What comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare's Macbeth? There's a good chance the three witches are high on your list, with alll their double, double, toil and trouble. Beyond their brewing, however, they're a relatively anonymous bunch — until now.

Mairghread Scott, with Kelly and Nichole Matthews on art, plans to bring the mysterious three to brilliant new life in The Third Witch, on sale September 2nd from Boom's Archaia imprint. Riata, Cait, and Smertae have been the unseen force behind Scotland's kings for countless years. When a disagreement erupts between the sisters, however, their fell powers threaten to change the course of history. ComicsAlliance sat down with Scott to talk Shakespeare, magic, and music to write witches to.

 

ComicsAlliance: So, here’s the obvious question: Why Macbeth?

Mairghread Scott: I've always had a pretty strong connection to the play itself. My dad was a Shakespeare nut and I'm a Scottish kid whose mom had a C-Section, so there were a lot of Macbeth jokes thrown my way as a child.

But, also, Macbeth doesn't get a lot of love from the Shakespeare crowd, even though I think it's his most cinematic play. I wanted to explore all those mysterious incidents in the background of the play. I wanted to showcase the amazing visuals --- floating daggers, fierce storms, visions and magic --- you can't see onstage. I wanted to answer the question that always nagged me: the witches set this whole play off with their prophesy, and their second prophesy drives the entire second half of the play, but why do they do it? Why are they so invested in Macbeth?

 CA: Fresh takes on old classics are always a gamble, but one that can pay off handsomely — Wide Sargasso Sea, March, and comics’ own Ody-C are widely praised. What will your take on Macbeth bring to the table?

MS: The Third Witch tells a completely new story layered over the story of Macbeth. Our main character, Smertae, is literally just called "Third Witch" in the play, but our entire story revolves around her struggle with her sisters and her fight to prove Macbeth is a worthy king. Since that's our focus, even people who have no knowledge of the play can read our book.

Kelly and Nicole Matthews and I also worked hard to portray the world the real Macbeth actually lived in --- 11th century Scotland. The Third Witch is a very grounded, human story --- despite all the crazy and sometimes horrifying magic --- and so we wanted the reader to feel like they were stepping into real people's lives, not watching a performance on the stage. And just like in real life, the heroes and villains are a lot more complicated than they seem.

 

 

CA: What’s it like tackling such a beloved classic? Is intimidation a factor — or is there a certain excitement in remixing such an icon of literature?

MS: Intimidation is definitely there, but I love Shakespeare and it breaks my heart when people see his work as this high-and-mighty, untouchable thing only academics can enjoy. Macbeth is a visceral, passionate story and The Third Witch is a visceral, passionate story with Macbeth at its heart. I hope that people who read our book will be inspired to go back and read/watch the play. Maybe they'll even imagine Smertae and Riata lurking in the background.

CA: Witches are having a bit of a “moment” in entertainment right now. What drew you to them? What makes them such a perennial favorite among storytellers?

MS: I've worked on this idea off and on for almost a decade, so the fact that witches are in vogue is pure serendipity.

I can't speak of other storytellers, but part of the reason I'm drawn to these witches is the fact that I'm pagan myself and I'm really tired of witches being portrayed in a very Christian manner (either the Harry Potter style, which is really drawing on Occidental types of magic developed long after paganism was stamped out, or as demon-worshiping monsters). If I was going to write witches, I wanted them to write them more in line with actual druidic, wiccan, and pagan beliefs (at least as I was raised and researched to see them).

One of the most interesting lessons I learned growing up was the idea of cost. My priests(esses) didn't have the idea of sin, the sense of X activity being forbidden. That there was a line in the moral sand. Instead, they taught me that every action has a consequence, a cost. The more destructive/selfish the act, the higher the cost. Sometimes in obvious ways,eg. "I stole from my sister and now she won't speak to me," sometimes in less obvious ways, eg. "A millionaire stealing from his employees’ pension fund is a man who clearly cannot feel secure no matter how much money he has. His greed is just as much his punishment as it is his crime."

Of course, the witches of The Third Witch aren't like actual witches; they are supernatural beings wielding demi-god level power. But one of the central questions of The Third Witch is, "How high a price are you willing to pay for what you want in life," and that's a question I think is worth exploring.

CA: You’ve worked in TV as well as comics — what’s making that jump like? What can you do in comics that you can’t in TV, and vice versa?

MS: There's definitely a learning curve to writing comics. There are things in animation that make for terrible comics --- example: you can’t draw someone punching someone and leaping over them in the same panel --- and things in comics that make for boring animation --- example: putting the text of a newspaper headline on screen. But they also complement each other very well.

I think writing animation makes my comics a bit more movement-focused and fast-paced. I can also really capture a character's voice in dialog. Working in comics has also helped me hone in on those iconic moments/shots you remember even after an episode is over. I wouldn't want to give up doing either of them.

 

Kelly and Nichole Matthews--Not Final Art

 

CA: In terms of your previous comics work, you’ve written for Transformers and Swords of Sorrow — but this is an original, creator-owned series. What are the joys and challenges of diving into something entirely new?

