Kill Shakespeare: Past is Prologue: Juliet cleverly sets up an original story by pulling the characters from Shakespeare’s plays as the key figures into a single condensed storyline. There is, of course, the cornerstone play Romeo and Juliet as the setting for Past is Prologue: Juliet. In it, Juliet’s mother marries Shylock (Merchant of Venice); Juliet’s only friend is Othello (Othello). Additional characters from other popular plays in Shakespeare’s canon such as King Lear, Richard III, and The Scottish Play are also introduced.
A remix of an existing work, no matter how clever, is always dicey. The question that is often begged is what defines ‘success’ for a remixed work? Are there elements in the new work that call back to the original? Is the plot recognizable? Are the characters believable? How far does the remixing need to go and when is it too much? Writers Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col began answering these questions with their long-running Kill Shakespeare series. McCreery and Del Col bring together a world that is both recognizable as Shakespeare’s own and while retaining some of the freshness of new storylines.
In the fifth book, and prologue to the series, Kill Shakespeare: Past is Prologue: Juliet, McCreery and Del Col start to set up the origin stories for some of the main characters from the existing series, namely Juliet. The book is meant to be read as either a standalone or, as the name suggests, a prologue to the Kill Shakespeare series. The specific title of the book also suggests that other prologues are coming but there is no word if this may be true. (Especially since there was a four year publishing gap between volume IV of Kill Shakespeare and Past is Prologue: Juliet.)
In Kill Shakespeare: Past is Prologue: Juliet, Juliet does not die after Romeo; rather she becomes an agent of revenge for the man who she believes hastened the deaths of Romeo and eventually her family. Combined with a terse relationship with her mother, her wariness of her step-father, and her intense desire to find answers, this Juliet goes on to discover who she can and cannot trust, what it takes to have revenge, and to find out what she, herself, is capable of.
In her quest to find answers, the one person who can help Juliet is a killer in his own right, Othello. As Juliet and Othello track down Richard III, who they believe is orchestrating the killing and pillaging of anyone who opposes him, she discovers there is more to the story than originally thought, which only deepens her need to find the answers.
When constructing an origin story for an existing storyline, there is a lot to remember for continuity. It is not just the art and coloring that should be similar if not an exact match to the existing books, but also the language and mannerisms of the characters. As I have only read plot summaries of the other volumes of the Kill Shakespeare series, I did not have the opportunity for art comparison but I will say that the colors in Past is Prologue: Juliet are muted, often muddy, and there is often no clear definition of linework. On some pages, the palette is so dark, the only thing that draws the eye is the word bubble and therein the action is lost, making the understanding of the flow of the story a bit sloppy.
As for the writing, a standalone prologue should assume you have not read any books in the series while making a clear introduction to the characters themselves and the worldbuilding. The setting and plot should be tight and not as rough as a brand new series, since the writers have had a moment to get their feet wet writing the series. This is the case for Past is Prologue: Juliet. The world building is rich and formed enough that the story slides in easily without too much disruption but, and this is important, if Past is Prologue: Juliet to be read as a standalone, the maturity of the world building works. But, and this is also important, if it is to be read as an actual prologue, it feels as if the content in Past is Prologue: Juliet relies too heavily on knowing some of the existing world building such as the characters “praising Will” or The Fool who was introduced and later ignored? Who is Richard III and why is everyone off to kill him? Who or what is the resistance? Without any context of the existing world, this doesn’t necessarily make for a smooth transition. Kill Shakespeare, Vol. 1. Past is Prologue: Juliet should give the foundation for these questions with enough clues to want to continue on to the full series but instead, as the story progressed, I found myself lost as to what was going on, reading some pages more than once with only minor slivers of clarity. There were some parts that are intriguing to be sure, but over all I found the set-up and execution to be sloppy.
I’m torn about Kill Shakespeare: Past is Prologue: Juliet. On one hand, the set-up is clever and there are some strengths in the book, especially after chapter 2 when the story starts to pick up. But the messiness and sloppiness of the writing and muddiness and lack of definition in the art are a turnoff. I recommend this book to those who are Shakespeare pop culture collectors or those who want a fresh take on old tales and aren’t terribly picky about the art or the looseness of the plot, but I would be wary of using it as an introduction to the series and would suggest that interested newbies to the series should read Volume 1 and later volumes before looping back to Past is Prologue: Juliet.
Kill Shakespeare: Past is Prologue: Juliet
By Conor McCreery
Art by Corin Howell
IDW Publishing, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 18+
Series Reading Order