I read comics. So should you.

The Breakdown: Prince of Cats

In reviews on January 29, 2017 at 9:59 pm


Prince of Cats (Ronald Wimberly, Jared K. Fletcher-Image) is best described as a remix. Originally released as a Vertigo book about four years ago, it has been polished up and given the deluxe hardcover treatment at Image, which I suppose makes it a remastered remix. This story takes pieces from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, specifically the ones involving Tybalt, and sets it in 1980s New York City, where it absorbs all of the trappings of early hip-hop. Sprinkle in the influence of Samurai films and anime, and you get a pastiche that works so well because its components share fundamental common ground.

When you want to compare the family rivalry of the original play to inner city gang warfare of the modern era, it makes sense to shift the narrative focus to Tybalt. He was young, brash, quick to violence, and extremely protective of reputation, which are all traits one can find in any number of tragic figures who lost their lives on the crack-riddled streets in Reagan’s America. Getting his perspective on the events leading up to his death, and the death of many others in his orbit, is absolutely perfect.

There are no shortage of people who are Shakespeare purists, trying for whatever reason to maintain some image of the Bard’s writings as untouchable, and even highbrow. This comic will no doubt piss them off as much as Baz Luhrmann’s movie did. But you don’t have to be an expert to see the truth of it: Flowery language and iambic pentameter aside, Willy was writing universally street-level shit for street-level people. So you can take those tales and easily move them into the future, since people are people and we may very well be doomed to repeat all this nonsense over and over again, and you can take those verses and meld them to hip-hop rhymes effortlessly. Wimberly does this deftly, and to great effect.

The end result is just an artistic extension, and one that is true to the source while still bringing in new cultural influences, and it never feels forced or dissonant. The book provides both clever wordplay and ‘yo mama’ jokes, enduring enmity and nightclub skirmishes, the tenderness of young love and anecdotes explaining how one practices fellatio with ice cream pops. There’s vice and video games, grit and graffiti, and brutally bloody samurai sword duels.

The artwork wholly compliments the spirit of the material, and demonstrates a fluency in comics that marks this as something successfully unique. The illustration is frenetic and loose, similar in style to Paul Pope. The color palette is simple and bold, with the neon hues that define the era. The panel choices and page composition provide extremely effective pacing without getting overly showy or confusing. This is superb graphic storytelling.

The big secret to a proper remix is a respect for, and understanding of, the source materials. Prince of Cats clearly comes from that place, and because of it, the author has produced a work that bridges the gap between generations, cultures, and media. I strongly recommend picking it up, and allowing its pages to show you how everything old is indeed new again.


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