Real Talk: Prince of CatsA comic review article by: Keith Silva, Daniel Elkin
"Trying to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop" - Los Campesinos!, "It Started with a Mixx"
Keith Silva: Truth and power reside in the mixtape. Ron Wimberly knows this to be true and he doesn't hide his affection. The "Forward" to Prince of Cats rests between two double-helixes of unspooled cassette tape, Wimberly says: "I'll be cutting the B-sides of Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare's greatest hits with a hot little piece of wax called 'Gratuitous Ninja." Love it. Mixtapes have long been romanticized by rockers and likewise by poindexters, the latter going so far as to call the mixtape "the most widely practiced American art form." I know nothing of DJ culture. Neither would I "front" and claim a familiarity with 1980s NYC youth culture, then again, I've never been to the Pyramids at Giza either, yet the learned tell me that they are there.
Wimberly was born in 1979, in Washington DC, so who's he to tell me what Brooklyn was like in 1987? I suppose he's no different than William Shakespeare. What, you think a sometimes actor, a playwright and a glover's son ever visited Verona? Verily. Not a chance coz. Yet, we have Romeo and Juliet and Prince of Cats. Fiction knows no bounds, that's why it's called it fiction and not fact. Fiction is a mix tape with words instead of music. As for comic books, well, few mediums are more mélange-y than the anything goes aesthetic of a comic book.
mixtapes -- I'm talking good mixtapes, not compilations of your favorite band, that's a list, not a mix -- are about choices, concepts and themes and always very very personal. mixtapes are free from genres, above categories, all idiosyncrasies -- if it works, it's in, if not, it's out. So, when Wimberly busts out the "Rocketship" (a.k.a. Bomb Pops in my hood) as a tool to rehearse one's "technique," a how-to on how to "wax on," it works in context as well as being a good dick joke; Wimberly even sneaks in some advice about how to do so and avoid a brain freeze too. Then there are the nods to Nathan's hot dogs, "Yo Mama" jokes, high-top fades and Onibaba. Wimberly doesn't slouch on the Shakespeare either; gravediggers, shrews and a famous first line from a famous play about a famous Danish prince and his famous dead father all get some play.
If the words "Romeo" or "Juliet" give you the howling fantods, don't fret, Prince of Cats is more Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (wha?) or Shakespeare in Love (gah?) and there's no Baz-Luhrmenizing of the bard either. This is Wimberly's own jam. It's still a tragedy. The "star-cross'd lovers" don't shine as much as the titular prince of cats, Tybalt, a Capulet nephew, who in Shakespeare's play is little more than a sword arm and a ball of gall. It's what a story about just Jack from the Lord of the Flies or, if you prefer a feature-length presentation on the scourge that is Scut Farkus in a Christmas Story might look like, could be a kick, but it could get a little too touchy-feely, too psychological in trying to couch a character that's all Id. Tybalt acts because Tybalt is. What can you say about a bully, a bully with a death wish?
Elkin, do you bite your thumb at me, sir? Am I all tangled up in tape? Mixed up? Is Tybalt (as Wimberly suggests) more than a gland? Man the "wheels of steel" my man, and break me off some sumthin' sumthin'.
[EXEUNT, pursued by Elkin.]
Daniel Elkin: The thing about mixtapes, Silva, is that they become an art in themselves. Through careful juxtaposition, through decisions and intention, old songs garner new meaning simply through context. Suddenly that Bell Biv Devoe song becomes more about the heroism it takes to get out of bed most mornings when it is sandwiched between Cole Porter and The Cramps. And I think Wimberly understands this, and I think this is what you are on about here.
He's remixed a classic tale and put the focus on the B-sides of the tracks (''post-modern absurdity for the critically pretentious or the laughably subversive''). He brings out the Tybalt and springs a redemption story out of a disposable razor, pouncing on the rats of our expectations. You ask, "What can you say about a bully, a bully with a death wish?" To which I answer, you can make him the tragic hero and, by doing so, recontextualize the Bard. And that ain't no mean feat, perchance to dream.
