Star-Cross'd Love & Hip Hop – Prince of Cats (REQUIRED READING)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
This is a segment I've struggled writing, not for lack of motivation mind you... but mostly how I'm not 100% digging the segment's title. The inspiration for this series was brought on by two people; one is my love Hannako and the other is her roommate Stasia. Now, I grew up on Superhero comics... I'm a die-hard Batman fan and spent my formative years swapping X-Men comics at lunch with my friends. I grew up with colorful, spandex clad heroes and that continued on well into adulthood. Now, I've dabbled in a few indie comics here and there... but that was nothing until the day I practically collapsed under the weight of Stasia and Hannako's recommendations, Prince of Cats wasn't the first one they recommended to me... but it was one of the most memorable ones.
Oh yeah... of course there will be spoilers...
Jumping in, Prince of Cats takes the ever-familiar setting of Romeo & Juliet and drops in right into the heart of Brooklyn in the 80s. Instead of focusing on the star-cross'd pair, we instead focus on Tybalt with the remaining cast acting as background characters. While the source material may be a tragedy of young love prematurely snuffed out, this story is the rise and fall of one the original's most interesting characters.
Ronald Wimberly crafts an engaging tale, one of love and loss and coming of age at the edge of a blade. The way that urban colloquialism seamlessly meshes with Shakespearean English, both of which benefiting from an underlying rhythm, lend much to each other and surprisingly rarely overtakes the other. From verses on a hip hop track to verses in perfect iambic pentameter, their inherent rhythms give character to the words we read. Maybe that's why I was so drawn in by this work, I was a drama nerd in Middle School and High School and loved reading Shakespeare... to top it off I grew up on hip hop thanks to influences from older cousins to the stuff I discovered myself in the mid-to-late 90s.
Wimberly's book captures both sides of who I was, it felt comforting... especially in a world that every day seems to lack common comforts. When I was a teenager, those two worlds never came together. I would never be in a hip hop adaption of Hamlet nor would I ever hear a rapper on the radio spit lines with a “thou art” thrown in for good measure. Secretly, I've always wanted those things.
While Prince of Cats isn't the first time a piece of media didn't completely portray Tybalt as a villain, but bless Leguizamo's turn in the Baz Luhrmann movie, it was the first time I found myself rooting for him and sincerely hoping that Tybalt wouldn't face the fate I knew was coming for him. It didn't help that as a whole the Romeo character felt completely unlikable, though it was a welcome departure from what I was used to. Setting the Capulets and Montagues as rival gangs along with a storyline involving an underground duelist ring fit well in the mythos of this age old feud.
Each panel brimming with panache, from the masterful way Ronald Wimberly translated a neon-soaked NYC to the action scenes that looked like they were moments away from jumping out at you. Listen closely enough and you could almost hear the subway in the background. Reflecting the style of the era and cranking it up to 11, Wimberly strikes a wonderful balance between art house project and graffiti street tags. I could hear the soundtrack of the streets in every page, flipping through Prince of Cats I found myself hearing (in my head) some classic 1980s era hip hop tracks, something that has enhanced further readings of the book by attempting to sync a soundtrack to the panels I read.
Now if you are a student of old school hip hop like I was, you may hear a completely different soundtrack, but with the recent news that Legendary Pictures scooped up the rights to adapt this story with the incomparable Lakeith Stanfield at the helm, a movie's gotta have a soundtrack, no? Here's my soundtrack.
- Paid in Full by Eric B and Rakim
- Peter Piper by Run DMC
- Supersonic by JJ Fad
- Roxanne, Roxanne by Full Force/UTFO
- It Takes Two by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock
- Funky Beat by Whodini
- Rock the Bells by LL Cool J
- Children's Story by Slick Rick
- AJ Scratch by Kurtis Blow
There are a few comics I reread on a regular basis, most of which are superhero books featuring iconic storylines or indies that hit pop status, Prince of Cats has quickly become one of my favorites. An inspired take on a familiar story, especially in a time where the majority of comic book protagonists are essentially white dudes wearings spandex and capes, it's refreshing to read a story outside the perceived norm. I applaud you Ronald Wimberly for crafting such an engaging story, and I applaud Legendary Pictures for optioning this (please be good) for a wider audience. Romeo & Juliet may be a tale as old as time, but Prince of Cats proves that you can still teach an old feline new tricks.