Romeo Remixed: Ronald Wimberly’s ‘Prince of Cats’ Is Comics As Cross-Media Hip Hop
Ronald Wimberly is hardly the first person to note the similarities between Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue and hip hop, and stage a performance of the former in the trappings of the latter. Nor is Wimberly the first to note the parallels between modern gang culture and the warring houses in Romeo and Juliet. Nor is he the first to extrapolate an entire new story based on a minor character in one of Shakespeare’s plays.
He may, however, be the first to do all of that simultaneously, while including other elements of apparent personal fascination, and the first to do so in the comics medium. The result is the original graphic novel Prince of Cats, originally released by Vertigo and recently remastered and reissued by Image. The book stars Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, the “fiery” dueler who is mocked with the words that give the book its title. The dialogue reads like Shakespeare, the action moves like manga, and it looks like nothing else --- even if the sources of the individual elements are readily apparent.
To more properly give Tybalt his own story arc, Wimberly begins his book long before Shakespeare began his play. The Act I, Scene I entrance of Tybalt, after the Montague/Capulet servants fight scene (you know, with the thumb-biting) takes place some 100 pages into the 140-page book.
Although Juliet, Romeo, Mercutio and other characters had long since entered the story, the overlap between Prince of Cats and Romeo and Juliet is actually rather small; in those last 40 pages, Tybalt attends the masquerade where the doomed lovers meets, duels with Mercutio, and is killed by Romeo.
Just as the original play was a tragedy, so too is Wimberly’s unusual take, although it's tragedy of a much different nature. He picks up on the gang connection, giving it a more culturally Japanese tone, so that while the young men all run with Warriors-like fantasy versions of 1980s New York street gangs, they fight with katana and other Japanese weaponry, rather than with guns, as in the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film to which Prince of Cats owes some debt.
As with many young black men steeped in gang culture, and many of the swordsmen of samurai movies (of which, it should be noted, several of the most watched in the U.S. are also adaptations of other Shakespeare plays), Tybalt seems almost in a rush to get himself killed, his most apparent values being his honor, his standing in fighting circles, and his fierce loyalty to his family --- or, at least, their name. In one notable scene he ditches his cousin Juliet to go sword fighting instead.
This then is the tragedy of Tybalt in Wimberly’s telling, wherein he is the star rather than just collateral damage, or a plot-moving stepping stone in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
In his eagerness to prove himself the best swordsman, and his willingness to throw himself into fights, even with those who are said to be his superior in skill, he ends up face down in a pool of his own blood, realizing too late that his cousin Juliet may be as much of a reason not to fight as she is a reason to fight.
“It’s not the crest of Capulet,” Tybalt’s girlfriend Rosalyn says at one point, offering a diagnosis of his behavior; “The precious thing thy sword protects … it’s vanity.”
Rosalyn, by the way, offers another little cosmic irony to Wimberly's tragedy of Tybalt. Rosaline was the girl who refused Romeo in the play, and in doing so left him heartbroken... and primed to fall in love with Juliet. Here, Rosalyn refuses Romeo because she’s with Tybalt, although neither man knows of the other’s role in her life; had Tybalt not been there to provide Rosalyn a better option, Romeo may never have fallen for Juliet, which ultimately lead to Tybalt’s death.
While there are few books as visually striking on the shelves at the moment --- thanks in large part to a remix that pairs pre-gentrification New York City with fantastical fashions and all the rooftop-running and subway swordplay one could want from an action comic --- it is Wimberly’s dialogue that is most impressive. Plenty of lines from Shakespeare make it into Tybalt, Romeo and company’s mouths, occasionally with a substitution (“Kopesh” for “sword” in the linem “Gentle Mercutio, put they sword up,” for example). That Shakespeare's lines sound completely natural in the rest of the narrative is a testament to how faithfully Wimberly has managed a Shakespeare impression for over 100 pages of comics.
Whatever the subject matter --- Juliet’s school friend explaining how she learned the art of fellatio on rocket pops purchased from the ice cream truck; discussions of the fine art of graffiti; Tybalt’s friends making fun of him upon his return from private school --- it’s all written in the same rhythm, and with the same colorful imagery as that of Shakespeare.
That is no easy feat, and it is but one of several impressive feats executed by Wimberly in Prince of Cats.
It's billed on its own back cover as the B-side to Romeo and Juliet, but that seems to sell it short: Prince of Cats is more a hip-hop concept album, with some of the beats and samples taken from the play, and put to use in a way that repurposes them rather than transforms them.
John Jennings, a media and cultural studies professor who penned a foreword for this edition, notes that hip hop is all about appropriation and remixing to come up with something new, and he cites Prince of Cats as an exemplary hip hop comic. It is, but that’s not all it is; it’s also a slightly overlapping prequel to one of the world’s best-known plays, and a successful transliteration of that which has been appropriated into maybe the one medium that allows such appropriation so seamlessly; certainly more seamlessly than the purely aural medium of modern music.
I mean, Prince of Cats does what hip hop music does with other music and clips of sound, but it does it on the scale of entire media, rather than working within the realm of a single medium. Music is music, but Wimberly’s Prince of Cats is a work of the medium of comics, sampling from the media of theater and film and music and other comics.
The story may be a tragedy, but the accomplishment is a triumph.