David Small is old enough to remember the realities of a free-range childhood as the norm that is often romanticized by people my age. What a lot of people forget about those years as kids carousing around the neighborhood without any supervision — and because of the absence of afterschool programs and other modern mainstays — is that many of us were out of the house because it was uncomfortable to be in it. Home wasn’t inviting. It was confusing or hurtful or even disturbing, and being outdoors without watchful adult eyes was a way to act out the frustrations we felt from our lives inside houses. Some of us didn’t even necessarily have anyone to go home to.
In Home After Dark Small captures that unwieldy underbelly of suburban life, where the houses contain dysfunction and the children take those lessons to fields and forests of their neighborhoods, acting out what their home life has taught them and inflicting it on each other. That romanticized childhood of my generation and before involves a lot of covering up wounds that we don’t like to acknowledge.
Small does acknowledge them though. He did in his previous graphic novel Stitches: A Memoir which covered his own dark childhood. In Home After Dark, Small introduces readers to Russell, a pretty typical kid who finds himself abandoned by one then both parent, both emotionally and then physically. If the primary job of a parent is to make a child feel safe, then Small renders the world’s worst failing, alongside the kind of casual parenting of old that allowed people to slink away from responsibility until they just dissolved from a kid’s reality.
Russell is cautious in his attempts to connect with the world and he finds the world hostile anyhow. Living with his father following the departure of his mother with another man, and a move to California, Russell discovers that masculinity in the hands of children is toxic indeed. He bonds with another object of the ire of bullies, Warren, the local eccentric kid who doesn’t fit in, and later shifts into a partnership with the more volatile Kurt and Willie, who demand Russell take sides in taunts toward Warren.
Social isolation is at the center of the themes that Small explores. Russell is cut off emotionally from his family and never feels comfortable enough to be accepted in the culture of neighborhood kids. Warren has cast himself invisible to escape the torture of the other boys, a survival mechanism that causes him to crave closeness in a way that is misinterpreted. Even Kurt and Willie are isolated in their own ways, a wandering gang separate from the other kids their age, acting out their rage and desire, wanting connection even as they push it away.
Disconnection becomes destructive and deadly, and yet few become disconnected by choice, but rather circumstance. It’s disconnection that drove Russell’s parents away and it’s disconnection that sends him on his own dark path. But it’s the society itself that decides who is a part of it and who is not, and expects the outcasts to group together and fend for themselves as if rejection is enough of a bond to exist on.
Russell’s claustrophobic world is wrought through Small’s fluid renderings. A veteran of children’s books where his work had a classic illustration quality that exuded motion and flowed across the pages, in comics Small sometimes resembles late era Will Eisner with animated depictions of bodies and careful but loose, often thin, lines, with moody gray washes that sometimes offer a foreboding quality, sometimes the feeling of being washed out from reality.
Small’s style accomplishes some beautiful and intimate world-building, with every location, every action, measured against Russell’s perception of it. It’s a psychological map for the characters to ramble through, chased by demons they don’t perceive and grasping for answers they don’t acknowledge as necessary. Is growing up directly related to the moment you realize that you grapple with the same gray terrors as your parents? Small implies that might be so.