Wednesday, December 06, 2006

James Vance and Dan Burr, "Kings in Disguise" (1988)

Every once in awhile a literary graphic novel comes around, and demonstrates the vast potential of the medium. Each quality work does its part to counterbalance the avalanche of puerile superhero rags that plague the comic book stores. Jamed Vance wrote his quality book, Kings in Disguise in the late 1980's, and enlisted Dan Burr to do the artwork. It has recently been reissued by Norton. In its 208 pages it describes the hardships faced by a young Jewish kid, left to his own devices during the great Depression. For his stellar efforts, Vance was awarded the Harvey and Eisner Awards- the highest accolades in the comics form.

Vance is a national prize-winning playwrite, entertainment journalist, mystery novelist and newpaper columnist. The story of Kings of Disguise grew out of the character Freddie Bloch, who Vance had created as a bit character in an earlier play. The original intention was to write a full-length play about Bloch, until Vance stumbled into a comic shop during research he was pursuing for another project. He was surprised at the amount of mature work being done in the graphic novel form, and decided that the medium would suit his tale. He auditioned many artists, among whom Burr was the clear standout. His straightforward, low-key style accentuates the story without distracting the reader. This is an obvious key to the work's success, because Kings of Disguise is ultimately emotionally absorbing.

Young Freddie Bloch has a long journey to travel to self-reliance during one of the most difficult periods of American history. He is fortunate enough to be aided by Sam, a sickly hobo who fancies himself the "King of Spain". Freddie believes that he can find his father, who abandoned his sons to find work. Toward that end, Sam and Freddie hop a series of trains to the great auto factories of Detroit. Along the way the unusual pair must confront railroad bulls, town thugs, nasty weather, predatory fellow travellers, and the desperate need to find food and shelter.

Forefront in Vance's tale is the hardscrabble humanity of the downtrodden. Despite often desperate circumstances there are always a small group of folks willing to share their few possessions, impart crucial survival tips, or even put their well-being at risk, to stand up for their fellow man. Through his experiences Bloch transforms from a naive kid into a wary young man. Vance does not spare his characters from the worst of the world's hardships, yet somehow we are left with the feeling that their difficulties are not always insurmountable.

There is a pro-union, socialist subtext to many of the events that Freddie and Sam are privy to. The reader is left with no doubt about where Vance's sympathies lie. Even if some may find his political message a bit too slanted, it's easy to appreciate the immense amount of research that went in to effectively capturing the setting's period details. Historical facts clamor on the periphery of the tale and are so well-integrated that they add a flavor of authenticity, rather than making the plot points seem contrived. If you were a fan of Grapes of Wrath, but wondered what was going on in other parts of Depression-era America, you will most likely enjoy Kings in Disguise. I certainly did.

Note: Evidently, a sequel to Kings in Disguise was part of the initial reprinting deal with Norton. It is supposed to be coming out some time in 2007.

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