Strip Panel Naked: The Clever Use Of Text In ‘4 Kids Walk Into A Bank’
This week I wanted to talk about one of my favourite first issues of this year, and one particularly cool sequence in 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, by Matthew Rosenberg, Tyler Boss and Thomas Mauer. There’s a moment where one of these bad guys punches one of the main characters, a girl, in the face.
It recalls Reservoir Dogs and its stand out ear cutting-off scene. The way that works is by not showing you it actually happening --- and that's a key thing in terms of storytelling generally. A reader's imagination is often more powerful than what you can show them.
How that sequence worked was by moving the camera away from the action after the film had established what was going to happen, and instead really you just hear the screams of the man, offset with Steeler's Wheel playing in the background.
4 Kids Walk into a Bank does something similar with this sequence, with Paige mocking the bad guys at the beginning of the page, which leads into that close-up of Silk, then this panel at the page edge. It seems to work both to reinforce the brutality of the moment, but also to add some comedy, too.
There are other ways to show this sequence, and the most obvious would have been to just have a panel showing Silk punching this girl in the face. You’d get across the appropriate action, and you could present it in a brutal way, but I’d argue it wouldn’t work as effectively.
To add context, we're talking about a comic that is for the most part comedic. So we've got this set-up of Paige calling these guys names and saying funny things about them, we're laughing alongside them, and even two of Silk's buddies are laughing. A punch would have worked here, but what Rosenberg has scripted is much more powerful.
It’s because it grounds you back down. It says, even though we're laughing and plotting jokes, and you've seen fantasy violence at the start, this is reality, and this is a dangerous, bad situation. And it's yellow on black --- yellow as a warning colour --- so it almost looks like a PSA. It stands out dramatically; “this is not okay.” The fact it's a text panel and not a drawing, something we'd normally expect to find in a comic, makes it have extra power and weight.
It's really clever in that regard, because it forces you out of the story, and asks you to reflect on the imagery being presented to you. It's not often a team will purposefully pull you out of the narrative, which is at odds with how telling a story is usually meant to work. But by doing that, it really grounds this page.
So when we talk about it coming out of nowhere and being unexpected, that's also a way to tell a good punchline and joke. It acts as a non-sequitur, just coming out of nowhere because it's not been established as a routine style in this book. It's an odd jump, and it makes you chuckle. And that's backed up by the style of writing. It's funny, right? It's telling you information you already know, in a knowing way, with colloquial language; "sucker punch a kid."
Playing with the form like this is really interesting --- because all that’s happening is you're looking at simply a panel of text next to some images, but it's doing quite a lot narratively.
You've got to love that.
In Strip Panel Naked, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou looks at elements of the art of visual storytelling on the comics page.