It took me a second read to understand the gist and the jive of Prince of Cats -- which speaks more to my failings as a reader than anything Wimberly has put forth (forsooth!). I've taught The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to High School Freshman nearly a dozen times, and I am steeped deep in its permutations. So when approaching another "retelling" of the tale of these star-crossed lovers I swaggered in full frontal, my heart "cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft" of my own intellectual conceit and snootery. And it was that swagger that took me on the wrong road upon my first pass.
This is not the tale of Romeo and Juliet with a 1987 Brooklyn backbeat. This is, indeed, the story of the Prince of Cats. You would have thought the title would have clued me in, huh? But I was bringing more of myself to the text than the text provided, and thereby hangs my tale.
I'll let you riff a bit, Silva , before I rap prosaic on the merits of Wimberly's gift to us. Make it a word, gentle coz… a word and a blow.
Keith: Oh, Elkin what a fool's paradise we are building herein. Naked weapons out, indeed.
You, sir, have shown me the pattern in the medium that I missed with my scribblings scrabblings and attempts to be too clever by half. This is not Romeo and Juliet; this is a story about the prince of cats. As you say, the title should have given that away. I yield. What Wimberly wants is to reframe and recontextualize -- retcon, as we say in the biz -- a minor character, a bully and a pissant (?). Wimberly does well by his protagonist to make him more of a (hu)man, more sympathetic; he creates pathos outside of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. So, let us consider the Tybalt we have rather than the one we read about in plays.
When Juliet returns home from what Tybalt perceives (and correctly, I believe) to be a late-night (early morning) booty response, he asks her, "what mischief art thee about, so early? Now is the hour of labour's birth or epic mirth and mischief's conclusion." Ah, "mischief's conclusion" -- got the T-shirt. Juliet is not interested in sparring with her cousin (who has quickly climbed the "Duel List" upon his return) and instead goes for the heart and cuts deep, to the soul: "Thy self-destruction is thy main pursuit." There it is. Not to mix my English poets on you Elkin, but what is The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet if nothing more than Blake-like songs of innocence and experience; the innocence of love versus the experience of sex and the sticky blur between the two, and the innocence of dick-swinging machismo versus the sting brought by the blade of experience? Tybalt is doomed and worse Tybalt cannot course correct even when he is given the opportunity. As the man says, that's tragedy, son.
One of the saddest and most heartfelt sequences is when Tybalt receives Petruchio's sneakers; little is said and yet everything is expressed. I can hear the inflection in Tybalt's mother's voice when she tells her son, "Petruchio's mom did give to me to give to you." Her plea, however, is immediately tempered when she turns her back on Tybalt and says, "I'm working late, till ten or eleven." In other words, I can't (or won't) help you; you've got to figure this out on your own. Prince of Cats is not given to easy solutions and one-note characterizations, it's not Wimberly's style. Tybalt's mother gives a last look as inscrutable as a Mona Lisa smile and disarms the reader's expectations -- it's a hopeful glance in the face of fate, sometimes, the fault, dear Elkin, does lie in our stars.
Sing to me, muse of the golden realm, bard of brown corduroy and leather elbow patches, does the hopeless Tybalt move you the "cut him out in little stars," to love the night, so much so as to "pay no worship to the garish sun?'
Daniel: Silva, it is indeed in subtlety where the greatest power arises. That scene you describe above with Tybalt's mother and the red shoes is the moment upon which the tragedy hinges. For it is the moment of decision and realization for our titular knave. It is the moment where Tybalt faces his own sense of self and the "character" he has created therein. To further your Blake, here he musters his courage against the "Tyger, Tyger burning bright In the forests of the night" and, in this moment, he frames its "fearful symmetry.''
Because though he has "returned to us school'd" he remains "unreformed." Tybalt is who Tybalt is in The Prince of Cats and, though he be "the courageous captain of compliments" and "the very butcher of a silk button" he is still "a duelist." Though Mercutio uses this term derisively, in this world, with these men, at this time, it still stands for something. A code. A sensibility. Honor. Name.
