Despite comics being its own media language, a significant number of comics scripters operate under the curious assumption that words are the most important element of the medium. And usually the scripters that think this way seem to chiefly have non-comics influences, like Bendis and his Mamet obsession and all the sub-Bendis writers who have picked up his telegraphic diction habits like xeroxes of xeroxes. There’s nothing wrong with utilizing inspiration from other media, every artform is comprised of masters who have added to the lexicon with variations of tricks from outside their chosen realm. But if you’re a guy like Matthew Rosenberg and your comic scripts read like attempts at Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie screenplays, that doesn’t really count as clever insertion, it just makes it seem as though you’ve settled for a medium rather than embraced it for what it is.
4 Kids Walk Into a Bank is the newest example of this, as Rosenberg shackles gifted artist Tyler Boss with an extremely wordy cute heist script (complete with a Pulp Fiction referencing title page!) about the titular four kids squaring off against bullies, adult authority figures and a recently freed group of criminals. Boss’ art is fleet and economical, disciplined in its stylish consistency and kinetic, and while Boss has clearly picked up a number of tricks from the Davids Mazzucchelli and Aja, he excels at character expressions and body language, which is important because Rosenberg spends a disappointing amount of time writing out 24 panel conversation pages rather than giving Boss and the story more room to breathe. See, 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank is a story that features a dynamic artist and a key change in heist story setting (schoolyards and homes and residential streets rather than urban grime and grit) but instead of allowing those visual elements to be the focus, Rosenberg wants back and forth dialogue and witty repartee to be the center of attention. Which is an unfortunately selfish way to go about a comic, and one that indicates Rosenberg won’t grow as a comics writer until he learns to better embrace the language of comics rather than Mamet and Tarantino and Ritchie films he appears to subsist on for his cultural diet.
Luckily, Boss brings ample visual arts influence to the table to somewhat offset this. The beginning of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank has elements of Joe the Barbarian (or a low rent Nonplayer), introducing us to the kids by way of a Dungeons & Dragons session gone awry, a rather ordinary comics fake out that feels more impressive thanks to the life Boss breathes into it, playing with perspective and style to make the game feel more real until it isn’t and we’re back into a splash that is broken up into individual panels that reveal the Great Wave Off Kanagawa moment was merely an orange Fanta spill. That orange serves as a throughline throughout the comic, reappearing later as a kid’s hair and also vomit and the background of probably half the panels, and really the whole comic sticks to a color palette that might be called “flat Fanta.”
In terms of structure and design, Boss’ work is in the style of Aja’s Hawkeye but also Steve Lieber’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man, with its use of top down perspective and graphic design elements to lead the eye, and the scrappy plotting recalls both works as well. Like this thing Rosenberg does that is like the metatextual introductions Spencer threw into Superior Foes frequently:
As is the case with a lot of the tricks Rosenberg has picked up from elsewhere, it’s utilized here in a way that doesn’t really seem necessary or useful. Boss excels so much at body language and expressions that adding boxes explaining what is already clear from the character acting seems not only useless, but borderline offensive. It’s important to note that this trick was also done twice before we even get to this point, once in the faux-fantasy start and then again when the criminals first appear. Usually when we talk about a writer beating you over the head with symbolism we mean thematic symbolism, but this is a literal case of getting beat over the head with design symbols. Rosenberg lacks faith in Boss’ abilities and in the abilities of you, the reader. Is any of this information useful? Does it make you care more about the story? Or does it impede the mobility the story has?
There are plenty of freeze frames that work in the story’s favor, like the panels where Boss zooms in on objects in motion, or illustrates a device that is pivotal to what will be happening. These impediments make sense– witnessing arrows and slingshot weaponry getting loaded and fired communicates movement in an artful way, particularly when it’s juxtaposed against larger panels or used for scale. But too frequently Rosenberg asks for freezes in action that only seem designed to show you his cleverness, to take you out of the story for a moment so you can wink with him at his writerly tricks.
And quite often, the way he uses these tricks works against what he seems to be trying to do with his choice in characters. The four kids Rosenberg profiles are a diverse bunch even though they occupy strict archetypes– the brash tomboy, the quiet nerd, the comic slob, the awkward but brilliant friend– and by making the leader of the pack a “strong female character” Rosenberg appears to want to rewrite the expectations of these usually male-oriented coming of age stories. But then you get sequences like this, where a woman makes attacks against an unseen woman just for the comedy of seeing a young girl speak in blunt sexual insults:
Even without that questionable choice in characterization, the page that sequence is from symbolizes plenty of what is wrong about Rosenberg’s script. The action flies completely off the rails at several points so Rosenberg can indulge in these 24 panel talkathons, where the plot doesn’t really move and nothing of value is communicated, it’s just waves of cramped word balloons and Boss doing his absolute best to try to make these pages visually interesting without falling back on the Bendis collaborator trick of only changing a character’s face for the punchline. If you’re going to make an artist lay out 24 panels on a page, it better be for a damn good reason, and not just because you wanted to graft Claremont indulgence on to Mamet dialogue for a bit. In one of these sequences the kids just indulge in some kind of “who’s on first” fuckery over the use of “over” in ham radio conversation. It’s not funny. It serves no point. And then it leads into another scene where the kids get confused about jargon. What’s even more tragic is that it comes after one of the most economical pages in the comic, as Paige gets tucked into bed by her dad:
Do you see how effortlessly heartbreaking that moment is? You get a quick sense of how empty and lonely and spartan Paige’s life is. She has no child clutter in her room, she lives in a space that looks like Frank Castle’s bachelor pad, complete minimalism and efficiency and yet her dad thinks what she wants to hear is “it’s not your fault, tiny princess.” In this one panel sequence we learn more about Paige’s relationship with her father than every 24 panel sequence combined. We learn that all she has are her misfit friends, who she communicates with through static-y old world tech, while her dad tries to assure her things aren’t her fault. And the fault he’s referring to could be so many things– it could be her mother’s mysterious death, it could be her interactions with the gang of criminals who are somehow connected to her dad, it could be the sad sorry state of their existence itself. But mostly what she wants to not be her fault is her vulnerability, she wants to be bold and capable and yet she is weighed down by a father who doesn’t understand this and a gang of friends who function like three separate albatrosses strapped to her neck.
This is the type of sequence that 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank needs more of in order to be worthwhile. This is a page that shows what happens when Rosenberg trusts his collaborators and lets the art speak for itself without its own albatrosses of word balloons and strict grids and inconsistent momentum. You see a panel like that and you don’t think “this reminds me of a subpar Tarantino knock off” or “oh, yeah, I liked when Glengarry Glen Ross had talky scenes like this.” You look at that panel and it feels unique to its medium, the kind of thing that maybe you could recreate in a film on some level but not in the same ways, it wouldn’t be frozen in amber, visual details left to you to pick out on your own timeline, sad dialogue hanging in the air to be juxtaposed with the blankness of those faces and the disappointment communicated in that. 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank isn’t a comic I dislike, it’s a comic I want to love, that I want to see develop into its own thing rather than be held back by a lack of faith in the medium it is expressed in.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover