Comic adaptations of Shakespeare are hardly new, but in my experience, rarely are they well-done enough to be appreciated outside of a “Here, read this comic because you’re having trouble with the Shakespearean language in the play” context. Of the several that I’ve attempted, only a few have been books that I’ve reread for their entertainment value. Most of the others I haven’t been able to finish, and all of those left me with exasperated groans in my throat, just waiting to be unleashed when I came upon the next Shakespeare comic.
In fact, that is exactly what happened when I came upon this comic. When I first saw a thumbnail of Romeo and Juliet: The War, my reaction was *EXAGGERATED SIGH-GRUMBLE*, “Does the world really need another futuristic Romeo and Juliet ripoff?” The fact that it was Romeo and Juliet made it worse. Generally I hate stories that feature protagonists being both in love and stupid at the same time, which is what Romeo and Juliet is, at its heart. Oh, the original has all that iambic pentametered loveliness, too, but I can get that in every other Shakespearean work, many of which are far more interesting than this one.
Key to my exasperation with this book was the fact that I was looking at a thumbnail that was the size of, well, a thumbnail.
Then, one day, I came upon the actual cover in person, which sent me into fits of fangirlish glee:
This version of Shakespeare’s classic sets the familiar story in the far future, making both families consist of cybernetically- or genetically- enhanced supersoldiers, and then having them duke it out in a wondrous spread of futuristic glowing lights and shiny metal that makes the book look like a printed cousin of the Mass Effect games (which is not a bad thing because even the loading screens are fun to look at in Mass Effect games.)
Romeo and Juliet: The War is not simply a slapdash adaptation of a classic made for SparkNotes purposes, either. (Not to hate on SparkNotes, by the way. The SparkNotes graphic novel version of Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespeare-inspired comics.) It’s an impressively crafted work, and despite all the crazy technological changes, the basic story is still intact. I wouldn’t recommend reading in lieu of the original if you’re reading it for class, as you’ll end up answering questions like “Why were the Montagues and Capulets enemies?” with “Because they were such awesomely superpowered soldiers that they defeated everyone else in the world, leaving only themselves to fight!” (which, FYI, is not the Shakespearean reason). However, as a complement to the original text, it’s pretty good. Some changes are made to certain minor points in the plot, but—dare I say it?—these changes actually improve upon Shakespeare’s story, or at the very least make it more dramatic reading.
Basic accuracy is the least of this book’s good points, though. All of the other good points rest in its art. The art in this comic is not merely pleasant to look at. Everything about it is expertly accomplished, from the dynamic panel layout, to the characterful color design, to the wondrous and colossal scale of it all. The book makes frequent use of detailed full-page and multi-page spreads, and more than once I found myself stopping in the middle of reading simply to gawp at what was on the page before me. This is a graphic novel that comes very close to reaching the height of Capital A Art.
The only truly disappointing part of the book, for me, was the lack of an author or artist’s note in the back, as I was genuinely curious to know what happened to make this unexpected bit of awesomeness come about. The only extras included are some pieces of concept art, which are cool, but not as interesting as a look into the writer’s and artist’s minds would have been. I also had a problem with Romeo’s hair, which being the shaggy mop that seems to appear on every stylish teen boy’s head these days is going to look dated as soon as we’re out of the 2010s. But that’s just me being picky because there’s nothing else to complain about.