And a name is important here. Not the one featured prominently rising on "The Duel List," so much (though of course that is important here), but the name that means so much more. Tybalt is who Tybalt is. His name carries with it his sense of self-worth. He creates himself in order to be seen, to be validated, to be a man -- especially in the face of being a young African-American male in 1987 Brooklyn and all that this entails. Tybalt becomes a hero with his sword, as this is his outlet, his only opportunity, his one chance. His physical prowess is his escape from the crushing subtext of racism and poverty and dehumanization.
These factors set the stage of all his world and he is but a mere player. And so his name becomes even more important. You bring up Blake, I'll throw in Arthur Miller, The Crucible specifically. When John Proctor faces the choice between the gallows or his life, he chooses his name. There it is, that moment. He screams, "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!" His dignity, here, is all that is left him. Herein, amidst a world gone mad, he becomes the tragic hero.
And so it is with Tybalt. He is the product of his decisions. What he holds true is his name.
But ultimately Wimberly does not have him as a mere thug fighting back against those that would disrespect him. Rather, Wimberly recasts Tybalt as the hero of the tragedy. In those last two pages of Prince of Cats, Wimberly shows us the logical outcome and the heroic outcome. Those of us who know Romeo and Juliet see the later as the truth, but though Wimberly's lens, it becomes an entirely different tale.
Vanity, aye. Pride, aye. But "A man caught in words can live forever." And I say, Bravo.
Keith: My apologies in advance. You've but placed it on the tee and so I must swing. What's in a name, Elkin? That by which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. No? If "Tyblat" is all Tybalt has, if his name defines his Tybalt-ness than that is tragic indeed, further, it profanes life. If this is the case than the flipside, the B-side, to Tybalt is, namely, Petruchio. Either way the outcome is the same.
Prince of Cats haunts. It's Petruchio's death that brings Tybalt home, home to see his old friends (Gregory and Samson), and to visit old haunts. In the present-day action of the narrative, Petruchio is a corpse, but on a broader stage, he acts as the spirit (and the soul) of the tale. Like those spirals of tape at the Foreward to the book, Petruchio and Tybalt form a caduceus, intertwined, lives cut short, literally. Why and for what?
The end that both Petruchio and Tybalt come to allows Wimberly to flip the script Rashomon-style and give the reader another reading of Romeo. It's such a subtle shift in perception that I missed it the first few times through. Romeo is a fighter, a killer, and no lover in Prince of Cats. Romeo is a thug. Romeo is Tybalt in Tybalt's own tale. Fie upon the impetuousness of youth!
Elkin, you touch on how Tybalt uses his physical prowess, his self, as his (only?) escape from his environs -- Wimberly never explains how Tybalt got "out" to attend private school, it's only his return that matters -- is Prince of Cats a crucible for a debate about dignity (as you say) as well as the old saw about nature versus nurture? Are these two star-crossed cousins (Tybalt and Petruchio) doomed because of "where we lay our scene," so to speak, "In Brooklyn Babel?" Or is it the shoes, the time and the moment that makes these two merely players?
Petruchio -- I must admit the name threw me at first, again, the less one knows the better -- acts the poet in this tragedy. The artist and the dope dealer (it should be said). The reader sympathizes with poor one-armed Petruchio, art-school-student-wannabe, jokester and graffiti-maker extraordinaire. Tybalt has his sword, his name, wither Petruchio? Romeo and Mercutio give Petruchio's art respect, but that does not extend to man. No, he is cut down in the street and dies in the gutter. A plague o' both their houses! "Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace."
Elkin, all this death has me shagged and fagged and fashed, ugh, more Englishmen. What of Juliet? What of Rosalyn? … "heads of the maids, or their maidenheads / take it in what sense thou wilt.''
