The Complicity Of The Reader In A Torrid Tale Of Child Crime – Matthew Rosenberg On 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank

by Hannah Means Shannon

As for many readers, 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank has been part of my life for the past couple of years. Steeping in Tyler Boss’s art on the series has been a favorite pastime of mine, and the sense of design and meaning behind the pages has always been tantalizingly balanced against the certainty that this was also just a “fun” comic and not one to take too seriously.
Written by Matthew Rosenberg, whose previous book at Black Mask Studios, We Can Never Go Home, took an unsentimental and action-driven look at a pair of teens on the run, 4 Kids means “kids” by the title, 11-year-olds to be exact. This is not exactly a book that should be easily marketable. It’s not really for 11-year-olds to read, and yet it’s about their imaginative world, and the real-world implications of the actions of a group of middle schoolers.

And yet the book spun out into very high sales figures on its first issue, continued to drive the exclusives market at conventions with variant covers and ephemera, and it’s very hard to encounter a review that’s less than full of praise. Rosenberg and Boss were joined by Thomas Mauer on letters in accomplishing this feat. The whole phenomenon of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, now available in trade edition, suggests a lot of surface charm and a fair amount of hidden depth.
Matthew Rosenberg joins us here on today to inadvertently reveal why we’ve probably underestimated both qualities in the book, and should definitely re-read it.

Hannah Means-Shannon: There are so many annoying things about how childhood is presented by adults in different kinds of fiction, TV, film, and comics. If the media is aiming at kids, there’s talking down to them, if it’s aiming at adults, there’s nostalgia, if its not sure what audience it wants, it wanders in tone.
Was your solution here to make the kids themselves annoying? (Only partly joking) How did you cross this minefield?
Matthew Rosenberg: It is definitely tricky to figure out how to approach writing kids. You joke about the annoying thing, but that is a big part of it. Kids are annoying. On purpose. It’s one of the best parts of being a kid, in fact. You can annoy people and they aren’t supposed to hit you and they can’t fire you. Kids annoy their friends for fun. It’s weirdly liberating to write characters who can be annoying but still have some innocence. The annoyingness washes off of them as soon as the stakes of a scene change.
The other thing is I think a lot of time people are too precious or too sentimental when writing kids. They treat them delicately, like they would real kids. But that doesn’t feel real. That doesn’t feel like a story. So we don’t do that.

HMS: I’m just going to call this out directly: Comics has a shocking history of terrible artwork when depicting children. I mean, shockingly bad art. Heads are too big or too small, facial expressions get eerie fast, and from one panel to the next their dimensions aren’t right.
How come Tyler knows how to draw kids? How did he solve this enigma?
MR: Funny thing that not a lot of people know about Tyler. He’s 11 years old. So for him, it’s just natural.
HMS: Matthew Rosenberg, ladies and gentlemen. He’ll be here all night. I would say Tyler manages to look about 13. He tries.

We know that from chapter to chapter in 4 Kids, there are specific visual and imaginative “themes” that play out, from D&D to 8 bit video games, to toy vehicles, and more. Was there a specific order necessary for this? Or is just a cipher for how these kids’ minds work, so any order was okay as long as it was combative and involved interaction?
MR: There is a sort of order to it, yeah. The more times the kids enter their imaginations, the less fantastical they become. So we start with dragons, then zombies, then car chases, etc. It becomes more grounded. Without sounding pretentious, which is hard for someone who makes comics with an 11 year-old to do, the progression of the chapter openings all sort of foreshadow the ways in which the kids imaginations are catching up to the real world.

HMS: That is really fascinating. I felt like there was a shift going on, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Thanks for that explanation.
I feel like you and Tyler needed this comic to be challenging to yourselves and the reader. And there’s no question that it says a lot more about being human than just about being a young person.
To what extent did you mean to question the role of the imagination in helping us understand reality and the good/dangerous aspects of that, when it really plays a huge role in our lives?
I ask that because I think the kids interpret everything around them through the mode of the imagination, and that may be what becomes the most dangerous thing in the book.
MR: I think that was probably the first idea we locked onto with the book when we started working on it. Just this strong sense that our imaginations and sense of wonder are powerful things. There is obvious beauty in escapism and fantasy, but there is also danger in that. Where do we let our imaginations get us into trouble, how have they failed us? I think those are questions that art and fiction don’t spend as much time talking about. I understand why. It’s never fun to be the guy at a party who says “I write comic books about how a child’s imagination is harmful,” but I do think they are ideas worth discussing. I think I sound more puritanical than I am here, but still.
I think another aspect of this, without giving too much of the book away, was a reader’s role. There has been an interesting shift in the way we talk about art and the audience in the last however many years. Maybe it’s always been going on and I just notice it more now. But the idea that the audience’s interpretation matters and the artist’s intent does not is an interesting but tricky idea. It treats the audience as a monolith in some ways, which obviously it is not. But more than that, the thing that I think is interesting is that we are being told that creative intent doesn’t matter. That the words on the page matter and the context they are viewed in matter. And I think that’s fair, maybe.
But that is a shift in the power dynamic of art in some ways. The creators no longer get credit for certain things in the work because we devalue those things a bit, but they still are held fully accountable for the problems. But we sort of wanted to explore what the audience’s level of complicity in the story is now. If the audience’s interpretation is all that matters, then we should be challenging our audiences more, right? Holding them more accountable. So that was something we baked into the core of this book. What happens to these kids is on Tyler and my shoulders, but in some ways it’s on the readers shoulders as well. Or that’s what we hoped for.
I will say, beyond all that, it’s also a comic about kids who barf a lot, and ride bikes, and play D&D, and do other fun stuff. It’s not all moral relativism. Lotta barf.

