William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is one of the classic stories in English literature, told and retold throughout the centuries on stage, in film, in books and even comics. But in a new graphic novel coming out from DC’s Vertigo imprint, the Montagues and the Capulets are getting a hip hop upgrade. Cartoonist Ronald Wimberly (Sentences: The Life Of M.F. Grimm, Black Dynamite) is taking on this dramatic classic with a new style, a new vantage point, and most importantly, a new lead character: Tybalt.
Taking its title from a derogatory name Tybalt was called in Shakespeare’s original story, Wimberly’s Prince of Cats follows the so-called Prince and his Capulet crew as they enter the heated Brooklyn streets to vie for control, respect and honor against their cross-town adversaries the Montagues. Although Wimberly’s changed the setting, style and focus of Shakespeare’s original story, the artist is careful to keep the language exact, using the original iambic pentameter.
Newsarama spoke with Wymberly about Prince Of Cats, his history adapting stories, and how he sees his adaption similar to the way hip hop rappers remake other musician’s work into a new and unique statement.Newsarama: What are you working on today, Ronald?
Ronald Wimberly: Today, I am working on laundry. Why don't they ever offer quarter machines in the apartment laundry rooms?
...but if you meant in a broader sense. I am currently over at Titmouse working on the Black Dynamite animated series. It's a new and exciting experience for me. Carl Thomas collected a formidable group of talent to work on this show and I am honored to be part of it. Also, it's hands down the funniest and wittiest content I've had the pleasure of drawing.
Nrama: What we're here to talk about today is Prince of Cats, your graphic novel retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. What led you to do this story?
Wimberly: A bunch of things came together to spark this. When I was a kid in school, Romeo & Juliet was my least favorite of Shakespeare's plays because I thought the teenagers' behavior, killing themselves, was absurd. But I’ve lived a little since, got some perspective on youth that illuminated things a bit; the characters all of a sudden made sense but something else fell into relief, and I discovered new questions that I explore in the work. Questions that are born from my perspective.
Once I started thinking about it, the idea of constraints and format fanned the flame. It also gave me an opportunity to not only explore things in narrative but also in process and format. I saw an opportunity to explore constraints of the comics page the way Shakespeare explored the constraints of language and theatre.
Nrama: One of the many spins you brought to this is telling the story from the point of view of Tybalt, whose nickname makes up the title of the book. Why Tybalt?
Wimberly: In short, Mercutio’s description of Tybalt sold me on the character.
But I always latch onto the supporting cast, the secondary characters. I’ve always been drawn to them. I’ve wondered if it is due to my particular identity and it’s correlation to the great American archetypes expressed in countless stories. My story is the story of the characters that our culture has chosen to see only peripherally or altogether overlook.
I really like when storytellers put peripheral characters under the spotlight and make an entire story about them, like Cyrano or the Swede in Siodmak’s The Killers and again with the assassins in Don Siegel’s version; more pertinent examples would be Prospero’s Books or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I didn’t use any of these as a direct source, but they certainly shaped the type of mindset it took to choose Tybalt as a focal point.
It may have more to do with how far I am, in the audience, from the time and place described by Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet, but I was curious about Tybalt’s motivation to be such an killer. I went ahead and filled in the gaps with my own experience and observations.
Nrama: We've seen a number of modern retellings of Romeo & Juliet, from West Side Story to Baz Luhrrman's Romeo + Juliet. Do you feel like you're following in a tradition by storytellers bringing classics back with a twist, like musicians do with covers?
Wimberly: Yes and No. I’m certainly part of a tradition...
Shakespeare’s version of Romeo & Juliet is part of that tradition too. It’s the tradition of telling a story that’s been told before. He adapted his story from a cat that adapted it from an Italian poem, I believe. So it’s nothing new.
Only thing is, I wouldn’t compare what I’m doing to an artist doing a cover of a previous work. A cover is basically just taking something and doing it again with the main alteration being that the artist is not the same as the original.
What I’m doing here is closer to bebop or hip hop. ...BeBop because I use the format and the narrative as a means to explore certain limitations of the medium but closer to hip hop, where the artist takes something, destroys it and then puts it back together, often with other sampled elements, to say something more particular to what the artist intends. Sometimes the original lends context to the new work, but not always. The crux of the original Romeo & Juliet was the redemption of a community racked by the violent legacy of adults via the tragic death of children who sought to love each other despite their parents feud; In Prince of Cats I frame things a bit differently. So where I do feel part of a tradition it wouldn’t be a cover tradition. Would you call DOOM’s Gas Drawls a cover of Steely Dan’s Black Cow (hipster translation: Would you call Kanye’s Power a cover of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man)? [laughs]
That said the latter example of Kanye and King Crimson has a contextual relationship to the original piece it samples and that is the tradition to which Prince of Cats belongs.
