Striking world design and imaginative scripting make “Toil and Trouble” #1 an intriguing, if occasionally inconsistent, read. This retelling of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” paints the famous three witches — here named Smertae, Riata and Cait — as victims as well as executors of the Fates’ will. Artists Kelly and Nichole Matthews have created a beautiful Celtic-inspired world for Mairghread Scott’s complex, compelling script. Though some tonal confusion and a few odd structural choices take away from the issue, these are small quibbles that should quickly be sorted out. “Toil and Trouble” #1 promises a great miniseries.
As the issue opens, Smertae returns from a nine-year exile, imposed for an as-yet-undisclosed transgression. She serves as narrator, offering up exposition such as “No king has ever ruled this land without our consent,” alongside more opinionated backstory and commentary like “My whispers ripped away his happiness” and “There are no words but horror now.” She and her sisters must ensure that Malcolm becomes the next king of Scotland, and her guilt and anger at the dirty work draws the reader in. Her grim narration, teetering between anger and despair, gives “Toil and Trouble” a strong emotional crux.
However, there are a few pronouncements that feel a bit too final and dire, such as “Destroying this man did not help Alba.” (How does she know that?) It’s also unclear why she now feels guilty for this particular deed, rather than any of the many other curses she must have laid in the past centuries. These are small logical gaps, and more than compensated for by the way that Smertae’s voice pulls the reader in, but they certainly made me pause.
Kelly and Nichole Matthews give “Toil and Trouble” a vivid and fully imagined world. They draw on Scottish myths and symbols for their enchanting character designs, from the Pictish blue streaks on Smertae’s face to Cait’s highland stag antlers. For their lush coloring, they pull from the natural world, building on the sisters’ general division into earth-water-sky to show the full spectrum of the Scottish landscape. This is fantasy done big, beautiful and colorful.
Despite the often dark subject matter, the Matthews’ style feels younger and warmer. The witches and warriors have soft, round chins and wide eyes, and — even when they’re surprised by war wounds or horrific prophecies — their posture has an animated exaggeration. The colors contribute to this cartoon feel, with fewer gradients to the shading. As a result, the issue does have a curious tone at points, where the look of the page doesn’t quite match Smertae’s grim narration or Riata’s darker elements. For instance, there’s a “Where’s Waldo?” reference hidden in the same spread where Smertae narrates, “There are no words but horror.”
However, the issue is always, always lovely. The sweeping colors and mythic touches make “Toil and Trouble” #1 a true pleasure to look at, and Scott’s script takes the coolest part of “Macbeth” and builds it into a layered, exciting new story. Given Shakespeare’s own propensity for just taking the cool stuff and writing a new play, I think he’d be pleased.