HMS: People are no doubt seeing 4 Kids in the context of the return to “Kids on adventures alone” motif back in vogue right now as popularized in 80’s films, though 4 Kids has been in development for a number of years.
And yet the time kids spend alone in groups is even more true now than when it became expressed as a development in film. What kind of impact do you think running around in these “kid groups” have on our lives?
MR: For me personally, I grew up in New York City, I was partially raised by my friends and vice versa. We were together every night, every weekend. I never spent much time trying to figure out what that meant for all of us, but a pretty shocking number of those kids grew up to be writers, directors, and musicians, so it’d be absurd to say it had no impact. I guess if I had to think about it now, I was a remarkably mature teenager and now I’m remarkably immature in my thirties. I think that’s probably all related.
There was a lot of fending for ourselves, but never really learning things that would help us later. An aggressive and then stunted growth. As a teenager, I knew dozens of ways to get free meals around the city, how to get into concerts for free, how to fight, a lot of stuff that is great for a kid to know. I was going to say that now I don’t know how to balance a check book, but I realized as I started say it that I don’t even really know what the fuck that means. That’s not good, right?

HMS: Sometimes when reading 4 Kids I get the impression that the kids are little aliens operating in a land that, to them, is alien too. How do you think you expressed difference between them, as individuals, and differences between them and adults, in their psychology, assumptions, perceptions?
MR: For the main kids, the distinction is easy. Paige is our lead character and our template. Berger, Walter, and Stretch are all elements of Paige in some ways. The childishness, the heart, and the brains, but personified. They really work as 3 separate Jiminy Crickets on her journey in a lot of ways.
As for the adults, that’s really simple. The adults are just like the kids but with no imagination anymore. Their worlds are very literal, and in the context of our story, that makes them dumb. While the kids build an adventure around their fantasies, the adults stumble in and break it. They are sort of the opposite of what I was mentioning before about the dangers of imagination. They are the dangers of no imagination.

HMS: Looking back, do you think there are any shortcomings in this book or things you could have done differently under different circumstances? Alongside that, on the whole, what do you think are its greatest strengths?
MR: Yeah, of course. I like to view my work through the normal writerly lens of only seeing shortcomings. Some of them were so obnoxiously glaring to me that we actually changed a bunch of stuff for the collected edition. Tyler redrew a few pages and I changed jokes and lines on like 11 or 12 pages. The ending actually has 2 all new pages that weren’t in the single edition. So, lots of stuff. But I don’t want to go over that here. I like to let readers discover my flaws on their own. It’s an adventure.
As for things that I think work really well–I am still always blown away by Tyler’s art. His ability to build a page is near unparalleled. Thomas’ lettering is great as always. Courtney’s wallpaper is gorgeous. And I used “Fuuuuuck Yoooooou” as a sound effect. I feel pretty good about that.

HMS: Well, that is an achievement that any overly mature teenager could take pride in.
This book is very unusual, in my view, because it has all the components of a classic in the medium, which kind of fast-tracks it into that role. What comics do you consider “classics”, ones that you find you can go back to and they seem to stand the test of time?
MR: I could say the obvious classics–Watchmen, Sandman, Akira, Black Hole, Love & Rockets, whatever else. But my classics are maybe a little different, although I love all those. For me, the books I find myself always looking to for inspiration are Concrete, Stray Bullets, Ex Machina, Powers, Daredevil: Born Again, Criminal, Pluto, Judge Dredd, Scalped, V For Vendetta, classic G.I. Joe, Ennis’ Punisher, Claremont’s X-Men. I’m trying to think without just looking at my bookshelf. That stuff is all pretty classic to me.

Matthew Rosenberg really made this a giant, detailed, and interesting interview, so our thanks go out to him.

The new trade edition of 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank is currently and finally available in shops. Now that you know it has extra pages and re-drawn material, you really have to pick it up. Plus, it is one of the the most tonally accurate depiction of childhood on the market.

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