Kings in Disguise
Written by James Vance
Art by Dan Burr
1989 Eisner Winner for Best Single Issue (#1)
1989 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
I'm back! Blasting out with 500 watts of power across the Internet. And to celebrate here's a fresh one.
Kings in Disguise might be one of the most obscure Eisner winners. I had never heard of it until I saw it on the list of winners. I've never heard anyone talk about it. And yet it seems to have been quietly gathering accolades like hitting Time Magazine's top 10 graphic novels list when it was reissued a few years ago. But this is why I've made a hobby of reading these award winning works; not to reread things I know are good but to explore the ones that I don't know.
Kings in Disguise is set at the start of the great depression when a twelve year old boy loses his family members one by one to the hardships of the day. After losing his mother to illness, his father abandoning him to seek work, and his brother arrested the boy leaves home to travel the rails. His initial goal is Detroit where he thinks his father is seeking employment in the auto factories. He meets a hobo who jokingly declares himself to be the king of Spain traveling in disguise at the two of them become dependent on each other to survive as they are caught up in the events of the day.
Vance puts a lot of emphasis on people's responsibility to each other. The book opens with a father abandoning his responsibility and a sibling failing badly at his. Over the course of the book it includes people to their community, businesses to their employees, and between friends. As part of that theme a significant portion of the book is about the socialist movement and the violent reactions to it. Vance tackles it from a lot of different directions though he avoids any truly complex moral situation; in Kings in Disguise no one is forced to choose between two strong obligations.
Where Vance really shines is in the interaction between his two lead characters. It gets off to a rough start with a standoffish kid and a friendly rogue but the relationship quickly develops beyond those stereotypical roots. Instead of a mentor student relationship where they grow closer these characters have a give and take that carries them along. By the time the book ends they're both in very different places emotionally than you'd expect given the beginning.
While Vance uses history he doesn't wallow in it. The only major historical event that his characters are caught up in is a labor riot. Beyond that factual occurrence the only kind of history that is name dropped is social and capturing life on the road during the depression is a major portion of the book.
While Dan Burr does fine work when it comes to capturing emotion in faces all of the figures themselves are so still that they look like department store mannequins. He does have a good eye for panel flow as the above sequence demonstrates. It's just that the characters themselves are so rigid looking that it makes them feel unnatural.
The best reason to read Kings in Disguise is for the development of the relationship between the boy and hobo. Their growth as they travel the rails is captured wonderfully and the rest of the book can't live up to that aspect's standards. The rest is decent enough but doesn't really stand out. The stories that Vance uses to illustrate the growth of his characters are heavy handed morality plays and Burr's artwork is too limited for my tastes. Still Kings in Disguise was worth reading just on the basis of that one major strength.