While You Were Reading The Big Two: Voodoo Macbeth

Comic Reviewed by Will Cooling
Teaser: What do you get if you add Orson Welles, Macbeth and Voodoo?

Title: Voodoo Macbeth
Written and Drawn by Norris Burroughs
Editor: Barry Renshaw
Published by Engine Comics

The latest offering from Engine Comics is something of a prestige project, a 68 page graphic novel about Orson Welles’ famous 1936 production of Macbeth. This was no ordinary production of the ‘Scottish Play’ due to the fact that it was performed entirely by black actors, at a time when black actors were limited to playing only ‘black parts’. Not only did Welles have to deal with the controversy surrounding such casting but also a multitude of other problems, including the private life of his leading star Jack Carter, the ‘method acting’ of one of the witches and not least getting the play to work. All of which makes fertile ground for what may well be the best damn comic about Shakespeare in the world.

The story focuses on two main plots, one Welles’ struggle to get the production on stage as he battles racism and creative difficulties to deliver his vision of Macbeth. Now to be honest, I’m sure some of you are thinking that that doesn’t sound like such a sexy plot. And maybe in lesser hands you’d be right but Burroughs does an excellent job of bringing what could be a very dry topic to life. He highlights the problems of racism well, without overdoing the racial angst whilst he soundly details the creative evolution of the play with such key decisions as choosing Macbeth, setting it in Haiti and making Witch Queen Hecate a man all shown in a visually interesting manner. His Welles is particularly good, with the perfectionist drive and vivid imagination of the legendary director captured extremely well.

The second plot centres on Welles’ Macbeth, Jack Carter’s private life. Carter is a mixed-race French immigrant who despite his being the son of the French count has became a ‘pimp and a gangster’. To make things interesting he is currently seeing Lana, the daughter of Don Cellini. We follow them as they struggle to get their love accepted, with a jealous henchman of Don Cellini doing all he can to thwart their love. Burroughs shows the problems their love affair causes very well, and he builds to the tragic climax brilliantly managing to give it real emotion and sadness. He also makes Carter an interesting character independent from the love-story, with his anger at American racism and his pride in his black heritage coming to the fore.

Throughout Voodoo Macbeth Burroughs’ writing is of a high standard. Taken as a whole what is especially impressive, is how he takes great pains to deliver a realistic portrayal of 1930s America. In particular the dialogue shows a real attempt to mimic the vocal patterns of the 1930s without lapsing into parody. He also manages to skilfully interject scenes from the play so that they always add something to the broader of narrative. The high quality of the writing is mirrored in the art, with his detailed, naturalistic linework being perfectly suited to the story. If there’s one flaw in both the writing and the artwork, is that at times it can come across ever so slightly stilted and forced. However, to me this actually adds something to do the comic, as it gives the story the feel of an old Hollywood movie such as Mr Smith Goes to Washington or To Kill A Mockingbird, a feel that is perfectly suited to the story being told.

Overall, this is a very good comic. Burroughs has wrote this book in memory of his father Eric Burroughs, who played King Hecate, and it shows in only positive ways as Burroughs’ work on this book shows an extraordinary care and attention to detail without falling into the trap of concentrating on his father’s role to the detriment of the story. This is an unusual comic, with a pacing and style that owes more to classic Hollywood than modern comic books. And its all the better for it!

The Last Word: The best damn comic about Shakespeare in the world.

Rating: B