At the core of Ron Wimberly’s masterful graphic novel Prince of Cats is this question: What would it look like if the young protagonists of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with all their loyalty, feuding, and violence, grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980s? In Wimberly’s telling, the Capulets and Montagues are gangs of teenagers who brawl with katanas and speak in slang-heavy iambic pentameter. Combining a deep examination of Shakespeare’s play with memories of Wimberly’s own teen years, Prince of Cats is electric.
The story follows headstrong Tybalt, who returns to Brooklyn from boarding school following the death of his friend Petruchio. In one bloody sword fight after another, Tybalt murders Montague combatants. Wimberly draws in a loose, dynamic style reminiscent of Japanese mangaka Taiyo Matsumoto. When his characters cross swords, their combat is distilled into frenetic moments of dismembered limbs and splattered blood. We see the swordsmen moments after the fatal blow has been struck, just as the shock of it registers in their faces.
The dialogue in Prince of Cats is every bit as deft as the swordplay, transitioning fluidly between the original Shakespearean prose and new additions. When Romeo finds Mercutio tagging his wall, he calls out, “Desist at once thy ignoble deeds! And mar no more our walls with scribble scrabble.” Mercutio responds, “My scribble seems scrabble to thee, boy… If these be thy walls, where art thy names? Concrete defies your half-baked spaghetti.”
This is not the first time Prince of Cats has been in print. The work was originally published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC comics, in 2012. The print run quickly sold out, but the company mysteriously failed to print more, making the comic a rare treasure available only on eBay for many times its original sticker price. Image Comics’ new release of this modern classic is a welcome upgrade, featuring a hardcover binding and a larger format that gives the illustrations more room to breathe. But Vertigo’s bungling of the original release speaks to the ways that some comics (particularly those that don’t revolve around white superheroes) are sidelined in today’s marketplace, even when there is demonstrable demand for them.
In the years since Prince of Cats’ first release, pastiche has become a central force in pop culture, whether in order to simulate a bygone era (Stranger Things) or to call one into question (Hamilton). Wimberly draws on a tremendous range of sources, from samurai sparring techniques to the cult classic The Warriors, but the disparate blend shows few seams. In an excellent analysis of the role music plays in the comic, cultural critic Patrick A. Reed writes, “Rather than shoehorning aspects of hip hop into Shakespeare’s familiar tale, Wimberly twists the framework of the play to match his own story. Prince of Cats reflects Wimberly’s own vision of hip hop as a culture, the conditions that created it, and the art that it produces.” Wimberly takes so many liberties with Shakespeare’s story that Prince of Cats feels less like an adaptation than a new tale set in the same universe. He focuses our attention on the characters who surround Shakespeare’s protagonists, such as Petruchio and Rosalyn, neither of whom appear in the play.
In addition, the timeline of the comic has been shuffled, giving the reader bits and pieces of scenes that become more coherent as the book progresses. Density is difficult to achieve in comics, which generally read much faster than literary works. In mainstream comics, some writers pad their stories with paragraphs of irrelevant dialogue in order to extend the reading experience. Wimberly’s work confidently transitions between meaningful conversation and pages of hushed action, yet despite not being particularly dialogue-heavy, it reads as one of the densest works in recent memory. Every page and whip-fast line of banter is worth revisiting, in part because repeated readings make it possible to reconstruct the complete progression of Tybalt’s rise and fall.
Wimberly, who grew up in Washington, D.C. but attended boarding school in the suburbs, makes an explicit connection between his own experiences and those of Tybalt, who longs to prove himself on the city streets. Asked about private school, Tybalt describes it “a droll necropolis where boys worriedly preserve their life, yet forfeit their soul.”
Though the battle between Montagues and Capulets is the setting for Shakespeare’s love story, the murders take on a new significance when set in 1980s Brooklyn. Supporting characters condemn the violence in no uncertain terms. When a Capulet soldier tries to lay a red bandana in Petruchio’s open casket, his mother cries out, “Soil not my Son’s final place of rest / I so detest your guilty sympathy / That my heart would rend from this aching chest / I wish this box were meant for thee.”
But many of the young men at the center of the story, steeped in books on samurai and the imperatives of the Duel List — a ranking of neighborhood combatants — are in thrall to the bloody sport they play. Tybalt’s death at the hands of Romeo on the final page of the comic is cast as a moment of revelatory pacifism, but it is the expanded role of Petruchio that comments most poignantly on the violence. Through the temporally rearranged narrative, Petruchio, whose death propels most of the ensuing conflicts, does not appear until the final act. When we finally meet him, the tragedy of the whole story comes into focus, showing how one act of violence begets another and another, in a cycle that ultimately claims many of the characters. Rosalyn’s words to Tybalt — “It’s not the crest of Capulet… The precious thing thy sword protects… it’s vanity” — don’t reach him until moments before his death.
Prince of Cats by Ron Wimberly is now available from Image Comics.