Ronald Wimberly Skins the "Prince of Cats"

Ronald Wimberly has a confidence -- a tempo -- that simultaneously smacks of the '80s East Coast Hip Hop scene and the future that he created himself. His outlook, his art, even his style share a beat that's viscously magnetic and uncompromising. Comics needs Ron Wimberly to grow, and when his new Vertigo Comics graphic novel "Prince of Cats" drops this September, people will begin to ask more from him.

"Prince of Cats" is a hip-hop inspired retelling of William Shakespeare's seminal tale, "Romeo and Juliet." Instead of focusing on the star crossed lovers, Wimberly's story focuses on Tybalt, referred to in the play as the Prince of Cats, and his Capulet brothers as their war with the Montagues rages on. Writing and drawing a story that mixes samurai warfare, an urban sensibility and a healthy dose of the Bard is no easy feat, but the Wimberly is more than up to the task.

Wimberly spoke with CBR News about his upcoming graphic novel and the writer/artist candidly discussed the upcoming release, his animation experience, and his background in independent comics.

CBR News: Ronald, people should know who you are, so give us a little bit of background. How'd you get started in comics?

Ronald Wimberly: Well, I decided to try and make a living at comics when, in college, I first read Paul Pope's "THB." It was the first time I thought, "I want to do this -- I can do this."

I had read comics since I was a kid, though. My friend JD put me onto them. He had stacks of superhero stuff -- back then you'd find comics all over the supermarket and combing magazine racks. There was something magnetic about it then, comics, but it still didn't catch me. Then his mom took us to a comic shop. That's where I got hooked. I saw that Moebius Spider-Man poster. I discovered Wagner's" Grendel," Otomo's "Domu" and Masamune Shiro's "Appleseed." These were formative experiences for me as a kid.

Late in high school I found Jorden Crane's "NON." David Choe's "Slow Jams" particularly stood out to me. It was the only comic that I found that interested me until I got to college. I'd roll with my friend Julian Lytle to Jim Hanley's to play "Marvel Vs. Capcom." That's where I found old back issues of "Arzach," Dave Cooper's work, Matsumoto Taiyo's "Tekkonkinkreet" serialized as black and white and where I'd later find "THB."

These books made me feel like comics was something I wanted to do. I did kind of project an art star lifestyle onto the creators of these works, too. I wanted to spend all day drawing comics about my existential adventures that co-starred all the smart, cute girls in my neighborhood; I wanted to drink Turkish coffee at night and eat Indian takeout in my loft while listening to city's music play outside.

Boy, was I naive.

Naivete is where it all begins, I think. So with all these different influences coming at you, when did you start making your own comics?

In college, in the Pratt "Static Fish." It was cool because my friends were doing it. It was more about kicking it with friends than anything. Before I knew it, I had a habit I couldn't quite kick.

Tell us about your first few projects. What type of learning curve did you have?

I'm still on that curve. My works are a record of the road along that curve, that process.

My first few projects were shorts where I played with process, and fill-ins where I helped pay rent. I started with GratNin (Gratuitous Ninja) comics. I got one called "Tangerine" in a Dark Horse project called "Strip Search." It was about a family of Brooklyn ninjas who liberate organic seeds from a Manhattan oligarch's private greenhouse. I did a strip for Metal Hurlant called "Overdose." Paul Benjamin put me on there.

Around that time, I was going to SDCC to look for work. I started with a portfolio (that I thought was) designed for character design in animation, but as time went on, I got less picky. One day, after no luck at any of the booths I'd hit up, my good friend, Julian Lytle, suggested I drop my portfolio at DC Comics. I scoffed at the idea because I thought all of their books were corny. Julian said, "You better get that money," so I gave it a shot.

Jonathan Vankin and Richard Bruning found my portfolio. We rapped, and I really liked them. Apparently, they liked me too and gave me a shot, for which I am eternally grateful. I filled in on a couple jobs. The books and my work on the books aren't worth mentioning, but I had the pleasure of working with two talented authors on two separate occasions, Mat Johnson and Josh Dysart. I did some cover work. That was fun.

