Romeo and Juliet: The War
Story by Stan Lee and Terry Dougas
Written by Max Work
Art by Skan Srisuwan and Studio Hive
Lettering by Pirawit Sundaravej and Christian Fabbi
Published by 1821 Comics and POW! Entertainment
Review by David Pepose
'Rama Rating: 3 out of 10
Romeo and Juliet… and cyborgs. Let that sink in for a little while. If that sounds up your alley — and I'm sure there are plenty of people who are going to eat this right up — Stan Lee's POW! Entertainment has teamed up with 1821 Comics to deliver Romeo and Juliet: The War, an action-heavy graphic novel due out Nov. 30 that struggles both with its visual storytelling as well as its fixation on the techno-toys rather than the characters underneath.
Set in a sprawling metropolis of steel and shadows, Romeo and Juliet: The War isn't set in any sort of Verona you'd recognize. But where this story falls on its face is that it doesn't trust that the characters are enough — you know what the story of Romeo and Juliet really needs? Guns. Lots of guns. And artificial DNA that turns your body into metal. And cyborgs that can leap and run faster than anything on legs. Forget star-crossed lovers, forget the complexities of the title characters, this Romeo and Juliet is all about the Capulet-Montague war — seriously, the ultra-extended fight between Tybalt and Mercutio feels like a truer consummation of events than Romeo and Juliet actually meeting or, err, consummating. It's certainly given just as much attention as the actual love story that this book is supposed to be hinged on — to be honest, it really feels like they've given more.
And in that regard, the artwork is definitely a mixed bag. Style-wise, Skan Srisuwan and Studio Hive do remind me a lot of Marko Djurdjevic's cover art, with that painted quality and mainstream designwork. Unfortunately, the actual storytelling, the flow between panel to panel, is really tough to get through, due both to actual panel composition and the too-dark colors. For example, there's a sequence where Tybalt launches himself onto a hovercraft piloted by the Montagues, and he gets punched off — but man, it took me, like, five reads to understand that. The introduction is even more difficult to follow, to the point where I actually had to give up, put the book down, and try reading it again later. Characters very much look similar with their pale skin, dark hair, and blue eyes, and it's actually difficult to tell them apart, as pretty as they all look. While the artwork does open up later with all the fighting — all the flipping around, spinning and fighting — all I could think about with this was that it could have been better suited for just about any other medium than comics. A movie like this, or a TV show? You'd get the motion that this kinetic a concept requires, you'd get more individuality in characters. This book is in the weird position of both looking gorgeous and being extremely difficult to actually read.
Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, the techno obsession in Romeo and Juliet: The War gives this book just as many problems as it does potential. Like the big question, which the entire climax of the book falls on: In a world of cyborgs and television, you wouldn't be able to send Romeo an email saying that Juliet isn't really dead? Or the groan-worthy weakness that only Romeo's heart can't be turned into artificial DNA-metal? Or Juliet's "poison," which gives us an uncomfortable scene that looks just like a breast implant surgery video. But to be honest, the obsession with the guns and ammo and morphing and leaping takes away from the actual important relationship of this story — namely, Romeo and Juliet, and how we fall in love with them both. Romeo gets the lion's share of the screen time, and what should be an extended, gorgeous sequence showing their meeting literally is shorter (three pages) than the fight sequence between Mercutio and Tybalt (and eventually Romeo), which goes on for 17 pages. 17 pages. I know that Shakespeare isn't for everyone, but where do you draw the line and say that maybe the people involved in this book kind of missed the point?
In an era where deadlines loom over most comics publishers, it's sad to see a book that's clearly trying as hard as Romeo and Juliet: The War, and still not hit the mark. The production values for the art are high, but it doesn't matter how gorgeous the actual style of the book, if it's difficult to read, it's still a problem. The actual concept of this book is problematic, because it's not quite an adaptation — it's more of a narrative hijacking, using what we already know about Romeo and Juliet to skimp on the relationships and focus on the action. If you're looking for something that's not serious and has a lot of guns and punching, this could be a fun book. It could also give any English major an aneurysm if they're not ready for it. This is a niche book at its absolute best. Shakespeare 2.0, it is not.