Contrary to what almost every high school student will tell you, Shakespeare isn’t inherently boring, nor is he high-brow. The man made jokes of both the fart and “your mom” variety on the regular, and anyone who thinks Shakespeare is serious needs to remember “Exit, pursued by bear.” There’s a fairly solid argument that the closest modern entertainment to Shakespeare is hip hop music, and Ron Wimberly’s Prince Of Cats (Image) might very well be the best proof of that. Originally published by Vertigo four years ago, Wimberly reworked and perfected the book for it’s hardcover re-release this year. It’s no doubt that Wimberly’s recent acclaim for his work at The Nib and on Stela contributed to interest in a new release, not to mention other upcoming work with Image, and it’s gratifying to see a creator with the intellectual and artistic chops tackle something as meaty as the bard.
Twisting a story around to tell one of the most well-known tragedies from the perspective of a secondary character isn’t anything new, but attacking Romeo And Juliet from the perspective of Tybalt and resetting it in early ’80s New York makes it fresh again. It’s hard to pin Prince Of Cats down into a genre or even a pastiche. Fans of The Get Down and Samurai Champloo will find familiarity and things they’ll enjoy in the book; there’s tinges of pop punk and disco on the edges. Wimberly reframes the familial conflict between the Capulets and Montagues as a sort of gang war, fueled by undercurrents of personal conflict that are mostly missing from nearly every traditional staging of Romeo And Juliet, the nuance lost under unfamiliar, dense language.
The art is fantastic. The limited color palette that Wimberly forces on himself makes figures jump off the page: the book is awash in gray and black and brown, with bright pops of neon pink and blue, winking lights from trains and distant buildings in soft yellows and hard oranges. Wimberly often draws panels that are animated in both senses of the word, conveying a remarkable dynamism and looking more like a storyboard for a show than most other comics. Letterer Jared K. Fletcher makes the bubbles blend into Wimberly’s art seamlessly, and despite Wimberly’s commitment to iambic pentameter, none of the pages seem as word heavy as they really are.
What really makes this book a must-have is the way Wimberly reframes Shakespeare. There are lines lifted from the play whole cloth, but most of the dialogue is shifted or adapted to modern language without abandoning the constraints of Shakespearean style. The book is more readable than just about any other adaptation of one of the plays, and combined with brilliant art and an incredible sense of characterization, Prince Of Cats may well be the best use of Shakespeare in decades. Prince Of Cats is what ODY-C has been trying to do and ultimately failing at: creating an adaptation that’s innovative in both perspective and art, representing a population that’s been excluded from the original for far too long. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Salvador Dalí was one of the most enigmatic artists of the 20th century, and French cartoonist Edmond Baudoin doesn’t shy away from the complications and contradictions of his subject in the graphic biography Dalí (SelfMadeHero). Commissioned by Paris’ Centre Pompidou, Dalí is the latest release in SelfMadeHero’s Art Masters series of graphic novels—past titles have explored the lives of Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Edvard Munch—and while these are all compelling portraits of major artistic figures, they’re especially exciting as introductions to European comic creators who aren’t as well known in overseas.
Dalí offers a thoroughly researched chronological history of the artist’s life, but this is far more than just a summary of major events. Narrated by two people walking a dreamlike seaside landscape inspired by the work of Dalí and his collaborators, with occasional interjections from ants offering additional factoids, this book immerses readers in a world that reinterprets Dalí’s ideas through Baudoin’s unique point of view. What makes Dalí especially fascinating is Baudoin’s willingness to insert himself in the work and use this piece to explore his own creative impulses, and there are multiple instances when the cartoonist steps away from Dalí’s story to detail his own personal relationship to the man and his art.
At one point early on, the action jumps away from the surrealist beach to show Baudoin at his desk, bored by how the conversation thus far has been dominated by the male speaker. He decides to have the rest of the explaining done by the women, which is a small shift that sets the stage for more dramatic changes later in the book. When Dalí returns to classicism later in life, Baudoin returns to his own idea of classicism, abandoning the beach and the strange mise-en-scène he deliberately used to create distance between himself and his subject. He opens himself up to examine how his own trajectory as an artist ties to Dalí’s, and using a more traditional panel composition ultimately frees Baudoin to delve into his personal relationship with Dalí because he’s no longer tied to Dalí’s ever-shifting aesthetic.
Dalí is one of the most beautiful comics of the year, with Baudoin taking artistic cues from Dalí’s work to create stunning visuals that seek to evoke Dalí’s mental state during the act of creation. Baudoin is an extremely versatile artist, and whether he’s working with ink or paint, he exhibits precise control that makes each image bold and expressive in its own way. Most of the book is in black-and-white, but Dalí’s wife Gala is always depicted with colored paint, a specific choice that visually reinforces the emotional importance Gala had on Dali’s artistic development. It’s a pity that Baudoin’s other comics haven’t been translated because this graphic novel reveals an exceptionally talented and thoughtful cartoonist, and while the book focuses on Salvador Dalí, it will makes reader hungry for more of Baudoin’s work. [Oliver Sava]
Collecting an assortment of her previously uncollected work, Annie Mok’s No Exit (self-published) revels in the highs and lows of her young career. As she mentions in a brief preface, the book collects work from across her working life—from her beginnings in college to more recent works, like 2014’s “Unholy Shapes”—and, as such, readers will get a strong sense of her authorial development. Earlier works feel cruder and less polished; across the first three or four stories there is a clear sense of development and experimentation. Some of it is satisfying, some less so. You see her images grow clearer, her lines more refined, her pages denser and more complicated, and then she leaps suddenly into a more experimental aesthetic. Her lines become more dynamic, more aggressive, and more expressive. In her diary comic—“Bleed-throughs,” in particular—her pages grow more strained, aggressive, and marked by a mania, collapsing into a beautiful cacophony of barely contained scrawls. This audacious trajectory continues into the final section of the book, which features more abstract compositions and simpler lines of reflective and contemplative moments.
Though wildly different in style, tone, and content “Henson” (a comic about Jim Henson), “Bleed-throughs,” and “Unholy Shapes” are deeply moving comics. But the real joy of the collection is in Mok’s growth as a cartoonist. She inextricably weaves her own life into her work, blurring the lines between fiction and autobiography, and sometimes dispenses with the boundary altogether. Mok writes her own life as much as she writes the lives of her characters, and a meta-narrative, operating right on the edge of articulation, takes shape.
It is fitting that the book concludes with “Unholy Shapes.” This story, which was originally published as part of Czap Books’ series of monographs, Ley Lines, sees Mok reflecting on herself through her longtime interest in the work and life of Egon Schiele. Understood as the summit of Mok’s work up to this point, the fascination in space, contorted bodies, obscured lives, and the free exploration of sex and sexuality takes on greater significance. It gives the work—inarguably the strongest in the collection—even sharper teeth; it lends it a context that reinforces these ideas, images, and themes. Mok’s lush washes and fluid lines sink into the page like they have been debossed, becoming as striking thematically as they are aesthetically.
No Exit reads as a build-up to this moment, a choral crescendo full of voices that at times waver, wobble, or go flat, but whose final notes are worth the blemishes or minor detours. Taken as a whole, these imperfections should not be overlooked or ignored, but Mok does, wittingly or not, make them feel necessary: the growing pains and awkward moments, the excursions into new territory, they make the satisfying bits all the more satisfying. [Shea Hennum]