SPX Spotlight: Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats

Telling a story of love, honor, and death, Ronald Wimberly takes the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet and shifts it to be from an adversarial point of view to Shakespeare’s original play. In Wimberly’s Prince of Cats, Tybalt, the villain in Shakespeare’s telling is our hero, a school kid playing at being a hardened warrior for his family and friends. Home from boarding school, the well-educated boy tries to insert himself into this city of warring families while proving that he really belongs here and not secluded away in a privileged school. Reshaping Romeo and Juliet into a graffiti-covered gang war, Wimberly shows the universality that exists in one of the western world’s greatest plays

When reading Shakespeare, it is sometimes easy to get lost and turned around in the language and structure of his plays. When other writers try to retell his stories, one way to get around this is to strip that language and structure out and leave only the basic plot of two young lovers intact. But in a wonderful move, Wimberly accepts that language and that structure as integral parts of the story. Even calling Prince of Cats an adaptation is wrong because Wimberly has created a new story for these characters, rearranging the point of view enough to recast this as a different story about young lovers. This isn’t so much about the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet as it explores youthful love in kids who have barely lived enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

Standing in for the Bard’s Verona, Wimberly’s spray-painted New York changes the tone of this story as much as anything else does. Filled with school uniforms, elevated trains, and Ferris Wheels, Wimberly’s transfiguration of the story fills the pages with a more than just an urban environment. These aren’t the kids of fine lords and ladies but of gangs and the street. Tybalt is the kid who has the potential to change; he’s the one who has at least temporarily gotten out of the city for his education but the allure of the urban jungle calls to him. In the opening pages, he slides easily back into the feud between the Montagues and Capulets as if he never left, sword slashing away at anything he thinks is an enemy. The danger is its own drug here that Tybalt couldn’t find in his fancy boarding school.

Wimberly’s kids are wannabe samurais, brandishing their swords as readily as they do their spray paint cans. There’s even a magazine ranking of the swordsmen, with Romeo being the top-ranked and Tybalt not even breaking the top 5 at the beginning of the story. It’s a dream-like world that Tybalt walks through, where his dueling rank gives him strength and power even if now dead-men have ranked higher than him. He should see his future in the names that are no longer on that list. As much as it’s the Capulet family honor that Tybalt fights for, it’s also the rush of the fight. Drugs are all around Tybalt but none of them can match the high that any of these fighters get when their swords are locked in battle.

Where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a romance with swordplay, Wimberly’s Prince of Cats is a fight comic that recasts romance and sex as just another part of the ongoing battles. Tybalt flirts with his cousin Juliet and has a physical relationship with the unrequited fling of Romeo’s, Rosalyn, but these boys and girls remain participants in the more violent battles as well, living through Tybalt’s own self-destructive urges. Wimberly turns the romantic heart of this story into another aspect of the violent relationships that exist in this city. All relationships are struggles and fights; some are fought on the rooftops with swords and others are fought more intimately in beds.

There’s always a desire to romanticize criminals. The gangster life is one without rules and if you know that you’re going to die one way or another, isn’t there something freeing about that? Wimberly captures the appeal of that type of lawlessness but it also doesn’t back away from its consequences. The roguish nature of Tybalt, Romeo, Rosalyn, Juliet and all of these kids creates a siren’s call to that kind of life; a life of honor and swords. The staging of these images, the way that Wimberly choreographs these fights, provides as much of an adrenaline rush for the reader as much as it does the characters.

For as much as Wimberly approaches the familiar story in new ways, the story ultimately remains a tragedy. In this reworking of the story, he stays true to Shakespeare as there is still no happily-ever-after for any of these characters. Even though we don’t see Romeo or Juliet’s final fate, this was never really their story. Tybalt is the tragic heroic figure here; he had a way out but, for one reason or another, wouldn’t take it. His end is a given from the first pages as we see young men who don’t want to leave the gangster life behind them. Tybalt’s desires form as an extension of the city and all of its conflicting desires. Petruchio, one of his best friends, is already dead at the beginning of the story and as we see repeatedly during the comic, there’s no way out of this life other than at the end of a sword.

But after almost every fight, there’s a moment for everyone to access the damage that’s done. There’s time to survey the lives lost and the relationships left behind after these battles. For as much as Wimberly wants to revel in the coolness of the moment, he also wants to contemplate the aftermath of the violence. These kids’ fights are matters of life and death and it’s as important that we all understand the death as we do the life of these city streets. Wimberly knows that this is not any kind of true life for these young men and women but he also cannot deny the exuberance that comes from the youthful belief that everything is a matter of life and death.

Prince of Cats is much more than just a retelling of an old, English play. Ronald Wimberly takes the blueprint of Shakespeare’s work and reorients it to be a story of a generation that earnestly believes what it has been taught about honor, love, and responsibility. This generation of kids still believes in all of the old ways of doing things even if the funerals and memorials that they’ve been to tell them there is only one way that this life on the street can and will end.

Prince of Cats
Written and Drawn by Ronald Wimberly
Published by Image Comics