Daniel: Mayhaps we are bogging ourselves down with asides and the various expectations we have already feasted upon? The story here, Silva, is what we are told, not what we have brought a priori. This not a twice told tale of Romeo and Juliet, Rosalyn and Benvolio -- nor is the (West Side) story of the battle between the Capulets and Montagues. This is its own tale framed in a larger narrative, but the larger narrative is one we must ignore.
But of course we can't. It is canon. And as this is true, it is also fodder.
I've gotten to the point now with Romeo and Juliet that I teach it as a comedy, as the concept of "Fortune's Fool" is so enmeshed and thick in this play that each step towards death becomes ridiculous, and the players there, within, are so emotive and ruled by passion that they are painted faced, red-nosed, and big shoed (how many star-crossed lovers can you fit in a Volkswagen Beatle anyway?). In this book, Wimberly takes the clown out of the characters, though, and thrusts them into the center ring devoid of makeup, seltzer bottles, and pies. In Prince of Cats, these Bozos become Pagliaccis.
You mention that "Wimberly never explains how Tybalt got 'out' to attend private school, it's only his return that matters" and I agree, as this goes back to my point. Tybalt could "escape" -- he was handed the opportunity to try on new clothes and learn a new type of being, but this would have made him an actor, prancing about an ill-lit stage, unsure of the stage-hand's directions. To get "out" would have meant being other than Tybalt, and, as Wimberly frames him, Tybalt is really all that he is. Once again: honor, name.
What Wimberly has done in Prince of Cats is remind us, the audience, of the importance of this. How dignity is tied to name, to honesty to the self, to the core of the being. Tybalt knows that in order to keep his name, he must, at last, confront Romeo. To do otherwise would be to deny his Tybalt-ness. But here in this frame, in this tale, in this book, Tybalt is not just a ball of gall. He is tied to his family, as it is from this social construct that his name has begun. He has a heart. He has a home. He is just soft enough to understand. And so he faces Romeo.
Wimberly knows that you know that Tybalt has the prowess to slice that man down. He shows us this in a thick, quick series of panels. Then he flips it to the B-side and Tybalt falls, Romeo triumphant, avenging the death of Mercutio.
And there it is. Death for dignity. True to the name, yet tender to those that matter. The tragic decision, the human decision. Love over life while preserving dignity.
The irony is, of course, that we know what happens next and Tybalt's sacrifice only propels a greater body count -- but again, we must ignore this and force focus on what Wimberly gives us, a tragedy in the great tradition of war between personal honor and the forces of life.
The more I consider this book, and the more I write about it here, the larger it looms in my thinking and the further the discussion can go. But I'll hold, if only to hear what you have to say next.
Keith: Elkin, you knave, you've cast me amongst the mobs of Verona and Brooklyn, betwixt sympathy for these doomed youth and something akin to: "You damn kids! Get the hell off my lawn! And take your machismo and sell your crazy somewhere else, we're all stocked up here!" Leave Thanatos behind, my friend. What about that other drive, Elkin, the sex drive? Eros?
Fuck the blade // Let's get laid!
Wimberly draws sexy people, people you would want to fuck; people to share a soda with or possibly a "rockethship." He knows how to evince that look, to put that sparkle in the eye that says, "yes I said yes I will yes." If that shot of the bare-breasted Rosalyn, areolas like half-dollars, a cigarette between her lips, arms akimbo as she eases Tybalt's sword out of its scabbard (not a euphemism) -- if that leaves you cold, then get the fuck out.
The sexiness of Wimberly's female characters in Prince of Cats comes from their confidence, courage and conviction. When Juliet disses Tybalt on that early "mischievous" morning, she does so because she knows who she is and is resolute that she has taken Romeo as her lover. She believes in herself so much, is so blinded by love that she can't see that love won't lessen the body count. Or will it? This is, as we've said "not" Romeo and Juliet. Speaking of which, Wimberly puts his own "gratuitous ninja" spin on the "famous balcony scene" that's funny if she (or he) is in on the joke or not. Romeo is no "Romeo" in this story. He is Rosalyn's cuckold, "a nagging wind," she tells Tybalt.
