By Tyler Boss, Matthew Rosenberg and Thomas Mauer,with Clare Dezuttie and Courtney Menard
I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends. Even if they’re a little on the shy side. Or awkward. Or, you know, kind of a pain in the ass and not really sure who invited them. But they’re there, dammit! 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #1 is a comic that absolutely bleeds style while delivering a story that’s tangentially the beginning of a heist story that’s cemented in friendship, trust, bravery, and honest to god wit. It’s charming and endearing as fuck, to put it colloquially. From the Saul Bass influenced cover to the last page, Rosenberg, Boss, and Mauer’s effusive pastiche of everything from Wes Anderson’s aesthetic to The Breakfast Club to Chris Ware deftly transforms itself into something inarguably its own as the rich characterization melds seamlessly with the dapper presentation. There’s a timelessness to it that’s bolstered by its own chronological ambiguity and evergreen child experiences. The temerity of the eponymous kids (well, some of them anyway) is aptly matched by the creative forces behind them and the reward is wholly unique.
On the surface, there’s nothing particularly complex about the plot as it establishes itself and its conflicts. A group of quirky maladroit friends navigate their school days rife with jerkoff jocks and tabletop gaming until a quartet of legit criminals show up at their door. From there, we plunge into a farrago of 80’s teen adventure comedies and Hitchcokian heist. The real nitty gritty of Rosenberg’s scripting is its attention to defining his ensemble’s roles, personalities, and dynamic. Five pages in, it’s abundantly clear who these kids are and it’s been laid out rather cleverly by having them introduced via their analog D&D characters. Doing so enriches these kids by providing not only the direct information of their interests (tabletop gaming) but doubly so by showing how they view heroic versions of themselves. Paige is ever the leader and collaborator, Walter is unsure, quiet, and squeamish, Stretch is the loyal rule follower, and Berger basically just sucks. Berger sucks so much, you guys, and it is great. All of them do because they’re instilled with palpable awkwardness that’s hard to not find something to root for or at least nod your head to in solidarity of familiar days. These four kids, or at least the aspects that complete their individual whole, are unambiguously familiar without falling into pre-molded archetypes or stereotype.
Of course, the flip-side to all of this is that if you don’t connect to these characters, then the light plot isn’t offering too much beyond tone and table setting. It’s apparent what the immediate objective, conflict, and direction is going to be about the half-way mark, but the draw won’t be found in any deep thematic play or action driving action. Rosenberg has us spend a lot of time getting to know these characters and instilling the comedic air to a degree that might test your patience if you’re wondering when we’re going to actually get to the fireworks factory. There’s definitely the setup to the thematic ideas of bonds of trust and friendship and taking a chance when you’ve got support, but the heart is in the humor and depth of the characters far more than in the force of direction in the narrative.
Rosenberg doesn’t write jokes, he writes comedy scenes. Everything is delivered atop a bed of setup, circumstance, and setting. Of course much of the humor can be attributed to the premise of kids doing and saying outrageous things for kids to be doing and saying, the execution is dry and earned throughout the issue. Despite some of the similar look, this isn’t a Kupperman-type comedy with non-sequitur and contrast absurdity, but rather very real and very rich dialogue-driven beats that constantly inform the characters even as they make you laugh out loud. Rosenberg has Berger be the source of much of the comedy and he largely succeeds, but for some his inherent “little shit”-iness fluctuates into being grating like his CB call name suggestion being “over over” for some 20 odd panels. It works, he’s supposed to be grating, but it’s better implemented in his stakeout collage of musings that culminate in the honest “I’m boooooored!” lamentation. There are gags as well that are shorter sprinkled throughout like Walter’s orange Fanta spew or Silk’s eye injury or a lonely pervert hopping on the CB radio line, but truly all the aforementioned humor and heart is elevated thanks to Tyler Boss.
4 Kids Walk Into A Bank is a plethora of artistic inspiration and applications, and Tyler Boss just owns the whole damn thing. It’s cohesive structurally and stylistically with a fantastic flair for going off the beaten path. Dragons? Sure. Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’? Yup. Two twenty-four panel grid pages back to back? Damn straight. Boss tackles and weaves it all together with seeming ease in a package that still exudes and celebrates simplicity as comic truth. His retro style pairs beautifully with the strongly worn and washed-out palette that makes the most out of every line. There’s a tonally sharp flatness throughout to match the drier humor, with the bold outer lines of figures sitting atop geometrically rigid settings and shadows often existing as solid polygons methodically placed. It would almost feel cold if it weren’t for the warm palette of ashier pinks, mauves, and marigold. It’s dry, it’s hip and it blends beautifully with all the design elements Boss meticulously instills throughout from inside cover to back. (Shout out to Courtney Menard who designed that perfect elephant themed wallpaper used both in and out of story).
So while it obviously looks great, Boss really impresses with how well it reads. There’s a feast of one-shot multi-panel pages that stand out as some of the funniest moments in the entire book; Silk’s three-panel fallout from being shot in the eye is just perfect and the clown car stuffed ride home from school is rife with just the right little differences between the nine panels to hammer home the uncomfortableness. Boss knows where to slice and stack panels at just the right moments to heighten the anxious silence before the punchlines or complement carrying over one of Mauer’s word balloons to sustain the moment of the joke. Add to that the multitude of different elements like a very Ware reminiscent floorplan panel and dedicated object pull out bubbles for the criminals facial characteristics that’s definitely in the Aja wheelhouse or the…look, Boss is juggling a lot of disparate choices here and the fact that it reads so smoothly is a resounding testament to his skill.
Letterer Thomas Mauer was given the herculean task of tackling this dialogue hyrda and he absolutely kills it with his pacing and style chops. Beyond just the smart pacing, the lettering itself is lockstep with the overall aesthetic and alters nicely between caption boxes, spoken word balloons both bold and whispered, and in-story signage. The interplay of the balloons with their surroundings, not just the contents of the panels but with the panels themselves, is sharply done to match the visual beats and dictate the emotional flow.
There’s an attitude to 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank that’s borderline cocky, but infinitely cool. It’s a boldness in its difference and an indifference to its own boldness. Rosenberg, Boss, and Mauer have crafted a stylish visual mosaic that’s filled to the brim with earnest and hilarious heart centered around this group of friends going off on an adventure in an anytime setting. It is absolutely worth a shot and ready to hoist you on its shoulders if you’re looking to get down on a high with a little help from some new friends.