What has it been like, switching from indie projects to this "Prince of Cats" gig with Vertigo? Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

Well, I did a book with Vertigo before, "Sentences." It's a biography of MF Grimm. Grimm wrote it and I drew it. I was honored Grimm invited me to be a part of his story, part of hip-hop history.

As for a switch -- I didn't see a switch so much. Vertigo isn't the corporate engine one would expect from something attached to Time Warner. The editor on "Sentences," Casey Seijas, was helpful getting things started. Jonathan Vankin helped walk me through a lot of the process in the beginning. But things got hairy, and after Vankin left the project it was neglected. I actually placed the first bit of SAMO graffiti in the beginning of "PoC" in reference to the editorial process. Look for it.

That's surprising -- I imagined that there would be noticeable differences. Can you tell me where you draw your influences from? I see some hip-hop in your art, but it feels almost like it comes from the future.

I'm working on the other side of time. Hip Hop -- man, that's a whole other conversation. I feel like I couldn't even go into it because first we'd have to define what that is.

But yeah, my influences are varied. I literally feel like I could write a book about them. I think if there's anything unique about me and my approach to influences is that I'm digging and abstracting. I'm creating connections between abstractions. That's something we can agree is "Hip Hop," like Grand Master Flash, although I see it as something a bit older.

"Hip Hop" is a convenient word in the language of selling artifacts of a living culture to consumers. "What I do" is to "Hip Hop" what "life" is to "meat," if you follow. But if you speak the language my influences are all over the work. It'd be unfair, an insult to the audience, to rob them of that discovery. [Laughs] Does that answer your question?

I'm not sure. Your answers are like your art -- from the future! Here and now, what can you tell us about your methodology when creating comics?

Well, I don't know what will happen next time, but what happened last time is, I had an idea. It was born from a culmination of experience and coincidence. Then I drew images, ideas. I was working on "Sentences" at the time. I think the violence in it had me thinking about DC and the '80s. How regular people, kids, family, were capable of brutality. I started thinking about the children of Verona as city children of the '80s. I made an ashcan that was just a scene out of the world I created. I showed it to Casey, and he thought it was cool. But for whatever reason, the people at Vertigo weren't interested. I continued to do my thing. Had adventures, all the while developing it and other ideas and stories. I mentioned it to some cats at Oni. They were real interested and supportive.

I was in a dry period. No call backs from Vertigo, so I got a literary agent, Bob Mecoy. I was in Italy, playing an extra buffalo soldier in "Miracle at St. Anna" when Casey approached me to develop "Prince of Cats" for Vertigo. My relationship with Casey and Karen [Berger] notwithstanding, I actually would have rather worked with Oni, but NY rent ain't cheap...

I wrote a scene where Juliet is smoking weed with her homegirls in the bathroom. I started thinking about NY in the late '70s and '80s, [so] I put that in there. Karen liked it. Karen was real supportive. It was important to me that Karen dug the characters. I broke down the whole book.

I guess here's where things got difficult. I got lost in the bureaucracy. They switched editors twice on "PoC," and in the end, I lost that game of musical chairs, and badly. I had to nag to get things looked at and approved. Because I wanted certain control over things like color and design, the process was held up further. The fact that I'm a bit mercurial didn't help.

Maybe that's what you mean by indie versus Vertigo, but I don't know if it'd be any different in the current "independent press." What is "independent press?"

After working on "Black Dynamite," I'd do things differently, though. I've learned a lot from this environment. 

You mean your animation experience. You've been working on some "Black Dynamite" character designs, right?  What has that been like, and how has it been similar to comic production, if at all?

No, I mean my experience at Titmouse working on "Black Dynamite." I certainly can't make a general statement about the "animation experience." Or, rather, I won't.

