King of quirk Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, is distinct from the rest of his oeuvre in genre if not style. It’s a crime thriller. More than that, it’s a heist picture, complete with James Caan as a (sort of) mob boss. Stylistically it’s still Tumblr-friendly Anderson, and the tension comes in the push-pull between the whimsical fantasy world concocted by the characters — one where the Wilson brothers could pull off a robbery — and the banal reality in which they actually exist. 4 Kids Walk into a Bank holds a similar tension, asking: is this group of pre-teens actually going to rob a bank?
Each chapter is titled after a famous crime movie quote, rendered a little more goofy by dragging the lines out of the mouths of Don Corleone and Henry Hill, and into the milieu of its middle school protagonists. “As far back as recess, I always wanted to be a gangster;” “Leave the gum, take the cannoli” etc. The book wears its influences on its sleeve (in the background you can glimpse the unlikely marquee of a rep cinema showing The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), whilst never shying away from the fact that, in this case, it’s a bunch of kids doing a heist, and they find it a lot harder than the Sonny Wojtowiczs of the world.
The book’s titular ensemble of awkward, long-limbed Stretch; introvert boffin Walter; smart-mouthed irritant Berger; and tough girl Paige are reintroduced at the beginning of each issue through other elaborate fantasies more befitting their age. We learn about their group dynamic through a botched session of Dungeons and Dragons. Later, their inability to work as a team causes a GAME OVER in a multiplayer beat-em-up at the arcade, setting up some difficulties for the inevitable bank robbery, and so on. They’re kids. They’re used to playtime in shared worlds of whimsy, but not with situations where their daydreams have serious consequences.
After being strong-armed by some ne’er-do-wells at the school gates, Paige discovers her charming single dad may be into some shady stuff, and drags her reluctant pals into committing a heist before he can. The undoubted lead of the 4 Kids is a lot more confident about their chances than her pals. Stretch reminds her they’re not dealing with the bullies Paige usually protects the boys from, but actual crooks, and it’s down to the always-amusing, highly-irritating Berger to remind them “movies and shit [are] all fake,” (before undercutting his rare moment of insight by giving the example that “Do you think you could really just feed an ET candy? That fucker would die so quick”). Just how out of place are these pre-teens in the criminal underworld? At one point one of those ne’er-do-wells offers to light Paige’s cigarette, only to realise it’s a candy stick she’s chewing.
There’s a lot of cinematic references in 4 Kids Walk into a Bank (the credits that start the book are presented in the style of super 8 home movies projected onto black pages) but its most obvious stylistic antecedent is the formalist triumph of David Aja and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. The framing, bold lines, and moments of inspired graphic design especially all take cues from that rightly-celebrated run. But that was a comic about a grown-up disaster, and this one’s about four kids. So Tyler Boss’s colours reflect the sun-kissed autumnal palette of childhood in retrospect, not dissimilar to Paper Girls before things got weird. Let’s also acknowledge how a lot of the best in the biz struggle at drawing convincing children, not just shrunken-down adults with bobbles heads, for even single panel cameos. By comparison, each of Boss’s designs for the core ensemble are distinct, real, and show off their individual personalities before they even get chance to speak. When they do, there are pages of close-up facial expressions that would make Kevin Maguire proud.
They speak a lot, and writer Matthew Rosenberg similarly avoids the trap many fall into by making his youthful cast bratty, witty and intelligent, without ever dropping an ill-fittingly mature viewpoint or anachronistic reference into their mouths. His sense of pacing is spot-on, inspired by the Sidney Lumet-style movies constantly being nodded to, and more than anything he should be applauded for fully exploring the “reality” of the book’s over-the-top premise. The authenticity of the kid characters, the adult world they’ve stumbled into, and the repercussions of that transgression are all tackled with heart, grit and generosity, without ever shying away from what would likely happen if some idiot kids tried to hold up a bank. Published by (relative) newcomers Black Mask, 4 Kids Walk into a Bank has become the company’s calling card, with significant hype built by admiring pull quotes from Greg Rucka and Brian K. Vaughan. In this case, the reputation is well deserved.
Matthew Rosenberg (W), Tyler Boss (A) Thomas Mauer (L) • Black Mask Studios, $14.99