Kings in Disguise

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March 29, 1991 at 05:00 AM EST

Although superheroes like X-Men and Batman still hold lots of readers in thrall, there is now a whole new world of comics with more on its mind than space invaders and mutant outlaws. Available in chain bookstores, as well as in comics and science-fiction specialty shops, the best of the alternative comics are showcasing some of the quirkiest and most original storytelling talent in America today.

Originally published as a six-issue, black-and-white comic book and now collected in large-format paperback, Kings in Disguise is a picaresque novel set in 1932, rock-bottom year of the Great Depression. Scripted by playwright James Vance and illustrated by Dan Burr in a bold strike-poster style, it’s the bruising story of Freddie Bloch, age 12, who is jerked from his comfortable boy’s world of dime novels and movie matinées and plunged into a turbulent world of freezing boxcars, malevolent railroad policemen, scabs, Wobblies, and homicidal tramps. No Jimmy Cagney, he survives (though just barely) because of the friendship and protection of a tubercular drifter named Sam, who believes himself to be the king of Spain.

Although there are echoes throughout of John Dos Passos and Clifford Odets, this is no glib pastiche of ’30s social realism; it’s a dead serious and deeply humane reexamination of American myth, history, and national character, squarely in the new tradition of E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate and William Kennedy’s Ironweed. A

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