Editor's note: We identified Slave Punk and Sunset Park as already published; they were announced in 2015 but are not yet out.
Nonstop, jittery energy seems to rattle every panel of Prince of Cats, Ronald Wimberly's Shakespearean street tale. Few artists can strike the kind of sparks that electrify these pages, and yet Wimberly's powerful draftsmanship is only one aspect of a head-to-toe remarkable book. Focusing on Tybalt, the "Prince of Cats" in Romeo and Juliet, Wimberly conjures a distinctive vision of the early '80s in the inner city. First published in 2012 by DC/Vertigo, Prince of Cats went out of print and has been more-or-less unavailable ever since. Now Image Comics is releasing it in hardcover.
Wimberley, whose other Image projects include Slave Punk and Sunset Park — unabashedly demands recognition with this nervy work. Prince of Cats is packed with allusions: to Greek myth and Japanese folklore, The Warriors and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, video games and action movies and the '80s art scene. Of course, the most significant of Wimberly's grab bag of references is the Bard himself. Wimberly's characters all speak in a mix of high-flown poetry and gritty, down-to-earth images — just as Shakespeare's characters did. Here, Juliet describes the scene from atop a Coney Island Ferris wheel:
Look, Tybalt, the shimmering
window show. When evening
swallows Apollo's light The yellow
lamps and blue TV glow doth
the projects Milky Way ignite.
Wimberly is hardly the first to make a connection between comics and hip hop culture. In the 1980s, both Marvel and DC Comics incorporated rapping characters into some of their books. In the early '90s, Marvel published books about KRS-One and Onyx and a nine-issue series starring Kid 'n Play. Other artists who've appeared in comics include Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem and Run-DMC's Darryl McDaniels — the latter of whom launched his own comics company in 2014. Ed Piskor's series Hip Hop Family Tree has already become a classic. And in October Marvel issued a hardcover collection of more than 70 hip hop-themed covers by such artists as Adam Hughes, Tim Bradstreet and Brian Stelfreeze.
But Wimberly is out to do something more than just combine elements from two compatible genres. He's clearly aiming to translate the mechanics of hip hop composition into a visual form. In Prince of Cats' introduction, University of California media professor John Jennings calls Wimberly a "See-Jay:" Wielding his pen the way a DJ mixes, he mashes up wildly diverse elements into a fresh creation.