PRINCE OF CATS produces a new and reenergized version of Romeo and Juliet. Ron Wimberly shows his skills as a writer and artist through the use of Shakespearian prose, action packed scenes, and beautiful art. The story combines three distinctly different cultures to create a retelling that’s both fantastic and inclusive.

Shakespeare as a Jump-Off Point.

The first thing to note for PRINCE OF CATS is that the story is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. The story takes on the perspective of Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, and follows his perception of the story. Shakespeare is the forefather of the iambic pentameter, a style of poetry that’s still studied in high school and college classes. This elevated status gives it more importance within Western society. The fact that Shakespeare is still within our education systems today proves his work can withstand the test of time.

Prince of Cats Inclusive
Image courtesy of Vertigo.

Historically, Shakespeare’s plays are considered some of the highest work of European literature. They have made it through centuries, and we still consider them a form of high art. At some points in the book, it becomes difficult to differentiate between Shakespeare’s works and Wimberly’s.

READ: Interested in more Shakespeare? Take a look at our piece on Graphic Shakespeare!

The West has historically robbed other cultures of their ideas and used them to its advantage. Modern examples of this would be Iggy Azalea, who’s broken into the world of rap yet refuses to learn about black history and culture. Even Miley Cyrus used rap as a platform to make money then abandoned it. She continues to insult hip-hop culture by citing that the industry is misogynistic and unhealthy. Cyrus and Azalea’s use of appropriation is not the same as what Wimberly does. Instead, he still pays tribute to the Shakespeare’s original work. Through slang-heavy iambic pentameter and how closely the story follows Shakespeare’s original, Wimberly manages to craft a story that reinvents Shakespeare’s original play. Wimberly still pays tribute to the original telling by maintaining the same pace and rhyme scheme Shakespeare had.

Shakespeare and the East.

Wimberly also depicts a group of hired assassins that wear traditional Japanese masks. Three of the masks worn by the killers are the Hyottoko, Hannya, and Noh masks. Each mask assigns a different trait or characteristic to the wearer. Hyottoko is a spirit who has different stories associated with him based on region, but his spirit is supposed to be lucky and is always sporting a funny face. The Hannya are female demons that are thought to be jealous and fearsome characters. Men wore Noh masks to disguise them as women in plays.

Much like plays during Shakespeare’s time, women weren’t to perform in a play. Up until the 1600’s, women were not allowed to act by law. The result is that young boys would play the parts of women on stage. Men wore the Noh masks to portray to the audience that they are female. These masks were famous for Noh theater, which depicted traditional Japanese literature. Wimberly’s use of the masks within the reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet further reminds readers that the text is a play rather than a comic. The masks are also a reference to Japanese culture.

Prince of Cats Katana
Image courtesy of Vertigo.

Tybalt’s Sword and Japanese Culture

Instead of using a cliché weapon, each character in the story has a sword that is reminiscent of different aspects of Japanese culture. When challenged to a duel, people accept their role and fight. The weapons that are present in the text are usually different styles of samurai swords. Tybalt’s sword, for example, is a double-edged sword often called a Tsurugi. Although it’s difficult to see the sword has two edges, in one fight scene Tybalt uses the sword to block a strike yet still manages to cut his hand with the other side. The Tsurugi is a straight, double-edged sword used during Japan’s bronze age. The use of the sword was for battle, and all swords that managed to kill and behead an enemy were thought to have divine power.

READ: Want to learn more about hip-hop? Take a look at our piece on the exploitation filmmakers of the 70s and 80s!

Blaxploitation within PRINCE OF CATS

The story itself harkens back Blaxploitation movies that were popular during the early 1970’s. During this time, movies would exploit the role of African Americans within the media. This was done through the portrayal of African American characters as brutish and forceful. These African American characters are reliant on selling drugs and women for money, are brutish, and only accomplish goals through brute force. People were eating up Blaxploitation movies like SUPER FLY and SWEET SWEETBACK’s BAADASSSSS SONG.

The lack of intellectualism within the films, however, made African American viewers want something more. The desire for characters to use their intelect rather than their strength to overcome obstecles became in demand. Enter Bruce Lee. After the release of ENTER THE DRAGON, African Americans had developed a following and respect for Martial Arts and kung-fu movies. PRINCE OF CATS brings these elements together and provides the reader with a rendition of this mixing of cultures.

Prince of Cats Tybalt
Image courtesy of Vertigo.

Addressing Issues Within the Community

The story also addresses issues within the African American community. Tybalt has returned from private school and finds himself mocked for his education. When asked about how school was, Tybalt says it’s “a droll necropolis where boys worriedly preserve their life, yet forfeit their soul.” Whether or not Tybalt feels this way is unknown, but it could give a different meaning to the reasons he participates in the Duel List. To move up in the Duel List — a ranking of neighborhood combatants — you have to kill the people who are ahead of you in the ranks.

Perhaps Tybalt is attempting to earn respect amongst his friends, who consider him bougie, to maintain credibility. The real irony is that everyone on the list is against the violence. They all condemn the fighting, yet continually participate by moving up in the rankings. This paradoxical desire to stop fighting yet move up in the social hierarchy also parallels the reality that a lot of black youths face.

READ: Shakespeare is in a lot of comics, like in Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN: DREAM COUNTRY!

Ron Wimberly Combines Hip-Hop and Shakespeare

Wimberly closely ties this story with hip-hop. DJ Afrika Bambaataa of the hip-hop collective Zulu Nation outlined the following items as pillars of hip hop culture: MCing (or rapping), rhythmic vocal rhyming style, DJing, b-boying (or breakdancing), and graffiti art. PRINCE OF CATS encompasses all of these elements and creates a work of hip-hop fiction.

Although it may be difficult to hear, Wimberly is the MC and provides incredible rhythms set to iambic pentameter. The words are obviously carefully chosen and fit within the pentameter in order to create a unique flow. The incorporation of b-boying is not present through direct dance, but through the dance in battle. The sword fights that the characters partake in resemble dancing. It’s necessary to have the right moves and style in order to defeat your opponent. And if you love graffiti art, look no further than this text. PRINCE OF CATS has the most beautiful art that resembles 1980’s style of graffiti.

Prince of Cats Graffiti
Image courtesy of Vertigo.

Overall, Prince of Cats is Very Inclusive…With Some Pitfalls

That’s not to say the text doesn’t have its pitfalls. Although it’s nice to see different cultures blend to create a rendition of Romeo and Juliet, some of the characters are pushed to the wayside. The Asian characters, for example, never show their faces. Their only purpose is to try to kill the main character. They don’t have their own place within the plot nor do they have their own personalities. They’re merely a step for the protagonist to proceed with his story. This quality of character is problematic because Asian characters are common tools for the main character. If Wimberly had given an Asian character a more central role, this oversight might have been easier to ignore. Since none of the more central characters are Asian, it makes the text seem as if Wimberly were almost appropriating Asian culture.

By mixing different elements, Ron Wimberly creates a work that’s more inclusive than other comic books released to date. By combining European literature, African American characters, and Asian story elements, Wimberly does a fantastic job creating a multicultural text, which isn’t an easy task. He’s able to balance these different cultures and respect their perspectives, yet manages to give the book a unique twist by including so many various aspects of said cultures. The imagery is beautiful, and the story is great. I would recommend this text to anyone who appreciates Shakespeare, hip-hop, and martial arts.

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