Memory, More Memory

Kings in Disguise

Memories are supposed to be the meaning of this day, here in the US. The memory of those passed, fallen in military service, to be specific, though such regulation has a way of burning off once a person is in the midst of thought, on that stroll through the cemetery. Just as one contemplation often leads to another, and a remembrance of those gone in one setting spreads to others having left in other circumstances, memories hide memories within one another, a door opened to another door, and to another.

This is a new release of the graphic novel by writer James Vance and artist Dan Burr, which first appeared in comics form as a miniseries from the now-gone Kitchen Sink press in 1988 - it was first collected as a single unit in 1990. Kings in Disguise still retains some markings of genuine uniqueness, even on the occasion of this 2006 reissue from W.W. Norton & Company as an oversized 208-page soft cover for $16.95. For one, it’s a comic expanded from a work originating the stage - at the moment, I can only think of Starstruck and Rich Johnston’s Holed Up as additional members of such company. It’s also historical fiction, wholly devoid of fantasy elements or a military focus - there are no war tales here, weird or otherwise, but characters wandering through true events in a true place, and being molded by them.

Thus, memories lead to memories, even memories that don’t belong to us. This book is set during the Great Depression of the early 1930’s, days my great aunt always assured me were the worst that she’d ever known. More close to home, the book sprang from the late 1980’s, a time of some excitement surrounding the possibilities that the comics form might hold and a certain amount of ’big’ media attention - but there hadn’t quite been the building of an extensive library of books necessary to sustain such excitement on a wide plane of attention. Such things would have to wait until years later, and the arrival of many more completed works.

Still, thriving in that earlier environment, one can easily understand the delight that rose from the book’s very existence. Writer Vance was at the time an award-winning playwright, and someone who hadn’t paid much attention to comics since he was a child; according to his Preface to this edition, he entered a comics store doing research for a project, and became impressed enough by the current independent comics selections that he decided to do something with the medium himself, eventually signing with Kitchen Sink and teaming with artist Burr (a veteran of underground/alternative publications like Death Rattle and Grateful Dead Comix) through an audition process. Quite a testament to the possibilities of the comics medium! And the book itself came out in pamphlet-format segments at a good clip, all things considered, and several industry awards followed (two Eisners and one Harvey, all in 1989), and a collected edition arrived soon after. Kitchen Sink eventually expired, though, and much of their catalog sank beneath the waves.

Of course, these days big book publishers are interested enough to put out new editions of old works, the place for fantasy-free comics works in book form more assured than ever. So what does Kings in Disguise now look like? No less than Alan Moore dubs it, in his newly-written Introduction, “…one of the most moving and compelling human stories to emerge out of the graphic story medium thus far.” But I am more inclined to side with the wording of Neil Gaiman’s back cover pull quote, carefully placing the work in its historical content along with Maus and Watchmen and Love and Rockets, calling it “a remarkable story” and expressing delight over its new availability.

Because in many ways, Kings in Disguise is does not entirely fit in with the current graphic novel scene, or at least with what many have come to expect from its works. The book is wordy, and prone to explaining things via caption too much. The plot is often melodramatic, and events sometimes feel contrived. There’s sentimentality, speechifying, clumsy dream sequences, and occasional deployments of blunt symbolism (a momma bird feeding her young! a broken toy, mended!). It's far from a perfect book, and I would be hesitant to call it a masterpiece of any type. But it is a worthy book, almost in spite of itself, a success of heartfelt characterization and a deft utilization of authentic historical drive. If there's anything Vance and Burr get completely right, it's how the tides of history rock mere humans back and forth, wearing them down like stones under the waves, as their personal secrets seethe underneath.

A lot of this victory must be credited to burr, whose visuals are often excellent - his is a detailed 'cartoon realist' style, his characters being largely representative of realistic human forms, yet open to mild exaggeration in facial expressions, especially the eyes. His backgrounds are heavy and detailed, and never seem less than scrupulously researched. His character 'acting' is greatly expressive, bodily gestures smartly attuned to his general visual thrust - things can go a bit over-the-top, and they do, but they seem to belong anyway. This even fits right in with Vance's plotting, making the two quite a perfectly-matched team, and at least loaning the book a sense of aesthetic consistency during the story's richer segments.

