Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Trade Waiting - Prince of Cats by Ron Wimberly

Comics are disposable, comics are trash literature. Accusations that are often thrown at the medium, and the same thing that leads some to believe that it's more acceptable to read a copy of Playboy in public than it is the newest issue of whatever your favourite book is. (In some cases, it probably is better to read Playboy than a portion of the product that Marvel and DC are putting out nowadays, yes Red Hood, we're talking about you.) On the other end of the scale, you have the comics that are reviewed in The Village Voice and The Guardian, but let's be honest; most of them wouldn't know what fun was if it came and slapped them across their toothy stocked face. So where is the middle ground? Can comics be respected and fun? Of course they can! Vertigo Comics is often cited as the middle ground and rightfully so, especially in recent years where titles such as DMZ and Scalped have taken very real world issues and spun them into entertaining yarns. Next out of the block from Vertigo is Prince of Cats by Ron Wimberly; a retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of Tybalt, Juliet's hot headed cousin, and relocated to New York during the birth of hip-hop. Does it continue in the tradition of high quality, adult books that Vertigo is known and respected for? Find Out after the jump.

Prince of Cats
Written and Drawn by Ron Wimberly
Published by Vertigo Comics

We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet. It is one of Shakespeare's most famous plays and without a doubt his most accessible for an audience in the twenty first century. The themes of love conquering all and the tragedies that come with it shake all but the iciest of hearts. Having said that, the further you study the play, the more questions are raised about what isn't in the script, mainly the motivations of a large portion of the cast. Along with Mercutio, Romeo's friend, Tybalt has always been the most interesting character in the play. Why is so so angry? What are the reasons behind his blood lust towards the Montague family? Prince of Cats seeks to answer some of those questions.

Prince of Cats is not a remake of Romeo and Juliet in a more modern setting, nor is it a prequel to the play, nor is it the play told from Tybalt's perspective. It is actually a deft mixture of all three. The relocation to early eighties New York makes perfect sense; crews were vying for space and respect by break dancing, tagging and bombing, and through music. In Prince of Cats these are replaced with the skill of wielding a Samurai Sword. (Graffiti is an important part of Prince of Cats mind you, but more on that later.) Youngsters from all gangs, not just the Montagues and the Capulets jockey for positioning on a swordsman's league that isn't too unlike the Billboard 100 and like the gang problems that still go on to this day, have no respect for their own lives or others and will do anything to gain respect.

Seeing the world through Tybalt's eyes is a refreshing perspective on a story that most can tell you from memory. Prince of Cats casts him as a quiet, honourable man on a mission to protect his family and avenge the death of his friend Petruchio at all costs, including the loss of his lover, Rosalyn, and the bond he has for Juliet. The Montague family, often seen as the heroes in the original play are, apart from Mercutio, cowardly social climbers, having no scruples with stabbing people in the back both literally and figuratively. Romeo is shown to be a womanizer, using the same techniques to obtain lovers sometimes with undesired results and Juliet is a young woman scorned, undertones of being in love with her cousin are peppered throughout the book, hinting at the reasons why she got into a relationship with a Montague in the first place. Wimberly takes great pains to add layers to Tybalt's personality and does so with skill, making things such as his relationship with Rosalyn all the more believable and relatable.

Ron Wimberly doesn't have a mass of published work out there and because of this makes Prince of Cats something to be treasured even more. He uses the same sixteenth century style of writing throughout Prince of Cats that Shakespeare did, and apart from some overlap lifted directly from the original play, all the dialogue is his and that alone is a feat to be applauded. Seeing Juliet and her friends discuss the best way to pleasure a man in Shakespearian language is an eye opener to say the least and all the newspaper articles are written in sonnet. The amount of skill and the command over language that Wimberly has is nothing short of stunning. After the first couple of pages you are firmly locked in to the patter of the language and unlike school where Shakspeare was a chore, here it is exciting and enrapturing. He also dances between the raindrops of the original text deftly and uses what is already there to make something completely new and it feels so smooth; there is never a point when he has to shoe horn something in or disrepect the play in any way. On top of all this, Wimberly adapts the play to a modern setting in intelligent ways, the aforementioned graffiti is a tool, alongside the swordplay, that the gangs use to claim their territory and where in the original play there are balls, in Prince of Cats there are nightclubs and block parties. There are even MC's who rap in a Shakespearian tongue. Prince of Cats really allows Wimberly to prove his writing chops by utilising a large amount of different techniques to great effect.

All the effort put into the writing of Prince of Cats you could almost forgive it if the art wasn't up to scratch. Thankfully that couldn't be any further from the truth. Whilst Wimberly has a style that is incomparable to anyone else's, he definitely belongs in the same school of thought as Paul Pope, Jim Mahfood, Gabriel Ba and the like. There is a certain quality to his line that can only be described as rhythmic, like the hip-hop he evidently has a massive affection for. Wimberly has a great eye for eighties fashion and the peaks and troughs that go with it. Tybalt dresses sharply, like a cross between Melle Mel and Adam Ant, but some of the characters look like their style came directly out of watching The Warriors, which if we're all honest, most of the people in the eighties did look like. It's a great touch and shows Wimberly's keen eye for detail.  He is also active at cramming his panels full of little motifs and Easter eggs such as the Basquiat graffiti seen in the background of some of the panels. A special note has to be made for his colouring, which is unlike anyone else in comics. He is totally fearless in his palette choices, full of day-glo pinks in one panel, then muted tones the next. By eschewing the obvious choice he really sets the tone for each scene and definitely captures the eighties feel of the book. The only small complaint would be if any book deserved the oversized hard cover treatment it would be this; Prince of Cats deserves much more than the same old same old paperback treatment.

Verdict - Must Buy

In answer to the question posed at the top of the page, yes comics can be respected and fun. On top of that they can also be very, very, cool. With Prince of Cats, Ron Wimberly has captured lightning in a bottle, a book that everyone can find something to enjoy in. The ninety six pages are deceptive as you pore over each one and it will take much longer to read than your usual big two six issue story arc and on top of that you will want to read it again, and again. Truly a triumph in both its writing and its art Prince of Cats is so much better than you ever think it will be and establishes Wimberly as a must watch creator, I for one am incredibly eager to see what he will cook up next.

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نبضة قلب said...

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