Carl Jones brought me on to assist Chase Conely in designing characters, but I've had an opportunity to do other stuff on the production as well. It's great; I love it. It's been fun. The working environment is pretty healthy, my coworkers are friendly and talented and I look forward to working with them some more in the future. It is truly a dream come true to work in animation. It's even better than I imagined it would be. Steel sharpens steel and I'm surrounded by some sharp talent. Working with Carl Chase, Young Yoon and LeSean Thomas has been a great experience.

As for similarities to comics production, in my short experience, the differences in animation are what stand out. I spend a lot of time working alone in comics. I prefer it that way, mostly. At Titmouse, I've learned the value of proximity. I work in a room with people who are highly skilled at what they do. We help each other solve problems. We are in a building with the other production staff. Information moves more freely. It reminds me a bit of my homegirl, Bambi. She's a Mangaka [Japanese comic artist] working out of Tokyo. She has a pretty cool, sustainable comics lifestyle. Even though she works from home, she meets regularly with her editor and her assistants. They are constantly working together to move the project forward. Even though it's still an intimate creative process it still moves like a well-oiled machine.

Also, in animation, there's a script editor, producer, line producer, creative director, usually some sort of producer who acts as liaison to the studio; these roles are all the de facto responsibilities of the comic book editor. In comics, the editor has a great deal of responsibility.

One of the things I've learned from working on "Black Dynamite" is the value of order. [Laughs] That's what I look forward to adding to my process.

You say you prefer to work alone in comics most of the time, but the enthusiasm you have when talking about the collaboration in animation -- if you were to have a collaborator on your next comic project, would you want a more interactive relationship? What are some things you'd keep the same or do differently on your next project, knowing what you know?

I honestly can't say I ever think about collaboration in comics. I usually have everything I need to get off with comics in my disposal.

That's a lie. Lately I've had some ideas that involve working with people, but I'm not ready to talk about them yet. 

There's something romantic -- magical about the idea of artists working together to make something great, but all of the comics I really enjoy were made by artists working by themselves. It's a question I haven't answered yet. I usually explore questions with my art. Maybe I'll explore it soon, but I'd prefer it be on my own terms.

If I had [to] make a book like "Prince of Cats" again, I think I'd spend a lot more time on the preproduction. I'd spend much more time thinking about type and the overall design of the book as an object. I think it would be difficult to do this while working with Vertigo, however.

With "Prince of Cats," what type of control did you have when it came to some of the book's aesthetics like logo, lettering and design? 

Good question! Many design elements, like the subway map and the tape and record motif, were planned from my breakdowns, but my efforts to discuss the overall design of the book with my editor were ignored until the last minute. Gregory Lockard, my assistant (read: de facto) editor, really helped pull things together towards the end, but time was tight and many design elements went to press without me even seeing them.

On lettering, I got world class act, Jared Fletcher. I got an excellent designer, Jorden Haley, to help with a lot of the special type like the logo on (what I expect will be) the cover and the Dramatis Personae. He also did the mandala type art on the inside. I think he really captured the entire idea of the story with the type. I'm a fan.

I think between Gregory, Jorden, Jared and me, we managed something pretty special, but I'd love to have a shot at a "remaster."

What about alternative routes of publishing future projects? Like Kickstarter, for example? It sounds like you enjoy the collaborative process and you would have final say on how your product looks. You could control all of that. The only rub is the pay.

I am excited about how crowd-funding devices like Kickstarter have facilitated creative projects that may fall outside of the scope of the current trend of ideas. I am looking at alternative routes for publishing, possibly for things besides just comics. I want to do some new GratNin stuff. Some animation. Man! I'd love to make a game.

Yeah, I want to get together with some of my friends, get some cash, and have fun making something legendary! 

Ronald Wimberly will appear at both the Brooklyn Book Festival at a panel called "NY Inked" in September and in Artist Alley at NYCC in October. "Prince of Cats" is slated for a September release through DC Comics' Vertigo imprint.

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