Toil and Trouble
Collected comic book series by Mairghread Scott (writer), Kelly & Nichole Matthews (illustrators)
Publisher: Archaia Entertainment
Release Date: September 20th, 2016
Full disclosure: I have a theater background. Part of this background includes a deep love of Shakespeare that took awhile to bloom, but now blossoms into full-on admiration. I can't claim to have read all of his work, or even most of it, but I've read or seen or studied most of the "big" ones. And yet, for whatever reason, I had never read or seen Macbeth. "The Scottish Play" is probably one of the most popular and quotable tragedies in the Bard's bibliography. To prepare myself for this review, I skimmed through parts of the script, read some excellent summaries, and then tried to sit through the awful 2015 adaptation starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. I am now clearly an expert.
Mairghread Scott, the writer of Toil and Trouble, holds a special place in her heart for Macbeth. In her notes at the end of the newly-released hardcover collection, Scott informs us that she is herself of Scottish origin and a Shakespeare super-fan. In her comic series, Scott weaves a tale around the three "weird sisters" of Macbeth, who are bound by duty instead of blood, whose machinations shape the fate of their homeland.
Toil and Trouble tells the story of Riata, Cait, and Smertae, three women who have each given up their humanity in order to act as protectors of Scotland. They lack the frightening and bearded visages of Shakespeare's witches, and instead carry the markings of ancient cultures and the scars of their preferred domains (land, sea, and sky). Cait, for example, is portrayed with growing branches and twisting horns, while Riata has talons and flowing hair that spreads like wings. Most of the book follows the youngest of the witches, Smertae, who has chitinous spikes along her body like a crustacean.
The comic opens up Smertae returning from a nine-year exile alongside the invading Norwegian Army that sets up the opening conflict of Macbeth. Smertae and Riata have very different ideas of who should sit on Scotland's throne: Their divination has given them direction, but not specifics. Smertae believes that Macbeth should be the next king, while Riata believes that Duncan's son Malcolm is destined to rule. Unwilling to let Macbeth die or to let the Norwegian invasion succeed, Smertae confronts her sister and sets in motion a competition that will determine the fate of the nation.
This is not a story about Macbeth, or politics, or even fate. This is a story of three women who will do everything in their power to do what they feel is right, even if it's in opposition to the ones they love. The sisters are constantly questioning each other's loyalties to Fate, Scotland, and each other, and they try to play their selfish actions off as following fate's decree. Powerful as they are, they are flawed all the same. The conflict between Smertae and Riata makes up the bulk of the conflict, and the book is at its most interesting when it focuses on them. Scott's writing is strong, with great dialogue that cuts smoothly in and out of Shakespeare's lines (or approximations of his lines). The characterizations of the play's major figures is spot-on, especially Lady Macbeth, who appears in all of her frustrated and ambitious glory. However, Scott's writing, while excellent, is constrained by the play it's based upon. When crafting the narrative, she had to be aware of what is going on in the script and fit her plot to match it. This has the side effect of having her own pacing directed by the play itself, which causes small narrative issues. The ending in particular feels very rushed.
The art is beautiful. The witches themselves are well-designed and filled with fluid expression. Their magic is illustrated with Celtic and Pictish graphics, and there are some fantastic underwater scenes. The colors are fantastic: they breath life into the witches and their surroundings. Sadly, the designs for most of the human characters are not as inspired as the witches, and Macbeth himself does not stand out in a crowd. For a character so central to the story, this seems like a major misstep. There are also larger shots of the landscape that appear underdeveloped.
I had trouble with the conceit that the witches were behind every character's personal motivations in Macbeth. It makes sense that, as fates and protectors of the land, they would weave the course of history as they saw fit. But at times, they achieved this by directly possessing characters such as Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. If the witches spent the entire story subtly manipulating characters like pawns, as they do in some scenes, then there wouldn't be an issue. But direct possession of a character robs them of agency, cheapening their actions and removing the important aspects of the source material, namely the consequences of ambition. For Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, if "a witch made them do it," are they really at fault? Scott does try to answer that question; the possessions eventually stop being effective as Macbeth decides, on his own, to assassinate Duncan. This occurs during one of the best scenes in the comic: Riata and Smertae's magical duel, which acts as the climax of their story.
Overall I enjoyed my experience with Toil and Trouble, but it was not as fulfilling as I had hoped. It combines a lot of elements I really enjoy (Shakespeare, classic stories from alternate points of view, magic and mythology), but it didn't coalesce in the way I expected it to. That being said, I think this book deserves another re-read from me, and I know plenty of theater fans who will gush over the work (and I will be actively recommending it to them). The writer and artists are incredibly talented, and I would definitely like to see more of their work. While knowledge of Macbeth is not critical to reading Toil and Trouble, I found it did increase my appreciation for the story, as well as the small nods and asides that pepper the book. If you're a fan of Macbeth, reinterpretations of Shakespeare, and/or Scottish myth, magic, and witches, then I recommend you check this series out.