But the more I read and researched, the more I was fascinated by this other story emerging, the story where Macbeth was very probably the good guy. Or at least no worse than any other 11th century warlord. I can’t say my comic is “what really happened,” but it’s another version of the story. Shakespeare had his agenda and I have mine. And going up against the greatest writer in the English language is definitely an adventure.
Review Fix: How is it different from your previous work?
Manning: Well, my two other graphic novels are time travel sci-fi and, I guess, horror? Horror of a sort, anyway — Hell, Nebraska is kind of a theological supernatural teen drama. Interesting Drug is a bit like Doctor Who, if the Doctor were evil and the TARDIS was drugs. All my work has been quite different, but this book is the closest to what I would say is the thing that I do. I’m very, very interested in history, the further back the better. The foreign-ness of Macbeth’s Scotland is just really, really enticing. I’m also just starting work on another “weird history” thing, takes place a couple hundred years later. But then I’m also writing a superhero thing and am starting in on kids’ comics — just had a short story published in Star Wars Adventures, so that’s thrilling. I guess I like to dabble.
Anna Wieszczyk has illustrated all three books. She’s great and getting better. She has superb range.
Review Fix: What was your research like for this?
Manning: It started with a few general books on the historical Macbeth and escalated to me moving from America to Scotland for a bit. I studied at Glasgow University, which was brilliant, and also gave me access to some terrific libraries. I took the opportunity to travel to some of the sites, get a feel for the place and what it was like to move within it. And then I kept reading.
Review Fix: What was the hardest part of writing this?
Manning: Trying to get the history right, or as right as it could be. Making decisions about contradictory sources. Sorting out terminology without a caption info dump. Editing out the worst of the sweary bits to make it fit for schools.
Review Fix: What makes this comic special?
Manning: Macbeth is such a well-known character, but he’s Shakespeare’s character. Thing is, he was a person! A real historical king! But no one seems to want to touch him, or has thought much about it. There are adaptations, parodies, and so forth of the play, but that’s still Bill Shakes’ character. I wanted to create something new, tell a story that’s, again, if not true, no less true than the one people know. He and his wife founded monasteries! Macbeth traveled to Rome, gave alms to the poor, and probably met with the pope! He came back and his country was still intact! Sometimes there were Vikings! I think it’s a good story, and Anna does a stellar job bringing it to life. And, you know, if folks are still reading it in 400 years, great.
Review Fix: What creators do you think have influenced you the most?
Manning: I love Neil Gaiman’s mythologizing and Grant Morrison’s mysticism. Grant’s another writer I just think is really funny, and no one ever thinks of him that way. Bryan Talbot was also a big influence in looking at what can be done with historical comics, and plus he’s just such a brilliant artist. Outside of comics, I’ve read the Odyssey probably more times than I have any other book, so Homer’s got to be up there. And old Bill Shakes.
Review Fix: How do you want it to be remembered?
Manning: I hope this can help people access more remote parts of history, as well as giving them a good entry into Shakespeare. I hope it can be taught in schools, alongside the play, not only to give shading to the play but help teach folks how history is constructed. That’s very important now, I think. What stories do we choose to tell, who gets to tell them, and why? Macbeth was dead for more than 500 years when Shakespeare defined him for the next 500. That is staggering. We need to think about who’s controlling the narrative, and I hope this book can help folks understand that.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Manning: As I mentioned, I have the Star Wars Adventures issue out (#6), it’ll be collected in Volume 3 in June. Beyond that, I’m working on a few very, very different things, though none are at a stage where they’ll be published very soon. The superhero story is probably next. I really like it. It’s the opposite of every “legacy” story, and looks at the idea of “what if the next generation of heroes is better?” I’m working with artist Ross Taylor on that, it’s looking beautiful.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Manning: I hope folks enjoy this new look at Macbeth, and aren’t too bothered that they kind of know how it ends. Kind of! Everything’s different, except that it does, in fact, go poorly for our hero. I hope that’s not a spoiler. You do get to meet Macbeth’s stepson for the first time, who was an utter blast to write. Him and Malcolm. I have no historical evidence to support Malcolm being the utter horror he is in this book, but every story needs a villain. It’s his turn.