Nrama: Speaking of referencing and adapting older work, you last major comics project was an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, which you've admitted you had trouble agreeing with the publisher about the proper approach for retelling the story. Now here you're retelling another story --- how has the adaptation process been for you?
Wimberly: I don’t think I’ve adapted Romeo & Juliet as much as sampled it.
On Something Wicked This Way Comes, it was difficult because I had no personal connection to the story and when I tried to adapt it in a way that gave me that connection I believe I put off the people who were paying me, [laughs] Looking back now, I am happy with the results because a few fans have expressed that they love the book; this makes me happy.
With Prince of Cats, I was left alone. There were no expectations to represent Shakespeare’s work; I did, in many ways, but it wasn’t required of me.
Nrama: Do you gain any new insight in the original stories from getting your hands dirty and adapting these classic stories?
Wimberly: Of course. I’m always learning something when I am working; adaptation or otherwise. Sometimes a problem comes from when the things I learn about the original work shines through in the adaptation and is undesired by those who commission the work or who maybe don’t agree with my discoveries, [laughs]
Nrama: Although you're taking quite a few liberties with the Romeo & Juliet story -- sampling it as you said, rather than adapting it -- you're keeping the dialogue in Shakespeare's classic iambic pentameter. What's it like balancing that and making your art flow with the unique structure of the words?Wimberly: Easier than balancing time or a budget.
A unique quality of drawing and writing the book is that the structuring of the writing and the art are not divorced. This allowed far more freedom to explore some of the unique qualities of the medium’s form and function, the intersections of writing and drawing; the pictures and the pacing are always in my mind when I write or adapt.
Part of the process of making this book was exploring the natural constraints of the comic book medium. I thought that Shakespeare’s literary constraints were a good match for the constraints of comics. Comics have had, for most of its history, the built in problem/constraint of expressing time and sound with static and silent images. Moreover, paper comics have a built in beat similar to the sonnet forms that Shakespeare used. I abstracted this into my work using the page as a line and rhyming page layouts in most cases; when there is a break in the pattern it is a deliberate yield to a rhyme that incorporates both the subject and design of the pages involved.
I later found out from Matt Madden that the French call this sort of thing "OuBaPo."
Nrama: You've been known to jump around on a lot of projects, juggling many things at once. How long have you been working on Prince of Cats, and what was it about it that's kept you focused on it for this long?
Wimberly: I’ve been working on this since before Something Wicked This Way Comes. I don’t juggle many projects because I particularly like to... It’s just how I pay rent, eat well, have adventures without having to work too hard or draw anything that I’d rather not. I'm a professional artist.
That said, I went through 3 different editors on Prince of Cats; frankly, at times I wondered if the project would ever see the light of day. I was adamant about certain things. I lobbied to do the color on the book, to get designers on it. All of that back and forth took time. Amidst the start and stop I had to stay active.
Focus was never a problem; things that move always catch my attention. I wanted to finish it. It’s really what I’d consider my first published work as a comic book artist.
...Since I’ve been working in animation, I’m amazed at how organized things are. I’ve learned a lot from production on how to organize my projects and possibly make it easier for me in the future.
Nrama: Between all that and the animation work at Titmouse, you've also been developing a creator-owned comic called GratNin. Not to distract too much from Prince of Cats, but I have to ask -- can you tell us about that?
Wimberly: GratNin is short for Gratuitous Ninja. It started as a silent strip in the Pratt Institute comic, The Static Fish. It was a love letter of sorts to a girlfriend I had at the time... and to Moebius’ Arzach.
It’s turned into something else altogether. It’s an action comedy about a centuries old ninja clan that’s going out of business. Looking for a chance to make their way, a terminally unemployed gutter punk, her manicurist/otaku girlfriend and the best chicken delivery boy in the city convince the Ninja clan to take them in in an attempt to revitalize and save the ninja family business.
The ninja often fight affluent pyrates. Often the pyrates fight boredom by hiring the ninja to do things ranging from degrading to suicidal.
The first story of the new arch co-written with a friend of mine, Ted Lange IV, is about two shinobi in training who, on their way to Siouxsie Sushi’s for lunch, are ambushed by loan officers looking to collect school loan money or the heads of those who owe.
I’ve also just collaborated with a friend of mine in Japan. His brand, MSGR, based in Fukuoka just did a GratNin crossover. I’ll have some of the shirts at New York Comic-Con. I post GratNin news and drawings on http://gratnin.tumblr.com/
Nrama: Getting back to your Vertigo book here, I've noticed in the past you've done some special live art events like the re-opening of the Benetton Mega Store in Shinjuku. Do you have any appearances or signings or live art events planned for Prince of Cats?
Wimberly: I’m planning a release party in Brooklyn in September. I’ll have some goodies there. And as I previously mentioned, In October I’ll be at the NYCC signing books, selling t-shirts and possibly, maybe doodling a little bit.
I keep a tumblr set that is basically Prince of Cats in tumblr form as well as news and art leaks.