That story, by the way, concerns young Freddie Bloch, a movie-loving lad who's only vaguely aware of the economic catastrophe circling around his immediate family. It's 1932, and the boy is pawning off his alcoholic father's used liquor bottles for money to hit the theater, but the old man isn't working for that booze. It's up to older brother Al to support the whole family (Mom having passed away a while ago), but he can't quite do it with the economy having gone so bad. Soon the old man has split the house to look for work in Detroit, and Al has turned to crime - not the bullet-screaming glamour Freddie sees on the silver screen, but nervous muggings, which aren't the sort of thing a starved man can keep up for long, and eventually Freddie flees the empty family home upon Al's capture by police.

Freddie eventually falls in with a group of hobos, which also isn't quite what anyone expected - naïve Freddie isn't aware that some hobos pimp young boys out, while others merely form a secure 'jocker' relationship with a young 'preshun.' Freddie winds up in a non-sexual relationship with Sam, a hobo calling himself the King of Spain, traveling the country in disguise - this bit of whimsical fibbery forms the basis of the work's title, and indicates two key themes, that of personal honor and fortitude, and that of fantasy, and how much of our 'real' lives are constructs, prone to being knocked down by forces bigger then us, only to be built up new and different. Sam gives himself a knowingly absurd 'life' to tell people about - later we meet a man claiming to be no less than Jesse James, and we'll almost get to believing it to be true - but is it any less real than the true life he had before, something that serves no purpose anymore, and has no bearing on where he goes? Freddie has a mild drive to get to Detroit and find his father, but eventually he finds himself living in a new world, with a new, almost involuntary identity.

Oh, and I know what you're all thinking right now - "Say Jog, don't you think Freddie might at some point discover that the true father he's been looking for has been, in fact, right at his side the whole time?!" Yes, that's quite right. Also, yes there's parallels between the actions of Sam and the action of Freddie's natural father, and yes there's a recurring motif of the bonds between parents and children breaking and causing pain, and yes it all ends on a note of forgiveness - not a 'happy' ending, really, but one that acknowledges that grace is still possible between humans in even the worst of circumstances, even if said circumstances have rendered the notion of 'home' as fictional as anything in the movies. That's all there.

And through it all there's history. Detroit's labor riots. Hoovervilles. Communist sentiment among the new poor. Young Freddie becomes especially drawn to the idealistic solidarity of the reds he sometimes meets, though violence follows them around, and not all of them are terribly peaceable. But Freddie and Sam are now beings of the lowest class, and must do what they can. The story ambles around, often stopping to rest on temporary characters: a priest losing his religion, a mirror duo of Freddie and Sam engaging in a more gritty (yet no less close) relationship, a madman hobo prone to visions of a beautiful, welcoming home. These characters recur, sometimes to contrived effect - it seems nobody in this book's world can simply pass on through, all of them caught up in stories that need finishing, last-minute dangers and rescues adding soppy emphasis. Every anecdote needs a conclusion here, often with a good deal of tears and dramatic punch, enough so that it gets tiring.

But Vance has a way of nailing little moments, like a striking worker sitting on the ground mumbling "Oh my god... all that time in France and never got hit... and then I get hit lookin' for a job..." or the often pained reactions of local police to the wrongdoing of obviously good-hearted, desperate people. And it's fortunate that Freddie is kept as a child through it all, though an increasingly worldly child - he still makes big, possibly fatal mistakes, his best intentions not always enough. It's this odd mix of dirt-level pragmatism and blade-swinging, teary-eyed mellerdrammer that powers the train through its final station, the engine roaring sometimes to the point of distraction.

Yet there's a lot of genuine drive to this thing, and you never doubt that it comes from a place of deep feeling. Dream sequences of being chased by wolves will say what they will, and loudly, but the overriding emotion of the book feels earned. You can pick it apart, scowl at its contortions, yet you can't deny that it's whipped up a certain true melancholy by its final pages, a memorial for those who tasted the total failure of security, and had to build a new realism from the mud of what they'd previously thought impossible.

It's apparently not over. The stage's Kings in Disguise was actually a prequel to an earlier Vance-written play titled On the Ropes, which the author describes as "a bizarre pastiche of Depression-era leftist melodrama... crammed with characters drawn from the icons of that period: WPA artists and performers, labor agitators, messianic Communists, sociopathic strikebreakers, and the inevitable tough-but-tender-hearted female journalist." Vance is currently working on scripting an original hardcover graphic novel adaptation of that work, to be released by Norton in 2007. I notice that Vance's words seem to fit Kings in Disguise too, though not on so grand a scale. I have to presume that this new work will thus be similar in tone to the extant book, though hopefully it will hang together a little bit better. That new work will not be hooked as much to memory, and will not carry with it the echoes of an industry's past hopes. Its memorial will be more direct, and one hopes even clearer.