Every week on “Sunday Page” an author has to choose a single page from a comic book. It could be for sentimental reasons o for a particular technical achievement. The conversation could lose itself in the open water of the comic book world but it will always start with the questione: «If you had to choose a page from a comic book you love, what would you choose and why?».
This Sunday I’m out with Fred Van Lente. He wrote a tons of Marvel (Incredible Hercules, Marvel Zombies, Web of Spider-Man) and Valiant titles (Archer & Armstrong, Ivar, Timewalker). Author of Action Philosophers! and Cowboys & Aliens, he’s one of most prolific writer in the industry and recently he debuted as a playwright with King Kirby, an homage to Jack “The King” Kirby.
I chose a page from the first issue of Kitchen Sink’s Kings in Disguise (1988), by James Vance and Dan Burr, which was really the first non-superhero comic I really fell in love with as a high schooler, for a variety of reasons.
Why this book attracted you as a high schooler?
It’s hard for me to remember why. My dad was a big Spirit fan, so I had been reading Kitchen Sink’s black and white reprints of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, I bet I saw an ad for it in there.
I think it really impressed me as the first self-consciously “literary” comic I had ever read. I’m sure I had read things like Alan Moore’s work by then and he was obviously very influenced by other literature, but he was still great at writing traditional superhero stories. I also loved history and Kings in the Disguise is set in 1932, during the Great Depression, and the starkness, unromanticized brutality of these desperately poor people — epitomized in this page — perfectly matched Dan Burr’s unpretentious artwork, with its woodcut-level of line work and detail.
Why this page?
In this page, basically what’s happened is our young hero, Fred (hm, narcissistic), has run away from a home that no longer exists, because his father’s left to find work, and his brother’s been arrested for robbing people to afford food. So Fred’s choices are the open road or the orphanage. In a hobo camp by the railroad, he encounters Joker (no, not that one), who almost immediately tries to rape him with the help of his girlfriend, until another man, who Joker calls the “Bean Man,” intervenes.
So, obviously, this is intense stuff, and Burr lays out the scene for intense dramatic effect. We’re quickly cutting from the fight between Joker and Bean Man to the observers, the woman and Fred. The camera is eye-level and mostly in medium shot throughout, except for the upshot of Joker in panel to emphasize his madness, and in the long shot where Fred frees himself from the woman by stomping on her foot.
Even better, the tension throughout is emphasized by the sound effects of the train growing louder, and in the fight shots we can see the train approaching closer and closer, so we really get a terrific sense of a ticking clock. The train represents both the mounting danger, and the fleeting potential for deliverance — as after he burns Joker, Bean Man grabs Fred and they both leap on it to escape.
Basically, this page has got everything — shot work, sound effects, foreground versus background elements, and more, employed for near-perfect cinematic effect.
It’s interesting how the book is not as popular as Watchmen or the other titles that came out at the same time. Do you think that it was just bad timing or that, compared to those works, Kings in Disguise was not as game-changers as the others?
No, I just think it’s a historical drama, which is an odd-duck genre in American comics. Alas, virtue is not always rewarded.