This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 29, 2016.
Comics readers walk into 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank with high expectations. The cover and title of this series are the best marketing campaign any comic book could ask for. It’s an absolutely killer title that beautifully simple premise packed with opportunities for thrills, drama, humor, and fun. Those are six words that when strung together make you want to say, “Tell me more.” The cover only enhances that very basic, but very compelling hook. Squirt guns, dice, a beater of a car give you pictures in your head that you want to confirm with this pamphlet. On top of all that, the very first few pages put artist Tyler Boss on display at the top of his form. He’s someone whose style and storytelling exhibits a heavy influence from Aja, as well as other current greats like Lieber and Kindt. You know this is the kind of artist you want to start watching now before they explode, taking the lessons learned from those I just mentioned and leaving their own stamp on American comics.
All of that promise is what makes 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank not just disappointing, but downright frustrating. There’s no excuse for this comic to be as bad as it is, but by the time that last page is turned it’s very clear this is not simply different from the comic being promised at the start, but something that lacks the merits to promise much of anything.
The first half of the issue is a showcase for Boss. He displays a deft hand at panel layouts, regularly combining 7 to 13 in a single page without making it feel dense or overwhelming. There is a rhythm to these early pages as well, moving from a tightly packed string of action and humor panels to something wider, never stringing the most information-heavy pages together. The craftsmanship is clear in these early moments as the titular four kids play Dungeons & Dragons and break the game up over spilt Fanta.
Boss also exhibits a clear grasp of the most effective element in writer Matthew Rosenberg’s script, the relationship between these four children. There’s a smart alecky nature to them that only 11 and 12 year old possess in this certain way. They possess camaraderie based in geographic circumstance, but that forms into a much deeper loyalty. These are the only friends they have, so they will damn well stand by one another. It’s these implied connections and jovial mish-mash of rivalries and affection that make these opening pages tick. Boss doesn’t overplay emotions or moments, instead utilizing the fewest lines possible to convey each action and reaction effectively. It’s crisp and it works.
At least, until it doesn’t.
As the concept heightens and the criminals arrive, the cracks begin to appear. The use of humorous captions with D&D style stats to introduce the heroes of the story twice already are used again, and then again to introduce the villains. Words fill up the page and cover up a brief moment of action in an attempt for humor in what should be a very tense moment. Writing begins to cover up what was most effective about Boss’ storytelling, while adding nothing of value to the story.
Rosenberg’s script pushes itself to be more clever than it is. Three distinct elements add up to a slingshot to the eye in a funny sequence, but each element is overwritten with descriptions that are far too precious. Rather than allowing the story to be told sequentially, the script attempts to catch the reader in each moment of what is designed to function as a rapid fire joke. There’s so much dialogue on these pages that small bits of style and nuance are lost in effectively moving through the exchange. A panel of three kids shouting “Cool!” while the fourth vomits is placed at the center of a page, but there is not enough space for Boss to effectively provide reactions outside of the speech bubbles or vomit.
This bit is troubled, but it isn’t broken like the second half of 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank. All of the bad tendencies surfacing in this scene become a pace-breaking, plot-destroying, art-wrecking whirlwind of disaster throughout the final 13 pages of the issue. There are no less than five pages that function as static shots of talking heads for anywhere between 9 and 24 panels. The amount of dialogue packed into the back half of 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1weighs so heavily on the issue that it reads as though it were a vast majority of the 28-page comic book. What was once fun and fast becomes a slog to get through with none of the visual hooks to precede it.
Three of the densest page rely on a 24 panel grid that features only shots of different heads as they go back and forth (although one opens with six of the panels merged). These create an interminable reading experience. Two character use an entire page to sling single-word insults at one another in a joke that goes from unfunny to exasperating and never gets any better. Not only is it a waste of valuable page space, but it brings the comic to a sudden halt. The manner in which these insults are slung doesn’t even bother to imitate the actual language or behavior of children. It’s like a joke invented by George Lucas, where plenty of people must have realized it only appealed to the man writing it, but no one had the nerve to point out it ought to be cut.
All of the other talking heads pages are just as crushing. They reject not only the values of this comic in Boss’ art, but the benefits of working in the comics medium. It is the heavy-handed work of Rosenberg trying to exert his presence and value, not realizing that in achieving the former he is eliminating the latter. The dialogue fails to drive the story forward at more than a snail’s pace and feels clever in the same way high schoolers imitating Pulp Fictionmight be. In focusing on the cursing, bickering, and repartees, Rosenberg loses focus on what makes 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank special: the relationships.
Even the pages between these particularly painful ones function as essentially long strings of dialogue. Boss is able to do more than tweak an expression or focus on different parts of anatomy, but there is none of the panache or cleverness earlier displayed. So much is being said that there is no room left to show anything.
Perhaps this series of disastrous choices would be more forgivable if the second half of the issue delivered on a plot-driven level or provided an irresistible hook. It does not manage that though, failing to suggest the very premise emblazoned on its cover. There is no big plan, no driving force, no next step for this series. There is barely a cliffhanger. While some things happen throughout 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1, none of it adds up to a compelling plot. The question of why someone should continue is left hanging like a latchkey kid without a ride home.
From the basic idea to the crisp visual notes, whatever you imagine based on that cover is bound to be better than what is inside. Boss is a real talent with great promise, one to be watched as he refines some of the skills and influences on display here. Yet the script squanders what he and the other visual collaborators bring to the table. There is no pushing back against the rigid grids and dense dialogue of the comic as it continues, and it collapses under its own weight. No matter how good 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank may sound, it’s better to wait for the next thing.