Anatomy Of A Juvenile Heist – Talking With Tyler Boss About 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank
4 Kids Walk Into A Bank is a five issue series from Black Mask Studios, written by Matthew Rosenberg (Kingpin, Rocket Raccoon, We Can Never Go Home) and illustrated by the preternaturally talented Tyler Boss, with letters by Thomas Mauer. The series captured the attention of readers with its first issue and an avid fandom has supported the title ever since as new readers arrive and circle back to catch up on the series. It’s a series that handles its middle-school aged characters with a mixture of brusque realism and carefully restrained sentimentality, set in no particular time period but drawing on imagery and material culture from the 80’s and 90’s.
4 Kids Walk Into A Bank takes four very geeky friends and pits them against actual criminals who are pressuring team lead Paige’s father into becoming involved in a heist. The dangerous plans the kids make, and the ways in which confidence carries the day in alarming ways, have been creating rising tension in the series as it reaches its fourth issue this week. Now they seem to be planning their own heist in a misguided attempt to protect Paige’s dad. What could possibly go wrong?
Tyler Boss joins us today to talk about the series so far and the rather amazing decision-making that has gone into his artwork on the series so far.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I’m asking questions that are very late to the party, but can you give us an idea of what the connection is between your work as a senior at SVA and the development of 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank?
Tyler Boss: Sure, so when I was going to SVA I also worked at Forbidden Planet NYC by Union Square. Amongst the staff that worked there, many of whom are also up-and-coming or now established pros, was Matthew Rosenberg. Matt and I had basically the same shifts and, weirdly, lived a few blocks away from each other in Harlem, so most nights after we closed the shop we would ride the train home together and talk comics. Mostly Matt would try to convince me that he had the best idea for a Gambit/Longshot book and I would try to convince him that no one had ever wanted or asked for a Gambit/Longshot book.
Either way, we became buddies and talked a lot about what we might work on together, and just as the anxiety sweats started to creep in about what I was going to do for my senior thesis, Matt told me he had this idea for a story about four kids who rob a bank. Long story made slightly shorter, the first issue of 4 Kids was my senior thesis, though I did re-draw the entire issue after Black Mask picked it up.
HMS: One thing that’s often daunting for comic artists who are new to comics is the sheer number of panels and pages that make up even a mini-series. Has that kind of volume been difficult for you? Do you think working on a series has made you adapt at all?
TB: It’s definitely been a learning experience to be sure. Prior to 4 Kids, I had never done anything that was longer than 12 pages, or worked in collaboration with someone, or made a comic with any sort of discernible plot. Even after school was over and I had finished that first issue of 4 Kids, I spent the following year mostly doing stream of consciousness or tone poem type comics. So when 4 Kids was picked up, doing something that was going to be over 150 pages was a little daunting.
Having that page count in the back of my head was something I had to learn to ignore, otherwise it would have been crippling. But now doing this type of book, I’ve learned how to manage my time more effectively and gauge better how long something is going to take. There’s also just the simple fact that the more you do something, the better you get at it, and I think I’ve level up a few types each issue, and that feels really exciting. Though I am also the cliché artist in that I have a hard time looking at any of my work after finishing it as I can only see its flaws.
HMS: A lot of the awesome stuff in 4 Kids Walk into a Bank is conceptual—like role playing games, video games, action toys racing, and more. What do you think about when you’re trying to capture that experience and nostalgia for readers? How do you choose what to use out of all the possible imagery from those worlds?
TB: Originally, Matt had written the D&D sequence that opens issue one as 4 pages, and he thought that might be too long. So when I came back to him with the sequence as 9 pages, instead of being pissed at me, he figured we should open every issue that way. Another part of doing those sequences is that I switch up my style for each of them.
I’m trying to hit a mid-point of what the thing they’re actually playing with is, and what it looks like in their imaginations. So when we did the remote control car sequence, we have everything on a dutch angle, everything is exaggerated and “fast,” the colors are bright primaries, like the hot wheels logo. I’m really just trying to get in their heads and what these things they’re playing with look like in their imagination.