In a bit of pillow talk, Rosalyn says: "You're fucking crazy, Tybalt, verily." Tybalt ripostes, tells Rosalyn that she likes bad boys, boys like him: "the fairer sex doth secretly admire a villain, and women often criticize the very men they secretly most desire." Rosalyn may be a bit of a gambler, the girl likes to party, knows which end of the coke spoon is up and lives on the edge, but unlike her paramours she knows when to walk away. She knows when to literally "dump" Tybalt (or at least his pictures).
In that scene, the one with the sword, the cigarette and the nipples, Rosalyn stays her hand. She has the power to take Tybalt's life and she does not. Why? She challenges him, she says: "if thy heart were truly concerned with those for whom you say you risk death you would preserve thy life and nurture the happiness of those around you. Right?" Problem is this advice falls on deaf ears as Tybalt is fast asleep. Perchance to dream.
So, Elkin, are you a Rosalyn or a Juliet? Is there some libidinousness in Wimberly's work or is it all one big joke? You ever hear the one about Superman? You see, "Superman was exceedingly randy …"
Daniel: It always comes down to whose got the sharper sword, doesn't it Silva? "'Tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh."
But this here, though delicious, moist, and ample, this here is still about prowess, about making the name, about being the being you are being fully -- erect and throbbing. Does not Jacquelyn like it, "like a cat fancies milk, lapping"? But to whom does she evoke as she erects? Medusa, "whose very gaze doth calcify mankind." Does not Rosalyn gain the upper hand by casting her favors to the turgid Tybalt over the flaccid Romeo? How does Juliet bare herself true and escape the constant gaze of Capulet -- she beds the boy and thereby becomes herself.
Yeah the juices pump hot in Prince of Cats, dripping down upon the summer warmed sidewalks, but they run forth from the same hole altogether -- here, in these fecund undulations once again individuals take control of their destinies.
(As an aside: I know I keep saying we have to ignore the play and take all of Prince of Cats deep within us as a single shaft, but I love that Wimberly has accounted for Rosalyn's sudden fickleness towards Romeo because she has become Tybalt's regular Saturday night thing.)
So it comes down to this.
What are we dealing with here in Prince of Cats? This is a book that you have to spend time with. This is a book that crawls across you and with each moment of progress it leaves indelible marks on your soul. This is high end tragedy mixed with martial arts, street art, and blood on the dance floor. Wimberly has created a distinctly American drama out of the Shakespeare's B-sides and once again re-affirms my belief that comics can be absolutely fucking brilliant.
I stand here on the floor of the Globe, amidst the stench and gobs and soiled souls of the groundlings around me. My hands hurt from clapping and my voice is raw for having yelled "Author! Author!" so many times. I declare, shamelessly, Ron Wimberly the new American Bard.
Keith: Verily, coz, verily. Laurels for Wimberly and laurels for Prince of Cats! May one grace the brow of this Brooklyn bard and the other lay at the foot of the grave of the reckless children of this A-side.
I love a great ass.
And so to conclude, I borrow (mix in new wine for old) from one of the fairest Bottoms I know who has this to say about ends, dreams and the beginnings of ends:
Bottom: "I will get Daniel Elkin to write a ballad of // this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream, // because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the // latter end of the play, before the Sacks: // peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall // sing it at her death. "
Daniel Elkin frequently forgets his own name and is still trying to get people to listen to his mixtapes. He prefers Macbeth to Hamlet and brown corduroy to denim, and has been know to rant extensively about all of these topics on Twitter (@DanielElkin). He is also Your Chicken Enemy.
Keith Silva believes that Act V, Scene I of Hamlet is the high-water mark of Western culture. He has a Twitter ( @keithpmsilva) and makes infrequent updates to an obscurely named blog that is not a front for swingers: Interested in Sophisticated Fun?