One sequence in Home After Dark is truly compelling. Russell, the graphic novel’s adolescent protagonist, is hanging out with his friend Warren, an eccentric teen who keeps a pet rat and hoards odd knick-knacks, the kind of genuine outsider that can fascinate an awkward young man. The two are sitting in Warren’s room, when Warren comes up with an idea for a fun game for the two to play: “Let’s take off our clothes and hug one another,” he says to Russell, a blank, open smile rendered simply enough to convey the unspeakable (the comic is set in the 1950s) desperation clearly motivating the idea. Russell at first hesitates, but Warren won’t give up, offering his friend two dollars for two minutes of contact. Russell peers out the blinds and, turning to face his friend, wordlessly consents. The embrace lasts for eight pages, Warren curled into Russell’s arms, Russel staring up at the fan, away from the young man in his arms, looking then at the dresser where a clock and two dollar bills sit. With the time up, Russell dashes off, a small text narration informing us that Warren was not seen at school again in the days to come. There’s something about this scene that is so devastatingly honest about our earliest experiences with sexuality, those moments where we find ourselves acting out versions of deep feelings we can tell ourselves are innocent, that hesitation to ask, the hesitation to accept. There’s a moral greyness that’s genuinely provocative – Does Russell want this? Does Warren understand why he wants to be touched? What we’re left to witness are the uncertainties whose exploration or repression can make us the people we are.
Unfortunately, the remaining 390 pages of Home After Dark are not quite so artfully told as this moment. Throughout the book, problems are presented broadly at the expense of the story’s impact. Our protagonist? His father is divorced, and their relationship is complicated in ways that cleanly elucidate the struggles of dealing with a deadbeat dad without getting too upsetting for the reader. Russell’s other friends at school are rowdy bullies whose razzing and roughhousing are tolerated until they beat up Warren for being gay – could it be that performances of masculinity could be toxic? After this altercation Warren hangs himself between chapters, compelling questions of his emotional inner world cut short as fodder for Russell’s character development. Indeed, all these characters eventually prove to have little more to them than manifestations of lessons for Russell to learn, which might be more compelling if Russell’s emotional life were richer. Instead, Russell is a vessel, whose angsty thoughts and blank stares invite the reader to step into his shoes at the expense of a more nuanced portrayal. The 50’s period setting could have given the work some sense of specificity, but instead gives a lot of the story a broad retro color that encourages the reader to say, “Things sure were worse back then.” This robs some of the more valuable insights in the book of their urgency.
A particularly instructive example of the book’s limitations come in the sensitive but ultimately broad portrayal of Mr. Mah, Russell’s landlord. Mr. Mah is an elderly Chinese man whose severity frightens poor Russell although his wife is very kind to him. Towards the end of the book, Mr. Mah’s wife delivers a lengthy monologue about how her husband’s life as an immigrant has been very difficult, a speech which could be very meaningful if we ever saw or heard about any of that hardship beforehand and hadn’t just read some 50 pages or so of Russell being a homeless drifter and fleeing rabid dogs. Mr. Mah’s silent suffering, which Russell is only beginning to understand but will never be let into fully, could be poignant, but as a tacked-on addition to the end of an already meandering story this compassion comes as condescension, a lesson in humanity delivered off key.
There are many striking compositions in the book, but often pages feel oddly incomplete, figures appearing oddly stiff in contrast to the lush, communicative line art in Stitches, Small’s previous book. That book’s vivid brushwork has been traded for a scraggly pen line that feels at once rushed and over-rendered. In a gesture that likely will seem bold to the book club audiences Home After Dark will reach, Small occasionally foregoes traditional panel compositions to open full-page and double page spreads, chock full of playful mark-making and negative space. Yet something feels lacking in this learned minimalism. Perhaps it’s a lack of information in the images, not narrative necessarily but just something to force my eyes to stay longer – often I imagined these spreads, with one or a few lines extending onto a second page to denote a street corner or a bedroom wall, were designed to leave room for text in an illustrated chapbook which never was.
The story Home After Dark sets out to tell is admirable. The book will serve the libraries and high school English classes it is doubtlessly bound for well, and hopefully some curious students will be driven to seek out David Small’s previous graphic novel Stitches. Stitches is an autobiographical work which touches on similar themes with a particularity and deliberateness that provides the very urgency that Home After Dark lacks. That book depicts struggles with disability, the suffocation of a dysfunctional nuclear family, and living outside the narrow expectations of ‘50s masculinity with an emotional and dramatic heft that stands out even amid the glut of ‘00s graphic memoir. Home After Dark has flashes of the same craft, but its calculated tone leaves one with the feeling of a misstep. One hopes that Small’s next project will permit a tighter focus.