Illustrator David Small’s most popular and well received release is Stitches, a graphic memoir about his early childhood. The ‘Stitches’ of its title refers to the invasive cancer operation that robbed Small of one of his vocal chords as a preteen. The cancer that grew in his juvenile body had been inadvertently caused at the behest of his father, a 1950s radiologist who used X-rays and radiation to diagnose and treat every ailment his young son developed. Even before he became mute, his home life was horrible, and when everything became too much to handle, Small ran away from his family to live in a hovel with bohemians to indulge in the only respite from a world that had shown him no mercy, his art. His 2018 release, Home After Dark, plays out much like an entirely fictional version of Stitches, set in the 1950s and featuring a protagonist with a ruthless family who faces an even more unforgiving world.
Home After Dark centers on Russell, a quiet and overwhelmed 13 year old who, with his distant father, moves to northern California after his mother elopes with another man. Coming from the quaint Midwest, the journey though the barren southwest United States foreshadows just how stark the rest of Russell’s story will be. As an illustrator on Stitches and this project, Small has a unique quality of drawing the world as if it were missing something; as if it were left unfinished. The first few pages of the novel, with its home interiors and the ticky-tacky houses of the nascent suburbs, are more elaborate than some others, but the level of detail is still uncanny to observe. The linework on established objects fades between panels. There is always more negative space on the page left than seems right for a composition. Sometimes a certain object will be drawn as a perfect recollection of that very thing while the rest of the environment is left barely touched. The early road trip through the southwest frequently showcases this quality the most nakedly, with the landscape featuring only two lines depicting the open road, the car, a scribbled mountainous landscape, and an empty sky. The sky’s contents are so barren that discerning night or day is impossible. But the car that carries Russell and his father is always drawn down to the last immaculate element.
Russell and his father planting their roots in northern California is largely a matter of pragmatism. His father planned to be able to purchase a home after finding work in southern California using his GI Bill from the Korean War, but those properties were too expensive. They are forced to move to where the jobs are and where a house can be afforded, in his case, the small town of Marshfield. This town is being plagued by animal killings, which startles the young Russell, but his father takes no mind. The two live briefly with a Chinese couple who rent them a room, and for pay, cook for them. Russell’s dad finds a job and they get a house soon after, but this is where Russell’s problems truly begin.
Ultimately, the young Russell is tormented by toxic masculinity. Other boys mock him for the most innocuous of things, and beat him to within an inch of his life at a moment’s notice. The one kid that does offer to help Russell out ends up being an eccentric loner named Warren. Warren avoids bullies at school by sneaking in, and when not at school, carries a gun around to keep others away. He also keeps a rat in his shirt and wears pagan medallions. Russell has second thoughts about hanging out with such a weirdo, one that could get him further assaulted through association, but Warren has money and is generous with giving it out. This all comes crashing down when Warren offers this money in exchange for sexual exploration. Russell acquiesces to a less explicit deal, but after taking the money, he shuns Warren entirely, returning to some gruff but friendly enough neighborhood kids for companionship and safety in numbers.
But these neighborhood kids are their own form of prison. Even the most imperceptibly garish clothing choices see Russell mocked. The kids police each other about every aberrant quality, essentially becoming copies of each other. Young versions of the men they desperately want to be seen as. Some of these kids look up to Russell’s dad on account of how permissive he is, but that quality is largely due to him quickly becoming a stammering drunk. One night, he stumbles out of the house never to be seen again. This is where Russell spend his time home after dark, incapable of leaving the house, even after the water and power are shut off. For the longest time, he can’t bring himself to face the world he has been forced into. The Chinese immigrant couple who rented to he and his absent father when they moved to town offer him shelter, and Russell emerges a more determined child.
Eventually, it all reaches a violent boiling point due to misidentification of the town’s animal killer. Following this, Russell wants to confront everything he feels guilty for, or burdened by, but he fails at each attempt. Despite desperate action he is still a child with a very narrow ability to effect the world. There is no happy ending or overcoming of adversity. Just finding a peaceful place to survive living with the immigrant family. Russell narrates the events of the story, perhaps as an adult who can finally make sense of what happened to him. This direction likely comes from David Small’s distaste for depicting children as plucky know it all’s who can take care of themselves. In his own words, “Kids are kids. They’re innocents. They really are. For a long time. No matter what they see. No matter what they are exposed to. They can’t get it. Until they have developed enough.”
Home After Dark accurately depicts the experiences of growing up in smaller towns as a sensitive kid. It is a dark book drawn in a light and soft illustration style that leaves behind a dry impression. My personal recommendation would be to read Stitches first, which I consider superior. David Small, naturally, puts more of himself into his memoir and many of the elements persist through both books, making Home After Dark seem supplementary by comparison. I think you should move forward with Home After Dark if you enjoy Small’s illustrations style.