Series Review: We Can Never Go Home

We Can Never Go Home (series review)
Written by Patrick Kindlon and Matthew Rosenberg
Illustrated by Josh Hood
Colored by Tyler Boss
Lettered by Jim Campbell
Black Mask Studios

Remember when you were growing up in a small town in the 1980's and felt like a misfit, but then things changed when you discovered that both you and the most popular girl in school had super powers and you killed a few people, went on the run and stole money from drug dealers?  Me too. Good times. That highly intriguing premise is the hook for the new Black Mask series We Can Never Go Home.  The creative team here is building a fully realized, punk rock world of disaffected youth struggling with problems both ordinary and extraordinary, both universal and highly specific. 

Duncan is unlike other kids. It's 1989 and he's a social misfit, a loner, living in a small town with his abusive dad. Did I mention that he can also kill people if he thinks it hard enough? Then there's Madison, at the other end of the social spectrum. She's beautiful and popular, and dating a star football player. However, similarly to Duncan, she hates their small town and all she wants is to leave. And she is virtually indestructible and has super-strength (like, throw a car in the air super-strength). Thanks to a chance encounter, these two end up talking and becoming friendly. He makes her a mix tape (it's a sweet mix - Husker Du, Mission of Burma, Talking Heads, a lot of great stuff), she saves his life, and they decide to get the hell out of town. Duncan says he's got a plan, and he does, but it's not a great one. It pretty much involves robbing drug dealers and beating the crap out of anyone who gets in their way.

Not surprisingly, things don't go exactly according to plan for the two of them. In the current issue (Issue 3), they have encounters with the police, drug dealers, hostile townies, and spend some quality time at the local department store looking for superhero costumes. All the while, they're getting to know each other and their connection to one another is deepening, beyond just their shared sense of isolation and feeling different from everyone else.

This is a very strong, emotionally affecting comic with a real punk ethos. The comic really does conjure up a time and place gone by. There's great design work throughout all of the issues involving cassette tapes and the fact that each issue is named after one of the songs on the mix that Duncan makes for Madison. As someone who was a young teenager in 1989, the details feel right to me, from the clothes to the way people talk, to the cars and the music. Sometimes when people depict the 1980's, all they can picture is 1984-1985 and they want to have everybody either dressing as an homage to Michael Jackson or wearing Miami Vice suits. The creative team here gets that small-town 1989 is not 1985 Miami; this comic wouldn't work if the creators didn't effectively conjure a real sense of time and place, but they do, quite successfully.

The art in this comic is a detailed, clean style that sells the emotions of all of the characters in the story. Josh Hood has a realistic, highly expressive art style that reminds me a little bit of Scott Godlewski (currently doing great work on Copperhead). The subject matter is very different, but what Hood has in common with Godlewski (and other great artists) is the precise details, body language and facial expressions that really make a scene. The work is detailed, not so much that it feels like Hood is trying to achieve photo-realism, but enough so that the art conveys a real sense of place and weight and physics; when someone or something gets thrown, you really feel like something is getting thrown. Hood also uses a wide variety of panel layouts in order to convey pacing, from one page with only three panels (meant to convey a few tense moments in a standoff), to a page varying significantly in panel size and layout showing quick cross cutting action, to a page with 15 panels that humorously shows the rapid-fire conversation between Duncan and Madison. The creative team knows how to pace a comic.

Hood designs some great, very specific looking characters (with varied and realistic body types - teenagers actually look like teenagers), and Boss does precise complementary work. First, Boss makes clear that this town is full of people of varied ethnicity (i.e., that a variety of actual non-white people exist). Secondly, Hood and Boss create real sense of place in locations such as a motel room where Duncan and Madison were hoping to hole up.  The motel room is drab but clean; it feels like a real place. This tremendous sense of detail extends to the cars in the story, an amusement park, and a discount department store. There's also great sound effects lettering from Jim Campbell in a number of places (working well together with the other members of the art team) to show the visceral consequences when Madison does to people what she's capable of doing (when she's breaking bones, or light is flashing out of her eyes which means that someone is about to get hurt).  

This is a story of teenagers on the run who just happen to have super-powers.  Notwithstanding the super-powers, the story feels universal, and real. The mutant powers add a fun and interesting twist to the story, and puts it a little more in the realm of the X-Men or Runaways. However, the creative team  here tries very hard to give the world a grounded feel; they're not about to put on costumes and start flying around the city, fighting crime. The current issue  has a terrific, very self-aware two page sequence where Madison tries on different superhero costumes at the department store, poking fun at the ridiculousness of people dressing up in spandex to fight crime. The story also plays with the ridiculousness of teenagers trying to live in the adult world. Duncan was so confident to Madison that he had a plan, and she believed him. However, the problem is that's it's a terrible plan unless they want to sped the rest of their lives as fugitives or in jail. Teenagers - not that good with long term planning.

Duncan and Madison's relationship is at the heart of the story.  They like each other, notwithstanding the fact that they're so very different from each other; that part is appealing to them. It brought to mind classic 80's movies where the nerdy guy thinks "If I just had a chance, I could show the popular girl just how awesome I am." The story plays with that idea and does interesting things with it (and with typical gender tropes); Duncan tries on several occasions to stand up to the bullies and stick up for Madison, this typically results in him getting punched in the face. Of course, she doesn't need him to stick up for her; she can withstand bullets.  But they're clearly in over their head and have no idea what they're doing.

One other note - two comics that come to mind that feel thematically similar to We Can Never Go Home are Deadly Class and They're Not Like Us.  Each is covering its own ground, but similar to Deadly Class, We Can Never Go Home illustrates a world of teenagers in way over their heads into a world of violence, revenge, and running outside the law (and has a similar punk rock, rebellious ethos). Much like They're Not Like Us, Duncan and Madison have amazing abilities, and are focusing those abilities on survival rather than larger, more outward and noble ends. Of course the themes addressed here (teenage alienation, figuring yourself out, getting in way over your head) are universal ones going beyond comics, and the ideas here are evocative of stories like True Romance and The Graduate. 

If you like either or both of those books, you will absolutely enjoy We Can Never Go Home. It's a strong, engaging series with a real point of view, not to mention the fact that it's going to make you want to bust out your old tape player and put on some kick-ass mix tapes.