Kings in Disguise

Kings in Disguise
Alternative editions:
Kings in Disguise review
Alternative editions:
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: W.W. Norton - 978-0-393-32848-6
  • Release date: 1990
  • Format: Black and white
  • UPC: 9780393328486
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: no

It is a crying shame that Kings In Disguise has never received the acclaim it deserves. It’s a politically charged coming of age story set during the Great Depression. Freddie Bloch takes a difficult and dangerous journey from California to Detroit, and from childhood to manhood, in Jim Vance’s classic tale. Through his naive eyes Freddie thinks everything in his poor and crumbling family will be okay if only he can find his father, who has deserted them. Freddie sets off to find him and bring him back, unaware that his father simply cannot cope with the strains and obligations of family life. Obsessed with movies, Freddie imagines his trip will be like an adventure on the silver screen.

With little money and even less understanding of the world, Freddie is befriended by Sammy, a hobo who calls himself The King of Spain. Sammy tells him lots of wonderful stories about life on the open road and the community of hoboes, telling the boy that they are all kings in disguise. The reality turns out to be rather different and a lot of the people he encounters are far from benevolent, but still, to the young boy, somehow magical. Sammy teaches him to hop trains and how to spot people who want to take advantage of him. Freddie soon realizes that the great danger comes from people who have just a little and are fearful that the rising tide of destitute people will take it away from them.

Vance’s script shows great understanding of human nature, and is shot through with political concerns. Through this small section of humanity he explores the divisive state of America at that time, the meandering nature of the story allowing his characters to encounter a variety of charged situations. Moments of humour balance out the stirring left-wing politics and poignant interaction between the increasingly sick Sammy and his protégé.

Dan Burr’s delicately-lined and softly coloured artwork creates a dusty, ragged landscape that perfectly matches the tone of the writing. His art is clean cut, despite the sketchy style, often giving a heroic feel to the small skirmishes and triumphs of life on the road through the composition of panels and pace of storytelling.

It is so sad the pair produced so little work together, as art and writing enhance each other here in a way few comics achieve to produce a moving story that can stand up against any classic coming of age novel. In 2015, though, On the Ropes was published.