Kings in Disguise
James Vance and Dan Burr
Okay, honesty time. I read this book a while back. Not years ago, mind you, but a few weeks if not a month or so ago. So my assessment doesn’t involve any notes I may have made or having the book next to me so I can flip through it and remember points I wanted to make. Also, I pretty much forget all the character names except The King of Spain, Jesse James and Joker. I love that they’ve named a character Joker and I’m hoping it was just the creators wearing their comic book villain fandom on their sleeves. After all, the Joker in this book is a demented man and while not prone to themed villainy is pretty creepy.
This book is about hoboes. It is a tale about a young man fighting through that time in America that has managed to span almost as much tales as the cowboy era. The stories we get now or that are written now and set during the depression all tend to be tales. The common thread isn’t the setting or the hardships suffered but how cleverness in the face of desperation is what has helped Americans, and America itself, survive and grow into the nation it is now.
The book deals with a lot of subjects, such as the role of a man in society to notions of masculinity itself, as well as why the idea of a social safety net was never something agreed upon by citizens when one was so desperately needed, but at the basic level it’s a bildungsromans. It shows how a boy starts out looking for an ideal of adventure but needs to grow up to become a man. The boy is constantly pulled between his needs and his desires and, at times, his escape into the unknown becomes his exile from home.
All this is found in addition to the beautiful Dan Burr artwork. It’s black and white but again, this just helps set the scene all that much more. The characters are presented with a feel for the underground sixties comic. It’s not a direct correlation or anything but the art feels like it needs to evoke the same feeling that spawned the hidden artwork of sixties underground comics to portray the hidden underground men of the depression. Some men seem interchangeable but the more you know them the more they become individuals. It’s all done to masterful effect and with just enough precision in the lines to instantly know when the characters are in wide plains, dirty cities, falsely clean suburbs, and various shanty towns.
Plus you get a lot of hobo fights. I think that was an unfortunate internet fad about five years ago, wasn't it?
This is a great book that I’m surprised I never heard of before I just randomly picked it up at the library. It’s now a recommendation I’ll be making for the more serious friends I have – the ones who don’t find Sgt. Rock punching a Nazi to be a high watermark in their entertainment choices.