In the newest Black Mask title 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank, writer Matthew Rosenberg (We Can Never Go Home) and artist Tyler Boss (Lazarus) spin the humorous and occasionally disturbing tale of four foul mouthed middle schoolers who go from failing to play Dungeons and Dragons to getting caught up in a criminal scheme. The first issue introduces the cast of pre-teen characters and their adult criminal foils. There is Paige, who is the de-facto group leader and isn’t afraid to throw or take a punch; Walter, the kid who speaks in a small timid voice and is always on the verge of throwing up; Berger, the gross runt of the litter, and Stretch, the tall one who fails at being a dungeon master.
Rosenberg gives each kid a distinct voice starting with their Dungeons and Dragons session, which is actually super hilarious as Boss goes from straight-up fantasy art to slowly bringing in elements of the real world with a painting in Paige’s dad’s (A cool single dad, who puts up with their crap, but has a secret.) house to finally the game table covered in orange drink. Rosenberg writes the main characters of 4 Kids as hopelessly awkward losers, except for Paige, who is preternaturally competent in all situations from taking down sexist, homophobic jock bullies with her words and fists to executing a successful stakeout. She’s like a Veronica Mars-in-training, and her friends are the geeks from Freaks and Geeks. Rosenberg and Boss definitely capture the vibe of middle school girls being more mature and socially aware than middle school boys while still having Paige freaking out about her dad possibly getting involved in shady dealings.
The multi-panel grid has been a trademark of Rosenberg’s work since We Can Never Go Home and allows for a lot of quick hitting dialogue, which other critics have compared to Quentin Tarantino’s work. For example, there’s a 19 panel page where Paige turns all of a bully’s unimaginative insults at him directly with Boss showing subtle shifts in his facial expressions until the bully brings up Paige’s mom’s suicide leading to her big time punch. The other instances of these grids are more comedic, like when Paige and her friends use the criminals as a school bus service while Walter is slowly is about throw up, and Berger getting impatient on a stakeout or realizing that “Over over” isn’t a good ham radio call-sign. Boss does things with his page layouts that are unique to comics, like having panels that are just Thomas Mauer’s lettering or using symmetry not as some kind of boring, formalist exercise, but to create absurd situations like when the criminals and kids match up in a double page spread. Mauer’s lettering adds to the storytelling like using a ridiculously tiny font to drive home Walter’s shyness.
4 Kids Walk into a Bank #1 is a painfully funny return to the awkwardness of middle school wrapped around a crime mystery story that is just beginning to heat up. It’s like if you dropped the cast of Freaks and Geeks sans stoners into the middle of Reservoir Dogs. The pre-teens are overmatched for the most part, but they occasionally triumph, and it’s pure catharsis every time, like when Berger uses his trusty slingshot to shoot his DnD character, the orc warlord Crotch, at one of the gangsters in retribution for sucker punching Paige. Writer Matthew Rosenberg’s adolescent characters actually sound like twelve year olds instead of younger looking adults, and artist Tyler Boss’ clever use of layouts make for a pleasing reading experience with lots of visual comedy. With the characters introduced and fleshed out, the real fun is ready to begin.