There’s so much in the world of Shakespeare to explore. Characters, settings, stories and more to just dive into head first. Mairghread Scott and Kelly & Nichole Matthews take a great story from Shakespeare, give it a twist and completely knock it out of the park with Toil and Trouble.
Toil and Trouble (Archaia) tells the story of Macbeth, but it tells that story from the witches point of view. it’s such an interesting point of view for the comic because you expect it to be from Macbeth, but the witches make it 200% better. Mairghread Scott writes this epic tale and brings such life into these witches who you almost know nothing about in the tale. Kelly and Nichole Matthews are the illustrators and fill it with cinematic like panels and beautiful colors that have you stop in your tracks.
I had the absolute pleasure to interview the creators of Toil and Trouble, one of the best comics I’ve read in a very long time and will definitely be yours too.
ROGUES PORTAL: Toil and Trouble started off as a mistake and in your words “a beautiful mistake” at that. Can you tell us a little bit more of what compelled and inspired you to explore the witches and let their voice be heart? What was the process of exploring these three very different voices?
MAIRGHREAD SCOTT: Yeah, it actually started with an assignment in college to write a five-page adaptation of the play Macbeth. I love Shakespeare and, being me, I decided to overly complicate things and write a new scene within the play (à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). I wanted to know what happened just before Macbeth first spoke to the witches, what had they said to each other. It’s not at all what I should have written but the idea of these witches haunted me long after I graduated.
Fast forward ten-ish years and trying to make their story work in a variety of formats and I finally hit on what I wanted to know and how I wanted to tell it. The witches in Macbeth are essentially agents of Fate that see the future and ensure its outcome. I wanted to write a graphic novel about what would happen when they disagreed on what to do next.
Thus began the graphic novel Toil and Trouble. Smertae, our main character, is sure that the witches have taken a wrong turn and that Fate has been thwarted. Her voice is earnest but still with a bit of poetry in it. I wanted her to feel like a romantic soul. This especially infuriates her main rival, Riata, who is convinced Smertae is just giving in to her own personal desires. Riata took on an icy, rigid way of thinking that leaves no room for doubt. And Cait, who is the only one who sees the real threat in all of this, got a simple, straightforward voice that’s easy to ignore.
ROGUES PORTAL: There are many parallels between the ambitions of the political world, between the countries and thanes alike, and the spiritual/ethical struggles between the witches. Did you mean to make that connection between the ambitions and struggles between both worlds? Especially with the war between Riata and Smertae?
MS: If I said “yes” would that make me seem smarter? Actually, it wasn’t the idea of ambition that I was really focused on (although there’s a lot of backbiting on all fronts) so much as isolation.
There are two broken families on either side of this story, trying to keep themselves together. The witches are struggling to heal their relationship after a near-fatal schism. Time is marching on without them and they’re trying to connect with an increasingly foreign and hostile world. Riata feels increasingly isolated from the humans she is supposed to be looking out for and Smertae feels isolated from the “family” the witches have built for themselves.
On the human side, the Macbeths are trying to get over the death of their child. And in many ways they’re just as stuck as the witches. The world tends to move on from a child’s death in a way the family of that child doesn’t. I’m sure there are a lot of parallels you can draw between the two, and I’m really excited to see readers pick up new ones, but that was my main focus.
ROGUES PORTAL: The thought of fate and manipulation is a very big thing, since Hecate, the goddess who is the boss of the witches isn’t present in the story. Manipulation really plays the biggest role within this story. Do you think it would be a different story if Hecate was present? Do you think she could have “controlled” the witches and let the events play out strictly by fate?
MS: Removing Hecate was definitely the biggest choice I made in this story. Most research indicates that she wasn’t in the original version of the play and her appearance in it is…odd…to say the least. She just shows up and then vanishes, never to be mentioned again.