MS: The biggest challenge was that I prefer to work in a framework. My favorite comics explore those little, hidden stories we thought we knew or ask questions we didn't think to ask before. So it was natural for me to do the same thing with Macbeth. Along the way, I was able to develop what I hope is an original, grounded and touching story about three women trying to stay relevant to their world and trying to hold their pseudo-family together. Telling their story in the framework of Macbeth just made it that much more of a challenge.

CA: In putting your own spin on Macbeth, you’re also bringing it to an entirely different medium. What has it been like translating the events of a play to comics?

MS: Well, we're able to do quite a bit more in terms of special effects than Shakespeare was. So we're a much more visual story than Macbeth. There are things I had to pick and choose. Would I write in iambic pentameter? No. It looks stilted on the page and is... honestly... way too hard to do. Should I add every scene of Macbeth to The Third Witch? No. This is their story layered over the play, not just a direct adaptation of the play. Things like that.

I think the biggest change you'll notice is that Scotland itself becomes a real character in The Third Witch. The Matthews sisters do a great job showing off the natural beauty of this country and making you feel like you're entering a real space. They also have a very cinematic style and can really pull your eye across a page in a way that a stageplay is going to have a much harder time doing. Put those together, and The Third Witch has a very intimate, immersive feeling. You're not watching the action from 20 feet away. You're right there in the middle of it.

CA: The witches don’t get very much focus in the original Macbeth — you’ve had to do most of the heavy lifting yourself on them as characters. What has that process been like?

MS: Wonderful, and a little mind-boggling, because I'm trying to make sure the story I wanted to tell still lines up with the plot points of the story Shakespeare already told. I had my three copies of Macbeth out to make sure I was acknowledging what happened in the play, but beyond that I was free to run wild. These characters are so striking, it was fun to pull them apart and see what makes them tick.

They ended up developing into really distinct women. Smertae, our red-headed main character, is the middle child, so to speak. She's a really passionate woman, whose emotions are always at eleven. She cares deeply and she has absolutely no poker-face. She's a joy to write.

Cait, the oldest even though she looks like a child, has this wicked sense of humor and a very tender, down-to-earth feel. She's the grandmother that's lived long enough to know what really matters and not to take herself too seriously.

Finally, the group's leader Riata is the most analytical of the bunch and she takes everything seriously. She sees her job as requiring a level of impartiality that Smertae doesn't have.

 

Kelly and Nichole Matthews - not final art

 

CA: Are there any particular influences — comics, plays, movies, or otherwise — coming to bear upon The Third Witch?

MS: We did a ton of research, so there are a lot of little historical details in the clothing, landscape, mindset and language of our characters that make our world feel totally unique. I drew a lot of inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining in terms of tension, pacing and the unflinching way he does horror without jump-scares (anyone else remember the lady in the bathtub --- that messed me up). But my largest source of inspiration was the songs I play over and over while I write. So, below is my The Third Witch inspiration playlist.

Trout Heart Replica by Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra: This is Smertae's song for me. The flow of the piano and that endless rise and fall create the feeling of being on the rolling waves of the ocean. The singer's voice goes from a song to a whisper, to a plea, to a scream. These are things I wanted in The Third Witch. This range of pain and fear. Best lyric: "Killing things is not so hard, it's hurting that's the hardest part."

Rocks and Water by Deb Talan: This song is Cait's song. She's the oldest of the witches and the simplicity of this song, the imperfections in it, remind me of that age. It's also a song that juxtaposes these ancient, hard things in a loving way. The repeating phrase is about the singer becoming rocks and water and leaving that power to her child. The little shiver this song inspires, that feeling that you almost understand it but can't quite, that's what I want for the magic used in The Third Witch. Best lyric: "Don't trust anyone who looks you in the eye."

Take me to Church by Hozier: This is Riata for me. The formality of the song (it has a lot of gospel elements), is perfect for her ritualistic mindset. There's no hiding the naked brutality of this song, but there's comfort here as well. It's also a song that fights itself too, contrasting Christianity and Paganism just as Riata is in a direct conflict with the rapidly Christianizing/modernizing world around her. Best lyric: "This is hungry work"

Ghost by Ella Henderson: This is my overarching song for the book itself. It's been on the radio a lot, I know, but its repetition and subject remind me so much of the characters in The Third Witch. As we go through the book, you'll realize just how trapped and haunted these people are. Who will let go of these ghost, these past pains, becomes a crucial question in The Third Witch. Best Lyric: "I keep going to the river to pray, 'cause I need something that will wash all the pain."

CA: Finally, brag a little: why will audiences fall in love with The Third Witch?

MS: Because I did. Because Kelly and Nichole Matthews did and I think you can feel that love in every page. We designed this book to be something you could re-read over and over again. We pulled information from archaeology to mythology to build something truly special. This story isn't easy, or neat, or clean. It will probably rip out your heart in places. But so does Shakespeare. At least we're in good company.

 

The Third Witch #1 goes on sale September 2nd from Archaia.