I haven’t read Shakespeare since high school. But Prince of Cats makes me want to go back to 10th grade English class and actually pay attention. Was Romeo a grafitti artist when the Bard of Avon first created him?
Of course he wasn’t. But that change and the rest of the updating that writer/artist Ronald Wimberly gives to the classic romance story in Prince of Cats feels as electric and alive as the original version must have felt.
Newly released by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, this graphic novel doesn’t even focus on the titular courtship. Instead, the story revolves around Tybalt, Juliet’s hot-headed cousin and the sworn enemy of all Montagues. Wimberly sets his re-telling in New York City during the heady, early days of hip-hop. When you think about it, the younger characters of R&J all burn with a reckless passion that borders on self-destruction. The change in setting dovetails nicely with that aspect of the original work. Tybalt’s obsessed with his ranking in a underground rap/samurai ‘zine called The Duelist. Samurai swordplay may seem like a stretch until you remember how much fencing happens in the original version of one of history’s favorite plays.
Fly-ass b-boy fashions, deadly street fights and bumpin’ club parties all get infectiously realized in Wimberly’s drawings, which impart a poetic sense of flow on the story’s plot. And all of the charged juxtaposition in Prince of Cats creates a gorgeous textual aurora around Shakespeare’s original work. Things seem hotter, faster, less mannered. The archaic language feels more approachable when woven in with 20th-Century slang. And Wimberly’s art is full of elongated energy where moments seem to stretch and snap with wild unpredictability. Shakespeare’s classic observes that life and love and youth are all crazy. Wimberly makes that crazy jump off the page and in the 21st Century.