After reviewing and loving Mairghread Scott and Kelly & Nichole Matthew’s Toil & Trouble, a take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth from Archaia Press, I got the chance to talk to the creators further about the six-issue series, about taking on something like Macbeth, depicting paganism and Lady Macbeth, and drawing magic.
Toil and Trouble is such a layered story, so I have to ask–how many times did you read and review Macbeth while working on this comic?
Mairghread Scott: More times than I can count. We finished working on the book around the time the Fassbender adaptation came out, and my editors and I went to see it. I can’t even tell you if it was good or not because all I could think was, “That was cut. That was moved. We did that differently.”
Toil and Trouble is designed to be a great read even if you’ve never heard of Macbeth, since we tell the story of the witches and their lives instead of focusing on the humans. But the play is running in the background, and one of the things I’m proudest of is that you can lay the play Macbeth right over our story and have them both still work (with the exception that we cut Hecate from our story, since modern research says she’s not original to the play).
If you hate Shakespeare, you get to read a great dark fantasy about a pseudo-family of witches at war over an up-and-coming lord and their own past mistakes. But if you are a Shakespeare nut, you get to see a new side to both the characters you love and ones you love to hate.
Were there other sources of inspiration for you outside of Macbeth?
MS: The Matthews sisters and I drew a lot of inspiration from Celtic mythology and the real history of Scotland. I even went there on a fact-finding trip (everyone asked to see my “vacation” photos, and they’re all me in doorways for size comparison and pictures of Pictish designs to use on the witches). This story is about showing you the real people behind these grand legends and digging into the real history that happened there.
I also drew a bit on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, because I loved how unflinching that film is in its depiction of horror. We’re not about jump scares or just flashes of violence in Toil and Trouble; we wanted you to see what was horrific in an unflinching manner. Our characters get damaged pretty badly, and there’s some body horror the Matthews sisters did a fantastic job on. We don’t want you to be able to shy away from our characters’ blood or their pain. We want you to see it and feel it as much as they do.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process working together on this comic?
MS: The plot was already set when Kelly and Nichole came onboard, but that doesn’t mean they were anything less than critical. Their art has a theatrical quality to its staging that still gives Toil and Trouble the feeling of a play without being too stilted. Their use of magic is beautiful, and the body language they get out of our characters, no matter what body they’re in, is exceptional. It’s why my editor and I reached out to them.
After writing the script, much of my job was shoving as much photo reference as I could at them and then getting out of their way. Any notes or retooling was minimal; they were just a breeze to work with.
What was it like tackling a character like Lady Macbeth? Did you feel a need to depict this often maligned character a certain way?
MS: It was important for us to portray all of our characters as real people, complicated and problematic. Lady Macbeth is no exception. Shakespeare is known for building really compelling three-dimensional characters, but many people talk about Lady Macbeth like a Disney villain. She’s a vicious woman, but a woman nonetheless. I’m not necessarily trying to redeem her in Toil and Trouble, but I wanted to give her a story (and build on her story) so that you could understand why she’s become what she is.
This one is specifically for Mairghread, you mentioned in an interview that you wanted to depict the witches from a Pagan perspective as opposed to a Christian view of witchcraft. As a pagan myself, this made me particularly excited. Can you explain why you did this and some specific things you did to ensure this?
MS: Yeah, I did it because I’m pagan, and I really hate how witches are depicted in most modern media. They’re usually all over the place culture-wise (Viking runes and Latin chants smashed together) and crammed into a mechanized, Harry Potter mindset. Say X word over Y weird ingredient and Z weird thing happens.
Of course, we kept the poetry of the original spells in Shakespeare’s play, but any additional magic in our book is rooted in the mythology of the region–turning into animals, rusting armor, poisoning food, and illusions to disguise yourself are all things you’ll read about in books like The Mabinogion and the Ulster Cycle.
Also, unlike angels or demons, our witches don’t particularly care about the afterlife and aren’t fighting over human souls for any larger master. It’s only this one man, Macbeth, that changes everything for them.
And this one is also for Mairghread, in an interview you said this comic was one of the hardest things you have ever done? Why is that?
MS: Balancing an existing work with a new work was really difficult. It gets even harder when you try to make it as historically accurate as you can. But my fantastic editor, Whitney Leopard, worked hard to make sure I didn’t get too far down the rabbit hole.
I’m really proud that Toil and Trouble has so many layers; I genuinely think it’s a book you can read over and over again to learn more about human nature, history, and Shakespeare. But I’m most proud that it’s still a fun read from the start. Our book isn’t a textbook or analysis, it’s a really good story that can inspire you to learn more. That said, I’m not eager to jump into another years-old Shakespearean adaptation any time soon. Maybe next year.
Kelly, Nichole, was this a hard comic for you, as well?
Kelly & Nichole Matthews: It was difficult for us in the sense that this was our first pro gig, and with that came a much higher workload than we were expecting. Prior to working on Toil and Trouble, we would produce a handful of pages every week for ourselves but this project really forced us to knuckle down and push our limits since we had to get several pages done a day! We like to joke that if felt like we were grinding for XP for six months and at the end of it leveled up a bunch. It really helped our work ethic and made us streamline our workflow.
And for Kelly and Nichole again, a part of the fun of the comic medium unlike say a live show or even a movie, you can do so much more depicting the supernatural and magical elements of the play. What were some of your favorite scenes to draw and depict in this comic?
K&NM: Definitely the magic! Magic, monsters, all that jazz, we love depicting that type of stuff. The witches were always a joy to draw, and their transformations as the comic went on were fun to incorporate. We wanted to show that the magic the witches used was as wild and raw as they were, and as Riata and Smearte lost their way, the magic became rougher and loser as well.
We also liked the more violent scenes, like the big battle in Issue 1. Violence or gore wasn’t something we had needed to draw very heavily before, so it was kinda fun to go a little crazy with it. We had to do a lot of research on how wounds would look, what blood looked like after a certain amount of time, etc. We always like learning how to draw and render new things.
And finally, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would like to share with our readers?
MS: Well, I have a few other projects in the works, but you can read more of my writing right now in Transformers: Till All Are One. It’s a tense political thriller where people occasionally turn into jets and shoot each other. Like Toil and Trouble I’ve worked hard to make it a good read, even if you don’t know a lot about the brand. (Editor’s Note: You can learn more about Mairghread’s work on Transformers in a previous interview with us!)
K&NM: Yes! Breaker is a supernatural werewolf mystery we worked on with Mariah Huehner that will come out on Stela (the mobile comics app) soon. We have a piece in the Jim Henson’s Labyrinth Artist Tribute book and another project we’re working on with BOOM! that will be announced very soon. Last but not least, we’re drawing a comic with Audrey Redpath for Hiveworks called Symbol, about a young hero taking up their late mentor’s cowl, and another for Hiveworks’ sister site, Mary’s Monster, called Maskless, about a group of aspiring supers determined to join the League of Heroes (even though they’re really bad at it).