With a title like “4 Kids Walk Into A Bank,” the latest series from Black Mask Studios and writer Matthew Rosenberg might seem like a joke. But while it’s looking to bring comedy to the comic book table, the series (drawn by newcomer Tyler Boss) is also a high concept crime caper involving preteens and D&D.
Rosenberg is no stranger to riding strange concepts into comic shops. The writer came onto the scene with “12 Reasons To Die,” a kung-fu comic created with Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah, and followed up with last year’s dark teenage superhero hit “We Can Never Go Home.” But as he tells CBR News, his latest series isn’t a reaction to the genre-twisting style of his earlier work — it’s just the next idea.
Below, Rosenberg spells out the inspiration for a series he sees as Wes Anderson mixed with Quentin Tarantino, shares the pitfalls of planning the perfect heist and sets his sights on more comics to come in 2016.
CBR News: Matthew, a lot of fans will know you from your former work with Black Mask including the superhero-influenced “We Can Never Go Home” and the kung-fu-inflected “Twelve Reasons To Die.” It seems you’re pushing into new genre territory with “4 Kids.” Do you see yourself as someone who likes to play with genre from project-to-project at that kind of DNA level?
Matthew Rosenberg: Genre has never been something I cared about much. I think if the characters work and the story is interesting everything else is window dressing really. It’s probably nice to have people feel comfortable knowing what you are going to do in some ways. I’m sure you can get more fans if you work in a smaller wheelhouse, working in a consistent genre. I just don’t have much interest in being comfort food. I’m pretty new at all this. I just want to see what I can do. The artists I care about reinvent themselves and challenge people whenever they can. So for readers who liked “12 Reasons” or “We Can Never Go Home,” I hope they like “4 Kids Walk Into a Bank,” but I get it if they don’t. Hopefully they appreciate that I tried to keep it fresh.
Tell us about the origins of this book: a heist story and a preteen adventure is an unexpected hook. What led to this specific combination of ideas and influences?
Initially I wanted to do a straight comedy that does unexpected things. I think little kids doing fucked up stuff is always funny. That’s it really. There are so few comedy comics, and I wanted to see if I could do it. Comedy is really hard though. I think I’m really funny but I’m the only person I know who thinks I’m funny, so the whole thing seemed like it might be an awful idea. After I had already made myself obsessed with doing this dark pre-teen comedy I realized it might need more than just my questionable comedic chops to stand on. So it became more of a caper as I worked on it. I bounced everything off Tyler Boss, the artist on the book, and he would be very honest with me about what was working and what wasn’t. The thing I found out early on though is both Tyler and I like to see how far we can push each other. In terms of our work this will either prove to be incredibly productive or astonishingly destructive. We’ll see. If this book doesn’t work at all I am just going to blame Tyler.
Of course, with those flavors mixing together, one of the questions people will be asking is about the tone of the piece. “We Can Never Go Home” was dark in a way that matched teenage protagonists, and while you’ve said this will mine some similar territory, I’ve got to imagine that making 11-year-olds the focus will change things up. How dark can this story get?
Yeah. With “We Can Never Go Home” I was always surprised by how many people wanted or expected things to go well. That was really fascinating for me. There is this thing in fiction where people will follow very bad people really far as long as you make them “likable” bad people. The kids in “4 Kids” are not bad people though. They are sweet and weird and a little misguided, but they are not bad people. So I think the idea of how far we can take them is something I am really excited to find out. When I pitched this book to a publisher early on I told them how I wanted it to end, and they told me that I flat out could not do that. They told me readers would hate it and hate me for it. I changed stuff from then, but I still sort of expect some hate mail.
Looking at your characters, the lead, Paige, gets involved in the heist to head her ex-con dad off at the pass. What defines Paige’s character to you? In what ways does having a criminal father shape how she approaches this theft, and in what ways does she push against that influence?
Paige doesn’t really have a criminal father. He isn’t that to her, at least. That’s the real root of all of this. She loves her dad and wants to protect him and the idea of consequences are very abstract to her. It’s not about right and wrong or anything like that. It’s about helping her dad. But as things progress, the further she gets into this adult world, the more things begin to shift for her. Her father, her mission, her friends, her sense of all these things will change as the story progresses. In a lot of ways I just wanted to capture the moments when a little kid grows up. That’s what this is for me.
The other kids who get roped into this mission are described as classic D&D-loving nerds. What can you tell us about Paige’s ragtag team, and why do you think those of the geek persuasion would make a good band of bank robbers?
