|James Vance and Dan Burr, Kings in Disguise (W.W. Norton, 2006). 208 pp. (paper) $16.95|
by Jared Gardner
I first heard of James Vance and Dan Burr’s Kings in Disguise a few months ago, from an editor at Norton (a very good guy and a good friend to the form). He seemed genuinely befuddled by the fact that I, a self-proclaimed guttergeek, had not heard of this seminal, celebrated work originally published in 1988 by the sorely missed Kitchen Sink Press. I could hear the suspicion in his voice: what kind of geek was I, really? Well, sixteen years ago I was in graduate school, trying hard to repress my geekdom. But even then in those closeted years of the late 80s and early 90s, exciting things happening in comics did manage to break through the filters I had erected: Sandman, Sin City’s early serialization in Dark Horse Presents, V for Vendetta, etc. But no word of Kings in Disguise ever made it to my consciousness.
All of which made me wonder, as I sat down to read Kings belatedly in 2006 in this handsome new edition, why? After all, Neil Gaiman’s backcover blurb insists that this book played a role in the rise of the form equivalent to that of Love and Rockets, Watchmen, and Maus. And in his introduction, Alan Moore describes Kings as “simply one of the most moving and compelling human stories to emerge out of the graphic story medium thus far.” To hear the superlatives is like entering an alternative literary canon where some 17th-century bloke named Mr. Winkles is cited as vying with Shakespeare in terms of his influence on Elizabethan drama.
For all its fanfare, the book is a somewhat more modest affair, and in the end that proves a good thing. It has more in common with the social realism of 1930s literature (Grapes of Wrath) or the gritty realism of 1930s Warner Brothers (I Was a Prisoner in a Chain Gang) than it does with any of the titles Gaiman invokes. It shares with those Depression-era texts an earnestness that almost approaches stiltedness, without ever quite ossifying. From Vance’s episodic fictional memoir structure to Burr’s WPA lithograph style art, the whole book feels like a profoundly unromanticized window into that crushing decade. And it also shares with the best film and literature of that period an impeccable sense of timing, character and human tragedy that is too rare in comics writing.
Clearly one of the reasons Kings in Disguise vanished after its initial publication is that it was at the time riding a short-lived wave of critical interest in the new form. By 1990, there simply weren’t enough good comics titles to sustain such interest, despite the protests of the true believers. In 2006 the situation is obviously very different, as sites such as guttergeek demonstrate every month. Now there are more graphic narratives worth reading in a month than one could find in 1990 in a year.
But another reason for the disappearance of Kings in Disguise (after the first wave of graphic novel consciousness had waned) was that neither Vance nor Burr went on to do much in the form that was likely to lead anyone to return to this seminal work. It was one of those books whose timing and partnership were just right. The history of literature is dotted with such one-masterpiece wonders. We would be poorer without them, and there is no reason why graphic narrative should be any different.
Is Kings in Disguise, then, the masterpiece that our undisputed masters would have it? Probably not. It is moving, compelling, and at times deeply insightful, but it is neither especially profound nor illuminating about the politics and the humanity it describes. It comes closer to a devoted homage of the realism of the American 1930s than an updating. In this case, it is an homage that suggests the ways in which the graphic narrative form cannot do everything prose fiction can do. Social realism, I would suggest, is a novelist’s game. And as the novel struggles into the 21st century searching for reasons for continued respiration, perhaps we should let it have this mode. After I finished Kings, I went in search of Dos Passos and Steinbeck, longing for all that remained unfulfilled, underdrawn, in the book I had just read.
And yet, we need to acknowledge the influence this book had had on other graphic narratives that have pushed forward with historical realism, including Jason Lutes’s unbearably brilliant (and painfully slow) Berlin and Chester Brown’s powerful Louis Riel. Reading the first issues of Lutes’s epic, I had the feeling of something emerging almost from thin air. It is somehow comforting to see finally with Kings a genealogy for that work and to recover this lost piece of the history of a form that, while still so young, often devours its own past faster than even the most devoted among us can remember. No, Kings in Disguise is not a “masterpiece.” But it is clear that the form would not be where it is without it, and for that reason I am grateful to Norton for bringing this book to us now. Equally exciting, following Norton’s publication of gorgeous editions of Eisner’s last work and a collected edition of the Contract with God trilogy, this edition of Kings serves to announce that Norton’s entrance into the world of graphic novel publication is not limited to the work of the late master. And that can only be a very good thing for all who love this remarkable form of storytelling.