On the back cover of Home After Dark, legendary artist Jules Feiffer compares David Small’s latest work with a mash-up of Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye. Although at first glance, Small’s deceptively small-town grey-wash illustrations seem to imply a world that’s a lot gentler than either Flies or Catcher, Feiffer isn’t wrong. This is a brilliantly raging evocation of 1950s American adolescence that turns nostalgia on its head and unravels like gorgeously disconcerting cinema in front of our eyes.
Russell Pruitt is thirteen years old. Abandoned by his mother, Russell and his father relocate to sunny California in search of a dream that doesn’t exist outside the silver screen. Their arrival in a dilapidated town called Marshfield is a brutal portent because it’s here that Russell’s life continues to spin downhill. Bullied mercilessly by the local kids, and with his father descending deeper into alcoholism, Russell is befriended by a Chinese immigrant couple who embrace him as the child they have always hoped for. But how Russell cynically repays their generosity forces him to confront the young adult he is becoming. This is a classic rite of passage tale, but whether or not Russell will ever find redemption is unclear until the very last frame… and, even then, maybe nothing is certain.
Tour-de-force is an overused cliché, but in the case of Home After Dark, we’re going to use it anyway. If someone you know doubts the legitimacy of a novel that’s told in pictures rather than words (and with dialogue that is only used very sparingly), you should give them this to read. Prose isn’t necessary when the visual storytelling is this compelling - a tale told in a slow flood of long-shots and close-ups, long-angles and high-angles, where the characters seemingly lope from one frame to the next as if there was no white space to get in their way. David Small’s art is that wonderful balance between the detailed and the sketchy, implying much more in a few expertly drawn lines and the cast of an expression or the angle of a body than most authors could ever convey in a few thousand words. And, unlike most prose, Home After Dark doesn’t need several pages to connect with the reader’s heart. The wordless opening, told like a slow pan into Russell’s already disintegrating world, hooked us immediately and what came afterwards was even better.
So, tour-de-force is the cliché we’re sticking with. If you’re looking for a graphic novel that’s much more than Marvel or DC popcorn and will engage with you in a much deeper way than any slam-bang lycra-clad hero, Home After Dark won’t disappoint.
HOME AFTER DARK: A NOVEL / AUTHOR: DAVID SMALL / PUBLISHER: LIVERIGHT / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 26TH