Home After Dark is graphic novelist David Small’s follow-up to Stitches, and it’s worth knowing something about that earlier book before you start in with this one. Stitches was autobiographical, told the story of an illness Small experienced as a child, a growth that was thought to be a cyst that turned out to be cancer. As we said in the review of that earlier book,
“He has not one but two surgeries and wakes up missing half his vocal cords, unable to speak. No one tells him he had cancer; no one tells him anything.”
Like Stitches, Home After Dark tells the story of a child. Russell Pruitt to be exact, a 13 year old who is left with only his dad for company after his mother splits with the local football heartthrob. As with the earlier book, there is a lot of silence here, a lot of frames left without edges, a lot of postcard views and images (such as a face reflected in a bauble) seen from different perspectives. The art is mostly duotone, in that it’s kind of black and white, but there is a combination of styles: ink, watercolour, pencil. There is also a lot of space, figuratively and literally: some pages have one or two images and lots of white space around them; elsewhere, Smalls elegantly paces the progress of the narrative, giving the story time to get to where it’s going (and you don’t mind taking the time because Home After Dark is so good to look at).
What is Home After Dark about, you might ask? Obliquely, it’s about adolescence, and loneliness. It’s about how a succession of small acts can lead to a tragedy. It’s about how life goes on, even after you have played a part in tragedy, forgiving yourself or not, the sun coming up each morning same as it did the previous day, and the day before that. Russell and his dad try to restart their lives in San Francisco (“Christ!”, his dad says, “This could be “anywhere USA”!), taking a room in a house owned by the proprietors of a local Chinese restaurant.
For a time we see Russell’s world: his negligent father, bullying at school, mowing the lawn, cycling around local streets. And then Russell makes a friend, Warren, a person ostensibly as lonely as himself, but who walks around town with a pocketful of cash, cash enough to afford any number of candy bars. From Russell’s perspective, Warren walks the line between being strange (he owns a pet rat, his garden is crazy-full of plastic Buddhas and ducks and snails and gnomes) and cool (he has his own gun, takes Russell out shooting). And then – and then – and then, Warren drops his guard, reveals the kind of person he is to Russell, and Russell seemingly goes blank for a time, lets something happen for money, effectively never speaks to Russell again. After that, although Russell does nothing to Warren, what Home After Dark shows you is that doing nothing can be about as bad as doing something.
It’s powerful stuff. Powerful just in terms of the story that gets told between these two covers. But what Small has also done (as all good writers do) is say something about the world in which this book appears. Despite the fact that Home After Dark looks like it’s taking place in the 50s (there is definitely a Stand By Me vibe), this is a world in which strangers pull up next to you on the street and share ugly racist diatribes as if it’s normal, a world in which people (grown-up people) gather around to watch a child grab a beating on the street, a world in which parents can just disappear, never to return, a world in which intimidation and homophobia and negligence and ignorance are allowed to fester in broad daylight.
And yet, even given the darkness of its subject matter, the tender pacing, the subtle examination of interstitial moments, the overwhelming feeling that the book leaves you with is one of warmth, intelligence, erudition, story-telling prowess and (as if that wasn’t enough) voluminous technical skill. David Small… well done sir.
Any Cop?: Sneaking in at the tail end of the year, Small has only gone and crafted one of the standout graphic novels of 2018 and we’re extremely grateful.