Prince of Cats, written and illustrated by the talented Ronald Wimberly, is a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet told from Tybalt’s POV that takes place in a samurai-infused Brooklyn during the 1980s. I really shouldn’t have to say anything else to convince you to check this out, but I will, because I can’t seem to stop talking about this graphic novel.
Shakespeare adaptations come a dime a dozen. But Prince of Cats turned me into a devoted fan before I laid eyes on the first panel. (And this is coming from a girl who plans to name one of her future cats Shakespeare.) The opening couplet is part Shakespeare, part Biggie with a dash of Langston Hughes. It’s one of those combinations you never imagined would work so well until it was right in front of you.
I go around preaching the gospel of PoC to anyone and everyone who will listen. It’s that good. However, it wasn’t until recently that I discovered why I had such an affinity for this story. That’s when I realized that it impacted me on multiple levels. Most of my favorite books, shows, films, etc. only affect me on one, maybe two, levels (yes even Doctor Who). I fall in love either visually, sonically, emotionally or intellectually. It is rare that something affects me on more than two levels. Prince of Cats did.
I have yet to come across an artistic style with the same energy as Wimberly’s. His balloonless panels explain more than most talk bubbles. The atmosphere is illustrated so vividly that you can practically turn the page and smell the seawater from Coney Island or the rusty scent of the blood dripping off Tybalt’s katana.
Wimberly’s rhythmic illustrations make Prince of Cats look and feel like a song. You can hear the roar of subway car rolling by as your eyes travel across the page. The mashup of the original Shakespeare text and street talk (all written in iambic pentameter) make it sound as if you’re right in the middle of an Elizabethan hip-hop mixtape.
There’s a very special place in my heart for talented black writers and artists, and another place in my heart for fictional characters of color. So immediately, Prince of Cats is occupying quite a bit space. On another emotional level, I felt connected to these characters very quickly which doesn’t happen often for me. Not to mention my mixed feelings about the slightly incestuous relationship between Juliet and Tybalt. Their relationship in PoC reminded me of when I fought with myself for liking Humbert Humbert (Lolita) as a character. Now you know that’s good writing!
When I read a good book, it’s usually left dog-eared and covered in illegible markings and neon highlighter. Or as I like to call it, loved. Prince of Cats is far too beautiful for me to graffiti, but mentally I was tagging it up like the side of a train car. My highlighter finger itched when I would read lines like, “That wooden skeleton doth rattle my nerve. The night is warm, the sky is clear, the spring breeze it whispers Summer’s name. Let’s ride the wheel, eavesdrop on season’s conversation and gaze on Astroworld from above.” Prince of Cats injected new life and a fresh perspective into an old tale. You’re guaranteed to love it, verily.
Interview with Ronald Wimberly
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Ronald Wimberly: I’m born in DC and raised in DC and Maryland.
I first came to Brooklyn in 97 and, though I’ve ventured far and wide, I always find myself back here.
I got into comics when I was a teenager. First character I remember liking was Grendel, Hunter Rose…remember thinking he should’ve beaten Batman.
What inspired you to create your graphic novel, Prince of Cats?
RW: “My greatest inspiration is my empty stomach.”, he lied to the interviewer.
You retold, or rather, remixed Romeo and Juliet, from Tybalt’s point of view. Was there a reason behind that?
RW: …my inspiration…several things.
I’m often interested in supporting characters or characters that spend a lot of time off screen. The idea that they are the center of a story makes me ask questions.
Mercutio’s description of Tybalt always piqued my imagination. There’s a whole story in that monologue.
Also, when I was a kid, reading Romeo and Juliet, I thought it was the worst of Shakespeare’s work. My young ego preferred Hamlet to Romeo as a reflection or the lurid spectacles of a Coriolanus, Titus or Macbeth; however, when I got a little older, I began to look back and see myself and kids I knew in the child cast of Romeo and Juliet, children with passion that could destroy themselves and each other.. (The language also endeared me to the work long after the first time I read it as a kid; it’s what stuck with me).
Juliet’s reaction to Tybalt and his death also attracted me. It was a strange relationship, and damn if she didn’t get over his death quickly. Hehe
If you could retell another piece of classic literature, with a Wimberly twist of course, which would it be and why?
RW: I would and I will, but it may be a while.
I’ve played with Theseus for years… Did a Perseus strip too back in the day.
…there are more but I don’t like to tip my hand so soon.
In the end we’re all telling these classics over and over…as were they. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t even the first to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet, nor the second.
What’s your writing and illustrating process like? Do you listen to music, go through several drafts, etc.?
RW: My process is still taking shape. I’m most likely writing in silence when I’m… with white noise while breaking down…jazz or audiobooks while I ink and color.
…The final IS a draft.
I read you’re also an animator for Black Dynamite. Can you tell us about that?
RW: I didn’t animate in the truest sense, but I was a part of the animation production team. I was a character designer and assisted the art team with their duties. I worked with Chase Conley and Lesean Thomas to create and maintain the look of the show. I even got to do some layout.
What was the transition process like from illustration to animation?
RW: Fortunately for me, the look of the show was not too far from one of my established styles. Even then, the volume of work made it quite formidable. Lucky for me I was surrounded by capable talent at titmouse and an uplifting producer, Carl Jones.
Are there any future projects that you’re working on that you can tell us about?
RW: I’ve got several things in the works, but for now I can only mention my month long retrospective at Superchief Gallery in Williamsburg on the sixth of November. It will be a retrospective of my work as well as a peek at new series I’m on which I’m working.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, animators and illustrators?
RW: Work hard/smart/often. Observe. The value of the answers are often in the process of finding them yourself.
What are some of your current obsessions?
RW: Life… My art… Food… People.
If you were to have an author and artist create a graphic novel based on your life, who would they be? What would the graphic novel be called?
RW: This question is self indulgent, but I’ll indulge myself.
Jose Munoz words by Murakami Ryu. Murakami Ryu could come up with a title.
Ronald Wimberly’s work:
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