HMS: Can you talk to us a little bit about the character designs you’ve developed in this series. Each character seems to have to convey a degree of seriousness as well as humor, and move between those extremes really fast. Do you think readers expect certain art styles to be funny and some to be serious? If so, how do you work with that?
TB: I spent a long time trying to figure out the “style” for the book before I even knew who the characters were. I had Matt’s basic idea of what he thought the tone would be, so I started messing around before there was a Paige or a Berger written. I thought we would need a balance of cartoonyness to sell the jokes and a more naturalistic sense to sell the drama, ideally trying to get something that could bend in both directions.
My influences vary pretty heavily but in doing this book I wanted to somehow mash Alex Toth, Jason, Dan Clowes, and Aja all into one bastardized visual style. There is was also a “thing” I wanted to do across the series where each issue gets slightly more detailed and less round in its surface quality, bending more and more to the naturalism side of the syle as the series progressed. The thought being that, as the world of our protagonists becomes less black and white and more gray with nuance, so does the way the reader views it as we’re seeing the story through the kid’s perspectives. Whether that is actually working in its intended purpose or if anyone is even noticing…probably not.
HMS: I noticed! But not until issue #4. Sorry. But I noticed! Thanks for explaining that.
What kind of scene do you feel you’re most comfortable drawing, and what kind of scenes are the most challenging for you?
TB: I don’t know that there is any scene I’m super comfortable drawing. I spend so much time worrying over “Is this the best way to tell this bit” that nothing ever feels easy or like it’s flowing out of me. I’ve done so many talking head pages that you’d think I’d have a cheat sheet or something by now, but every single page always feels like a new problem to figure out.
As far as scenes that would be the most difficult for me, I’ve never really been called upon to do a big “ACTION” scene. I would bet money on it taking me as long to figure out the choreography of that scene as it does to figure out the talking heads pages, but maybe that’s naive.
HMS: Can you tell us about the suburban houses, school, and town of the comic? How did you decide on the look and feel of those places?
TB: The movie “It Follows” sort of sums up how I always prefer to do settings, which are based in a “No Time” period. You can have 70’s muscle cars with 90’s urban decay and a clam shaped pocket e-reader, and it all works because you’re never specific about when the story is supposed to be taking place. Setting something up in a world where you don’t need to constrain yourself to a specific era in history means you can just throw in all the different designs you love. Which is what I did with 4 Kids.
A lot of it is look is generated from growing up in Buffalo and spending a lot of time at my Great Aunt’s and Grandma’s houses. My Great Aunt Mary’s house specifically was amazing because she had lived in it for so long that it had a bit of every era in it. Stuff like a huge porcelain sink in a yellow tiled kitchen, with dark wood doors. The living room carpet was a sort of 70’s paisley pattern in red and orange, with the TV on a rolling tray next to the brandy in crystal stand. A first pressing of “Thriller” on the record player below the framed glass collection of golf tees from the courses she had been to around the world. The road the house was on was even made out of brick still. It was this magical place to me, and I try to put as much of that feeling as I can into the visuals and hopefully create a feeling of a lived-in world for the reader.
HMS: How you feel about what you’ve accomplished so far with this comic? Are you surprised by fan reactions?
TB: I’d feel embarrassed/ashamed like any good Irish boy saying that I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, but I think what I’ve done isn’t the worst, maybe? I suppose I’m really happy with what I’ve been able to do storytelling-wise in this book. I think there is a lot of stuff that I do that could come off as cold or simple formalism, but with how real Matt has written these characters, I’ve been able to put a lot into their acting and make them read as real.
And as far as fan reactions goes, it’s beyond me that there are 4 Kids fans. Everyone who I’ve met who has read the series are the kindest people you could meet. I’m so grateful to every person who took a chance on reading our joke title book and for reaching out to us and coming to see us at conventions, it’s wild to me.
Big thanks to Tyler Boss for participating in this interview when it was not at all convenient for him to do so!
4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #4 arrives in shops this Wednesday, May 17th, 2017.
The big finale in 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank #5 arrives on June 28th, 2017.