Welcome to The Third Panel! Every other week, Alex dispels the myth that comics are only about superheroes by sharing comics books, graphic novels, and webcomics that are off the beaten path.
“So I’m your DJ tonight. My name is Dπ and boys and girls, have I got a treat for you. I’ll be cutting the B-side of Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare’s greatest hits with a hot little piece of wax called ‘Gratuitous Ninja.’ The outcome is Ninjaupera, post-modern absurdity for the critically pretentious or the laughably subversive. Either way, enjoy.”
That’s how Ron Wimberly’s 2012 graphic novel Prince of Cats begins, and with that blurb he manages to capture all the subtle brilliance of his retelling of Romeo & Juliet—it’s a mash-up that wears all of its references on its sleeves, while still creating something more than the sum of its parts.
The story is thus: Tybalt Capulet (the titular Prince of Cats) returns home to Brooklyn from boarding school and immediately falls back into his old habits—namely graffiti, drugs and sword-fighting with his family’s archrivals the Montagues. Tybalt is fighting to claim his spot at the top of the city’s duel list, which is led by Romeo Montague, who slew Tybalt’s friend Pertruchio at some point during the Prince of Cats’s stay in boarding school. Of course the story holds few surprises for anyone familiar with the text of the play (spoiler: it ends badly for everyone), but anyone with a decent knowledge of Shakespeare is bound to get a few of the in-jokes sprinkled within the comic, such as that Tybalt and Rosalyn are sleeping together*, or the fact that during a chapter devoted to Tybalt’s deceased friend Pertruchio, a man at his work is reading a pornographic magazine called Tame Shrew**. (Explained at the bottom for those uninitiated!)
One of the largest draws to Prince of Cats is of course the art. Just as the story is a sort of Shakespeare-by-Kurosawa-if-he’d-also-directed-The-Warriors, Wimberly’s art just oozes a style reminiscent of eighties pop-art and old school anime. Although actual art of the book is scarce online (which I think is a good thing—buy Prince of Cats! Support good art!), the few pieces I’ve managed to dig up are fly as hell. It’s an incredibly well-drafted book that’s only improved by Wimberly’s use of neon and bright colors, which gives almost every page the illusion of being bathed in the lights of 75 different clubs and all night diners.
Wimberly’s top-notch art I superseded by his writing. Allegedly, the whole book is written in iambic pentameter (and I’m not nearly argumentative/crazy enough to see if that holds up), and frankly, Wimberly’s blending of neologism with Shakespearean English is often so precise that I have to break out my copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare just to see if I’m reading Wimberly, Shakespeare or some mélange of the two. There are certainly times where Wimberly breaks the illusion, but these are always intentional and usually played for laughs. A good example is when someone tells Romeo to can it for being too loud, and he responds with, “Fuck thee, it ain’t past ten!”
Even if you still have nightmares about trying to parse the balcony scene in high school English, I have to stress that Prince of Cats is highly readable. It manages to have some of the most evocative and poetic language I’ve read in a comic book in years, such as when Tybalt explains what it’s like to be in boarding school: “There’s naught of which to speak, it’s whack, thoroughly! A black—no…more a bright void, a white hole, a droll necropolis where boys worriedly preserve their life, yet forfeit their soul.” That’s the language of someone who knows and loves his source material, and pays homage to it in a way that would leave an English teacher speechless—though whether with admiration or mortification is anyone’s guess.
I hate to end this review up on a pulpit bellowing that comics are legitimate art, but at the same time, I think you’d have to be blind (or at least massively stubborn) not to look at something like Prince of Cats and realize that it is important—not just to the medium of sequential art, but also to the way that our generation interacts with its influences and its cultural history. Whether you love Shakespeare, Jidaigeki, or just a fresh-to-death pair of high top kicks, there is something about Prince of Cats that you will enjoy, and very few comics today manage to cut across such a wide swathe of interests and remain so literary.
BONUS PEDANTIC SHAKESPEARE FACT TIME!!
*In Romeo and Juliet, Rosalyn is the object of Romeo’s unrequited affection, and before the start of the play, has told Romeo that she wishes to be a nun and thus cannot return his love. This puts him in a depressive funk, and to break him out of it, his friends Benvolio and Mercutio suggest crashing a Capulet masquerade ball, where he falls in love with Juliet, thus providing the precedent for everything that happens in Romeo and Juliet. If Rosalyn rebuffs Romeo because she’s hooking up with Tybalt (like Prince of Cats posits), it means that a bunch of people die because a girl gave some guy the Catholic version of “I can’t go out tonight, I’m washing my hair.”
**Pertruchio, while an unseen character in Romeo and Juliet, is also the name of the romantic lead in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Thus, when a man at Pertruchio’s work (a hardware store) is reading a softcore porno mag called Tame Shrew, Wimberly’s throwing in a little something extra for everyone who knows their Shakespeare (or has access to Wikipedia).