Romeo + Juliet : The War

Just about a year ago I spotted the news that comic god Stan Lee was associated with a graphic novel adaptation of Shakespeare entitled Romeo + Juliet : The War.  At the time I wrote, simply, “Want.”

Well, lucky lucky me tripped into a complete pre-release copy (digital only and heavily watermarked), and just read it cover to cover in one sitting :)!   Yayyy!   Love.

This telling takes place on “a planet you recognize…yet in many ways, you don’t.” It is a war-torn planet, populated by two super races: The Montagues, a race of cyborgs (half human, half machine) and the Capulets, a race of genetically engineered superhumans.  They were both bred and created for the same purpose – defeating a common enemy.  Once that task was complete, they turned on each other. As far as the “two households both alike in dignity” and the “ancient grudge” go, I buy it. 

(Let me just break in here on myself to mention that, in the introduction, it says “Respectfully based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”.  I like that.  None of this “We all know that original boring story blah blah we think our version is better” stuff.  Respect.  Carry on.)

The story they tell is a bit different from Shakespeare’s, as retellings often are (see our West Side Story discussion for more on this topic). This version, like many others, significantly plays up the violence.  Every Montague hates every Capulet, major characters included.  Romeo and Benvolio are both right in the mix and ready to draw Capulet blood at every opportunity.  There is no Lord Capulet moment where he says “It is not so hard for men as we to keep the peace.”

This is a common approach (heck, even Gnomeo and Juliet did it) but I think it takes much of the depth out of the story.  I much prefer an interpretation where the grudge is basically old and buried, and it is only recently “broken to new mutiny” by guys like Tybalt who refuse to let it go.  I think that’s important character development there.  Just making everybody bloodthirsty doesn’t really do it for me.

Anyway, soapbox off.  The rest of the story elements are there – the party, the meeting, the secret wedding, the over -hasty marriage to Paris, Friar Laurence’s plan.  I will say that it takes a very different turn right in the middle (during the Mercutio/Tybalt confrontation) which is definitely in line with their world building, even if it is not exactly what Shakespeare wrote.  For as much as I don’t love some of the liberties that storytellers take with my beloved source material, I do have respect for those that can stand confidently in *their* story and carry it through to the end. The ending is satisfying, based on how they get there.

I’m always torn when digging into a work like this, because my brain says, “Yay! Shakespeare content!” and then I start reading and three pages in my brain says, “Wait a minute, this ain’t Shakespeare.” I don’t really know what I want as a solution to that problem. Sometimes the retelling will sprinkle in direct quote. There’s not too much of that here.  The goal seems to be, “Retell what Shakespeare said, and say it in a way so that the reader knows what we’re doing, but not so that it looks like we just tried to flat-out translate the original into modern text line by line.”  Does that make sense?  Keep it close, but not too close.

Sometimes they try too hard. Every single time there’s an opportunity to say “Ha, the Montagues are clearly the good guys and Capulets the bad guys!” expect there to be somebody who is quick to point out that the Montagues are just as guilty. They really hammer home the whole “these two sides are exactly alike” thing. We get it. Don’t let us develop our own feelings for these characters or anything – tell us exactly how we have to feel.

As far as the visuals go, the artwork is just beautiful (and I think they know it).  On
numerous pages you’ll think that you’re looking at a scene out of
Terminator, The Matrix, or some other hugely successful science fiction
movie that jumps immediately into your brain. They have a very clear idea for the world they want to show, and pull it off brilliantly.  Frequently there’s a shot of nothing but the landscape, just to show how impressive it looks. Honestly if there wasn’t a gigantic watermark across my copy, there’s a handful of pages that would be gracing my laptop’s wallpaper right now.  (UPDATE – They have downloadable wallpaper on the website!) There are a bunch of places where it’s overly violent for my taste, and a number of fight scenes where it’s hard to tell what’s going on, but I think that has more to do with me looking at it primarily as a Shakespeare fan and not a comic fan.  I’d bet that the comic aficionados in the crowd wouldn’t mind it at all.

You know what? I said that it looks like a movie. I think that if somebody tried to tell this version of the story as a movie, it could be pretty awesome.

I can’t wait for this to come out for real. Although there is plenty of bloodshed (and a surprising scene of near nudity which I think was completely gratuitous) I would almost certainly let my kids read it.  Well, at least my oldest.  I’d probably call it borderline PG-13, as there’s a very definite “Romeo and Juliet, now married, are in bed together” moment that’s hard to talk my way around. Relatively speaking I’ll take the gratuitous almost-naked scene if we could leave out the almost-naked-and-in-bed-together scene.

Be on the lookout for this one!  Coming out officially in “late 2011”, but I don’t have word yet on when exactly it will be available. I find no listing in Amazon, not even for pre-order, but that doesn’t prove anything.

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