Paige has three best friends. Well, two best friends and a kid named Berger who is always around. Walter is a genius. The kind of kid who is so smart and so talented that he never really learns about the world around him. He just lives in his own world. I imagine him as an 11-year-old Bill Gates. He can tell you how to build a combustion engine from household items but he gets lost walking to the grocery store. Stretch is sweet and fiercely loyal to Paige. He would follow her wherever she asked. If they were older he would realize he is in love with her, but for now she is just his best friend in the whole world. And Berger just sucks. Really they are the perfect criminals. Smart, loyal, and in their own world. And with all the teamwork and planning on the fly, any good DM is really just training you for the obstacles that you’ll encounter as a career criminal.
Heist stories often live or die by how the particulars of the job play out. How have you been working with artist Tyler Boss to stage the action of this story and find a way to live up to your influences in a visual sense on the page?
Yeah, that sucks. Heist stories have to be really clever in a way that my brain doesn’t normally work. If I quit comics after this book it’s because I drove myself nuts planning this heist. As for Tyler, he’s kind of amazing. There is very little I could imagine for a comics page that he couldn’t visualize and make better. He can change styles at the drop of a hat. And the way he constructs a page is so fascinating. The architecture of his pages, the way he moves the reader across a page, make my job so much easier. We have all these plans to really push the reader along with our kids. It has to feel meticulous and clinical, like a good plan, while still feeling urgent and dangerous. I think that balance will make or break the book in some ways, but I have no doubt that Tyler is up for the challenge. Again, if the books fails send angry email to him.
Speaking of Tyler, what made him the right artist for this project? I get a sense from what little work of his on this I’ve seen that he has a slightly more graphic style — something in the realm of Chris Samnee and Gabriel Hardman. Why is that the match for this story?
Well I developed the book with Tyler from the beginning. He was graduating from SVA in New York and an earlier version of issue #1 was his senior thesis for David Mazzucchelli. So the book is as much his as it is mine. But as to why he is the perfect fit? I mean besides the fact that his art is gorgeous and he is an amazing story teller, I think it’s his range. Tyler draws from a lot of the same diverse influences as I do and he puts that all onto the page. He draws as much influence from Chris Samnee and David Aja as he does from Anders Nilsen, Osamu Tezuka, Gary Panter, Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine. His deep well of influences mean he is pulling from a tool chest that keeps a reader on their toes. He wants to make beautiful art but he wants to challenge people on the way they consume it. I know he’s making me a better writer for it.
This may be kind of a broad question, but what’s your take on first issues? What do you feel you need to put into a #1 of a series like “4 Kids” in order to ensure that you hook readers in for the whole five-issue run?
Wow. That’s tough. I think you have to see enough of the world and meet enough of the characters to care about them. But at the same time I think you need to be given so little that you are left not knowing where things are going. I was talking to Scott Snyder (name drop!) about this the other day. He was talking about the important things that need to be in the first few pages of a story, and I was mentally going through a checklist against “4 Kids.” I did like none of it. Literally. So that was a bummer.
Scott is a writer who I respect tremendously. His “Batman” #1 is a near perfect comic for me, so I take his words to heart. But I still like my opening. It’s a difficult question though because different books require different things. I think an X-Men or Justice League has to accomplish so much in first issue that it almost gets in the way of a lot of the things that I love. But for indie comics I think you just have to make me care about the characters. I couldn’t tell you what “Love & Rockets” or “Stray Bullets” needs to accomplish in the first issue of a story, but I am always on board for more. Ask Brian Vaughan. Whatever he says a book needs to do, I’ll agree with.
Overall, what does this series mean in terms of the next step for your career as a comics writer? What kinds of projects do you want to work on from here on our? More miniseries or maybe an ongoing? More creator-owned work or maybe taking it out to Work For Hire stuff?
Well I hope everyone doesn’t hate me when this ends. That’s step one. But I don’t do a lot of career planning really. It’s sort of not up to me, it’s up to editors and publishers. I know I don’t want to write stuff I don’t care about. I’ve had to turn down a few cool gigs in the past few months because I just wouldn’t do work anyone would care about. It sucks because I like money, but I like putting out good work more. For now at least. I’ve written a couple very little things for Marvel and DC, and I love that so much. It is a completely different set of muscles and I grew up on those books. I still read them religiously. The chance to add to those universes is an actual childhood dream come true for me. So if they ask I will probably say yes.
But in the immediate future we are doing more “We Can Never Go Home” later this year. I am doing another book at Black Mask called “Our Work Fills The Pews” with my dear friend Vita Ayala that I am really proud of. Black Mask gave me my start and I am going to do books there until they won’t have me anymore, which may be soon. I have an upcoming book at Aftershock that I can’t really talk about yet. I am co-writing “Archie Meets Ramones” at Archie this year with Alex Segura. I have two other creator-owned books at other publishers that I also can’t talk about. So my dance card is getting pretty full but I am ready to renounce sleep entirely for the right book.
“4 Kids Walk Into A Bank” rolls into comic shops April 27 from Black Mask Studios.