Prince of Cats
This book opens with a paragraph of text on a colored but otherwise blank page and on first glance I thought that it was lyrics to a rap song – real or imagined – but then a sentence struck me as being quite familiar and I realized that this was actually just a reworded iteration of the intro to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The line between poetic pentameter and rap is a rather slight one then it seems. I’m glad that i had this realization so early on because it is this binary that drives the Prince of Cats, a Bedford Sty set modern retelling of the Bard’s seminal story from the perspective of one of its minor characters, Tybalt.
So young minorities making mortal mistakes and clashing in a culture based on life long clans… It’s really not all that hard to buy the story as being set in the modern day since we see it’s like shouted about on the news most days, or we would if the world hadn’t become desensitized to all such stories. Cats takes the inherent tragedy of the Bard’s tale – the literal sort, not just the loss of a life but the loss of a young one and thus of any more to come; a laying of salt, a sterilizing of the world – and applies it to the modern gang violence that grieves us to this day.
Which is not to say that this is some heavy socio-political text, that it is akin to The Wire or its ilk. No,Ron Wimberly mentions in the block of text that bookmarks the other end of the book, the afterword, that his first exposure to Shakespeare was seeing Ran as a kid in the burbs betwixt D.C. And Brooklyn. This explains the other twist that he gives the story; the star-crossed lovers and their supports are all samurais of sorts who follow codes, duel for ranks and kill and dismember all who dishonor them. So there is schlock enough too for those who want it.
The one thing that Wimberly doesn’t twist though is the language, this he keeps classical and classy. It’s always a worry when a writer attempts to add words to a script of Shakespeare’s, to stand their work alongside the best in the biz, but I have to say that Ron does a damn good job both parodying – twisting existing lines to suit the new setting – and replicating the prose style of Shakespeare – adding new scenes in to stretch the story. He has both the rhythm and the vocab down – though perhaps too much so in the case of ‘verily’ – well enough that his lines feel familiar to us even when they would read as gibberish to Shakespeare himself; since the man would have as much idea about hoods as current children do Elizabethan England.
Overall though my familiarity with the original story hurt this comic: I couldn’t help but try to think of where we were in the story, which familiar scene would come next and how this invented one fit with the traditional timeline. This response was catalyzed by the books needless self-confusion; it cuts in the middle of a dramatic scene, returning to flesh it out at a later time without telling us that we are flashing back. It also attempts, I think, to include too many of the original characters; introducing them because it had to not because they had any purpose here, distracting from Tybalt in the process.
There was a great opportunity here to craft a comic that would make the classic play accessible to a crowd who wouldn’t normally be willing to read something as foggily written or foreign to them as Shakespeare but Ron doesn’t realize this, his vision just as complicated in its own way as the originals. Which is fine for me and other already cultured readers; for us this is simply an interesting creative exercise and a successful one at that, but it could have been more. It’s not going to replace Romeo And Juliet but The Prince of Cats treats the Bard better than many modern adaptations have and brings something serious and new to what seemed like a well worn tale, that and kickass action.