For this already critically-acclaimed series with plenty of fan followers, 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank has proven and meaningful storytelling. For a comic labeled “crime/comedy” in its genre category, it’s another series that’s breaking expectations and confirming “Yes, we need this” is the resounding message from comic readers. It’s been a year for comedy comics making waves and speaking more deeply to our concerns and fears than many more overt dramas. Take Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s work on The Fix and Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s work on The Flintstones this year, for example.
4 Kids Walk Into A Bank builds on a concern for young people expressed in writer Matthew Rosenberg’s (also of Civil War II: Kingpin, Rocket Raccoon) earlier series We Can Never Go Home, both from Black Mask Studios. While the previous series followed the lives of two teens on the run, one with super powers, 4 Kids so far operates in the realm of modern fiction, with some interesting twists.
The timing on this series is striking right on time with the zeitgeist of storytelling for comics reading/video game player/tv and movie loving folks—it’s impossible not to see the parallel success of this comic story and the smash hit Netflix series Stranger Things which is everyone’s cosplay for the second half of 2016 and no doubt well into 2017. Both feature a group of kids in that hyper-awkward 11-12 age range who are into RPG, old school video games, and a do-it-yourself adventure approach to life.
We watch the lines between fantasy and reality blur for the kids in this comic and that’s the point. Out of that the reader/viewer begins to recognize that some elements of positive thinking do have an effect. The purist determination of an 11 year old may just come out the victor.
We haven’t seen the culmination of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, but so far, the energy of young people in this age range is presented as a kind of force of nature. A ridiculous, baffling, and chaotic force of nature, of course. Let’s be clear that 4 Kids does not present a saccharine-cute, child-hero, worshipful view of kids. You don’t get the sense while reading this that you’re being self-indulgently rosy-tinted in your memories of your own youth. In fact, just reading this comic will probably challenge you to reframe your memories, question them and spot even more elements of your experience that were quite fucked up, but you just accepted it at the time, being short, disempowered, and easily distracted.
But one of the most noteworthy storytelling strategies in 4 Kids is really resonating with readers as being both inventive and deeply satisfying for nostalgia—is using a pop culture frame for opening each issue. The first issue opens with an extended RPG sequence where we see our four characters visually presented as their fantasy roles, with the romantic fantasy art style clashing with their brash and clueless arguments about the game. In the second issue, we watch the kids as their arcade game characters, talking, as they play, about developments in the plot of their lives. The third issue won’t let readers down and continues to use this framing device, but I’ll leave it to you to find out what’s been chosen this time around.
What’s important is not that the comic is realist, though the texture of recognizable real-life experiences will sneak up on you, but that it is realist ENOUGH that you don’t notice the pressure building up in the dramatic plot-structure. While you watch four kids running around, chaotically flailing their way through life, and cluttering their lives with over-the-top dialogue, there’s a darker undercurrent building and these kids keep tripping blindly over developments leading them closer to things they are definitely not equipped to handle. Things could actually go very wrong, in fact the odds are slowly stacking up that way.
Looming large is a massive “What If?” You’ll see qualities you recognize as having been your own at that age, and certainly qualities you recognize from your friends, and as you see these characters wandering into dangerous territory, the realization that some of this is plausible is exhilarating to watch (since you’re routing for the kids) and terrifying to take seriously. It’s common for people to say: “I can’t believe I survived childhood”, especially if you were born a few decades ago. We all did stuff that, looking back, could have gone tragically wrong. What if poor judgment, a sense of immortality, overblown loyalty, or general boredom, had gotten the best of us? What if we had even more closely resembled these kids? However outrageous the circumstances of the story may get, there’s an underlying gut-punching truth that kids do really dangerous things quite gleefully. This is us—this is all of us. It’s a regular mob of kids walking into a bank.
Maybe I’m getting a little far from the “crime/comedy” category. Each issue of the series so far is hilarious, annoying, highly readable, and a visual delight thanks to artist Tyler Boss (who was also colorist on We Can Never Go Home) and letterer Thomas Mauer. They strike an eerie equilibrium between comedy and danger suffused with upbeat colors, causing menace to pop, something I don’t believe any art team would find simple to achieve in comics. It would serve us readers right to remember the old truism “comedy is hard”. It really is. And this comic works overtime.
While the first issue laid out our characters including Paige, Berger, Walter, and Stretch, and their endless squabbles, it also sets up Paige, our female protagonist’s family life of single ex-con father and the disturbing menace of a four person team of career criminals attempting to re-recruit Paige’s father. The second issue gets more investigative, with Paige suspecting something is up, gathering information on her would-be crime family, and leading her friends right into very dangerous—and explosive—territory. In issue #3, you can look forward to increased antics as Paige tries to get ahead of the crime gang’s plans through fairly disturbingly manipulative means, and we see an adult world as surprisingly pliable in the face of kids who are maniacally determined to pursue their plans. And yes, we finally get to see the “fucking bank” in the title. You’re also going to see the ways in which the kids might be changing under the influence of circumstances. Or were they always totally amoral? That’s yours to decide.
The third issue certainly doesn’t lag. There are many ways in which it ramps up the tension and is overtly surprising. It’s completing the tightening up and laying out of circumstances necessary to get us to the big showdown. After all, this is a heist comic, isn’t it? We’ll bring those assumptions with us to the next issue.
If you haven’t picked up this comic yet, there’s time to catch up and experience just how entertaining and readable it is. Issue #3 lands on December 21st, next Wednesday. Don’t miss it. You can’t let four kids walk into a bank all alone, can you? That just wouldn’t be right.