But, from a story angle, she would also have crushed the piece. I didn’t want there to be an arbiter for the witches. The witches are tasked with leading Scotland to a future they disagree on; if a higher power could swoop in and resolve the matter, the story would be over. Even if she didn’t, I didn’t want us to know for certain which witch’s vision is the “right” one. This isn’t a story about Fate grinding people up and spitting them out, this is a story about people fighting to the last breath for the future they believe in, and at what point that stops being a good thing.
ROGUES PORTAL: This is an important question for myself and other comic writers who want to get started. Can you tell us all about your writing process? What do you do first in order to actually get yourself together to start writing? What are some of your inspirations?
MS: My advice is to not worry about inspiration and just start writing. It’s easier to fix a bad idea than wait around for the perfect idea to come to you. Toil and Trouble started with me thinking of what scene might happen before the start of Macbeth. You can do that with any story. Why did Peter Pan’s shadow run away to Wendy’s house? How would you adapt Jaws so it’s set on land? Look at the headline of a news site—how is that a story? It doesn’t matter if the initial idea is bad; tinkering and the inspiration you already have (bits of songs, movies, and your own life) will help turn it into something good. The important thing is to start.
My other advice is not to ignore the writing that comes before writing. Most of my abandoned versions of this story were from me starting to write the script first and getting lost. It feels good to write that opening scene, but as I’ve gotten more experience I think this ends up being a trap. Toil and Trouble was completely thought out and plotted in two different types of outlines before I wrote a word of the script. It was invaluable because when I was writing Issue 5, I didn’t have to worry that I didn’t line up any more with Issue 3. If you are writing anything long-form like a comic, you need to have at least the first 4 issues (or your first trade) fully thought out. You don’t want to get to page 130 and realize your ending doesn’t make sense anymore.
ROGUES PORTAL: Mairghread, what’s next for you in the world of comics? Cold Iron Wars is coming soon from First Second with Robin Robinson on art. Can you tell us a bit more about this story? I am wicked excited of exploring the realm of mythology and fairytales?
MS: I’m very excited for Cold Iron Wars, which is a fairy tale about a young girl in 1910s San Francisco who must stop a civil war among the fairies. It’s been another chance to dig into some history (the San Francisco earthquake factors in in a big way) but Robin’s also been able to go crazy with some amazing fairy designs. It’s an exciting and truly all-ages work.
ROGUES PORTAL: Kelly and Nichole, you guys are self taught artists. What’s your process like? What inspired and made you want to pursue art full time? What are some of your inspirations?
KELLY & NICHOLE MATTHEWS: We’ve wanted to make our living with art, and even more specifically be comic artists, since we were young. It was always the end goal from the very first time we picked up a pencil. Our older brothers had boxes of comics that went to the ceiling: old issues of Marvel, DC, Image, etc. We would read them over and over for hours. The thought of being able to participate in the creation of those stories was what helped us find the drive to always strive for that goal even though it took us a while to get here. Whether or not we ended up working for a major publisher or just made our own stories online, it didn’t matter so long as we made our living through art.
As we honed our craft, we collected works of other creators to act as inspiration when we were stuck or in a creative rut. The Sandman, ElfQuest, Arthur Rackham, manga, and J.H. Williams III’s run on Batwoman are among that collection.
ROGUES PORTAL: What did you guys think when you first received this story? Were you a fan of Macbeth or Shakespeare before you started this project? Were you excited to bring this story to life?
K&NM: Yes! It’s probably our favorite play of Shakespeare aside from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. We were very excited about the concept of the story told from the witches’ perspectives, because to be honest, Macbeth himself was always the most boring part of the play to us, haha. Witches, magic, animals, and the supernatural are all things we love drawing, so getting to put all of that into comic form was very exciting!
ROGUES PORTAL: What’s next on your plate after Toil and Trouble? You guys have Breaker on the Stela app and have done some incredible erotic stories, such as Creature Feature an Ahoy!, as well as some amazing prints, covers and more. What’s next on the plate for you guys?
K&NM: We have quite a few things coming out soon! We have a piece in the Labyrinth Artists Tribute and a secret project with BOOM! we, sadly, can’t talk about yet (but it’s gonna be awesome!!). We’re also working on two webcomics for Hiveworks. The first, Symbol (written by Audrey Redpath), is about a young hero who has to suddenly step into their former mentor’s shoes. The second is a story of our own and will go live at the end of the year on Mary’s Monster (Hiveworks’ sister site) called Maskless. Maskless revolves around the lives of a group of wannabe heroes that focuses more on what life is like when not under a mask.
ROGUES PORTAL: Since this comic centers around Macbeth, I have to ask the biggest question on my mind. Besides Macbeth, are there any other Shakespeare plays that you guys enjoy?
MS: I’m a Shakespeare buff from a long line of Shakespeare buffs so there are a ton of them. I think the best film adaptation I’ve ever seen is Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. I don’t even care if it’s the “safe” choice, it’s amazing. The best adaptation (time/place shifted) is Richard III with Ian McKellen, and the most compelling is Laurence Fishburne’s Othello because it completely changed my opinion on Desdemona. Also, I’ve seen one good performance of Hamlet in all my life, at the Stratford Festival in Canada. If I had a million dollars, I’d go there every year.
K&NM: We prefer the supernatural stories to the ones based on real life. A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Hamlet are some favorites.
ROGUES PORTAL: These witches are often always seen as these ladies in black frocks over a cauldron. We see a bit of the original design, which is amazing, how did you guys come up with the design ideas from these witches from different centuries?
MS: The incomparable Sarah Stone, my partner on Transformers: Windblade, designed the witches based on as much reference as I could pull from each of their time periods (or as close as I could get). You will see some of Otzi the Iceman in Cait’s design, a lot of Pictish influence in Smertae, and if you look up what Boudica would actually look like, you’ll see something like Riata’s outfit. [Writer Research Tip: If you’re having trouble finding visual reference for a time period in general, look up famous people who lived in/near that period.]
The only exception was that I avoided plaid because, in all honesty, I was worried even the great Matthews sisters would just break their hands drawing that many lines.
ROGUES PORTAL: There was a question in the topics and discussion about this being very difficult to produce on stage. It would be absolutely dope to do, but as a awesome questions, who would you cast as Cait, Riata and Smertae?
MS: Man, that’s tough. I think if this were ever adapted to film, I’d love to see what some actresses I’d never thought of could bring to the table. There’s nothing like seeing an actor you didn’t expect just dominate a role and I think we have some pretty choice roles in our book. But when I was first picturing any real people I thought could look like/act like our witches I pictured Lauren Cohan as Smertae, Amandla Stenberg for Cait, and Lena Headey for Riata. Man, I’d love to see Headey as Riata, that would be so perfect.
ROGUES PORTAL: You guys have such a visual eye for detail inside of Toil and Trouble. Where there any really strong influences that helped in the process? Each panel is almost like a cinematic storyboard.
MS: While the amazing art is all Kelly and Nichole’s doing, I will say we found Pinterest to be a really invaluable tool in this comic. Whenever I wanted to provide reference for tents, outfits, animals and things like that, I could dump it in a private Pinterest board with comments so that there was one central location for all our reference images. If you’re writing a comic with a lot of specific details you want to convey to your artist, this is one tool that really worked for me.
K&NM: Ghibli movies and artists like Arthur Rackham were definitely in the back of our minds while drawing this! We wanted to the violence of the series to be at odds with the beautiful scenery, and to give that scenery a sense of scale. It was important to us the audience was reminded how small the characters were in comparison to everything else, and that even though this was a comic medium that each scene still be treated like a movie shot. When we were thumbnailing and penciling the pages, we’d often sketch out each scene like it was a movie set and try and use the most interesting angles and lighting to set the mood. We felt that even as a comic a story about Macbeth needed to have that grand scale you find in movies.
The hardcover for Toil and Trouble goes on sale at local LCS’s on September 14th and in bookstores September 20th. In the meantime, here’s a legendary sneak peak of the awesome Toil and Trouble.