Going On The Road With James Vance And Dan Burr’s Kings In Disguise

by Koom Kankesan

I’m listening to a The Best of CCR CD as I write my blog about James Vance and Dan Burr‘s Kings in Disguise. The first track on the CD is ‘Proud Mary’ and it’s a fitting accompaniment to the subject matter of Vance and Burr’s classic graphic novel about a twelve year old boy named Freddie Bloch who takes to the road in 1932. It’s very much a song of the road in episodic form set to the backdrop of the Great Depression in the States. After Freddie’s alcoholic father leaves to look for work (his mother is dead) and his elder brother is arrested, Freddie becomes a hobo, his companion the charismatic and later fatally ill yet enigmatic rambler Sam, the self-styled ‘King of Spain.’

The two hop boxcars from Marian, California, across the country to Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, home of the Ford motor plant where Freddie joins in a workers’ protest, witness their horrific demise at the hands of the local cops, sleep in missions and on the ground, evade other malicious and homicidal hobos, endure beatings and calamity, run into Jesse James (I have no idea what he’s doing alive in the 30’s), and ultimately end up in ‘Bugtown’, a self-styled community of people who have no homes and erect a settlement of shacks before they are attacked and razed by the local townspeople.

In the introduction, Vance talks about his early success as a playwright and how this book came out of that experience (and initial Depression-era material). He purposely refers to it as a ‘novel’, not a graphic novel, and there seems to be the intention to create something that wasn’t mainstream comics at the time. It’s the work of a writer outside of comics who’s not completely at ease in the comics form and as such, alternates between dramatic scenes and long spells of narration.

The narration is quite poetic – listen to this caption describing the Ford plant: “With the police routed, we walked the last mile to the Ford plant. It was vast, even more breath-taking than the buildings of Detroit. How could one man have built all of this, I wondered; was this where all the money in the world had gone?” The last question is quite powerfully phrased but at times, the overwhelming presence of Freddie’s monologue does take us out of the story with the force of a heavy-handed staginess.

The story’s very much about innocence turning to experience (it’s no coincidence that Freddie is twelve, turning thirteen) and this theme is emphasized again and again. Originally, this story was released as a six issue mini-series, perhaps with long gaps between issues (?), so the episodic reiteration might have worked better in that context. As a book, it impedes the flow.

The socialist sentiment at the heart of the above quote is front and centre in the book. The values of kindliness, neighbourliness, forgiveness, collective humanity and community, and above all compassion for the poor, form the backbone of this book. It’s a book of themes more than it is a character-driven drama. We live in a time when inequalities of gender and race are hot button topics but perhaps America has never been completely comfortable discussing the inequalities of wealth, and I think that really makes the book unique and powerful. Because of the overwhelming mythology of The American Dream in American society, perhaps we’re lulled into believing that class inequality isn’t a factor of American life in the same way it exists in Europe for example. This mistaken notion is part of the mirage that reinforces classism (even if it’s invisible) in North America; it is part of that spellbinding Dream that runs roughshod over so many lives. Alan Moore, who compares the mass of poor people in the Boroughs of his hometown Northampton to an unrecognized holocaust, writes the introduction to the 2006 edition of Kings in Disguise.

The first issue of Kings in Disguise was released, in 1988, by Kitchen Sink. As the (now defunct) publisher’s name suggests, the work gravitates towards a kind of kitchen sink realism that was a little different from the underground comix that had preceded it. 1988 puts the work in proximity of the 80’s explosion that saw works like MAUS released and as longer works like that were still relatively rare, this stands out as a significant work of its time. You can’t say that the story, though the protagonist is a kid, is intended for children, yet it aims to educate and mobilize, using a historical context.

When the story came out, the times depicted would have been a little more than fifty years prior. Now, they are almost ninety years prior and I wonder how modern readers will respond. I liked it but that’s also because I like the heavy gravitas of the art, with the bold lines and forceful arrangements of masses of people in struggle, enduring penury and worse. Burr concentrates on figures over backgrounds, but his people and their expressions leave an impression upon you. He doesn’t use heavy blacks, yet he does use texture in a way that almost makes you feel like he does.

I also inherently agree with the politics of the book, so I’m an easy sell. Would this book appeal to someone raised on the plethora of indie comics out there today? Or would it seem antiquated and clunky? I honestly don’t know. I can say that I would like to read the sequel, On the Ropes, at some point, which was published in 2013.

I’ll end with two points of interest – things I learned through reading the book. 1) James Vance, through Kitchen Sink, met and married Kate Worley, writer of the notorious Omaha the Cat Dancer, before she passed away. 2) According to Vance’s writing, there were many hobo pairs/relationships consisting of a grown man (a ‘jocker’) and a young boy (a ‘presshun’). Freddie and Sam are mistaken for such a pair more than once in the book, though there is no sexual relationship between them. I don’t know if this kind of arrangement was common back in that era or whether Vance is making the matter up. I can’t find contextual references to the terms ‘jocker’ and ‘presshun’ through a Google search, and I’d love it if someone could inform me about the matter one way or the other.

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