by Stephen Hardman
Black Mask Studios is one of the most acclaimed independent publishers around right now. Low print runs coupled with huge amounts of internet hype have ensured sell-out first prints on all their titles, and some titles being traded online for hundreds of dollars. Yet behind the hype and the frenzied scramble to get hold of the next big thing, lies a roster of seriously good comics created by some of the comic-book world’s most exciting new writers and artists.
Black Mask Studios was set up by punk musician Brett Gurewitz, comic-book writer and ex-punk musician Steve Niles, and writer and independent film-maker Matt Pizzolo. The punk spirit shared by these three permeates the writing, art, and ethos of each of the Black Mask titles released so far. None more so than the stand-out hit We Can Never Go Home, written by Matt Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon, with art by Josh Hood. With variant covers paying homage to classic punk rock album covers, each chapter named after a song, and a limited edition mix-tape released at last year’s New York Comic Con, We Can Never Go Home is a truly immersive experience.
The story focuses on two teenage high-schoolers Madison and Duncan who move in completely different circles. Madison is popular, attractive and the girlfriend of one of the football players, and Duncan is the anonymous punk kid with very few friends. They meet under unusual circumstances on a night when Madison inadvertently reveals that she has superpowers.
The typical cliques and alienating groups familiar to most people who remember their high school days are effectively delineated in Rosenberg and Kindlon’s smart writing. When Duncan approaches Maddie in the school canteen to give her a mix-tape he’s made for her, Maddie’s friends are scathing in their dismissal of Duncan as a loser. Maddie ignores them and accepts the tape. Listening to it later that evening Maddie starts to feel a connection to Duncan, and these two disparate people are brought together in a way that only music can achieve.
Duncan is immediately attracted to Madison, who reluctantly allows him to call her Maddie. After receiving the mix-tape and witnessing Duncan stand up for her against her former boyfriend, Maddie starts to drop her guard. A seismic event at the end of the first chapter changes both their lives and throws them together into a desperate, doomed relationship.
Music is such a big part of this comic book and it is used in a very clever way. The dramatic tension of the last few pages of chapter one builds expertly. As Maddie listens to the mix-tape you can almost hear the music leaking from her headphones. As she runs out of her house to go see Duncan the music was building in my head as I was reading, and the scene played out like a classic John Hughes film, the energy and emotion seeping off the page. It is a stunning end to a stunning first issue.
The strong start to the series continues as Duncan and Maddie seek to leave their home town with no money, few possessions, and a very bad plan. They manage to get on the wrong side of a local crime boss who runs a crew of super-powered criminals, and the local police and FBI as well. After several instances of violence, heartbreak and unrequited love the mismatched pair of Duncan and Maddie are separated again, and Duncan is left with only memories to get him through his days in a dead-end job in a diner. The last line is given to Maddie as she visits Duncan for one last time. She breaks his heart all over again as she says “It’s supposed to be just me. I’ll keep running.”
We Can Never Go Home is an absolute joy to read, featuring smart dialogue, believable characters behind the super-powers, and beautiful art by Josh Hood. I devoured every issue in a voracious frenzy and then re-read at a slower pace so I could savour the art and the exceptional colours, the overall design of the comic being a sumptuous treat.
One fantastic sequence in the third chapter deserves a particular mention. Duncan is trying to get Maddie to adopt a super-hero costume; something akin to a montage scene in a film takes place, with Maddie trying on numerous outfits, dismissing all of them out of hand and finally settling on something that is representative of no-one but her. As she says, “It’s nobody. It’s me.” The scene is a smart attack on the depiction of female super-heroes, and a condemnation of the persistent sexualisation of female characters in mainstream comics. This is one of the many reasons I love this comic.
We Can Never Go Home is available as a collected edition in print and digitally and I highly recommend you seek it out. It is a brilliant story, gorgeously illustrated. It is a great introduction to one of the most exciting independent publishers today, and a perfect introduction to what comic books can be when they are produced with pure unadulterated passion.
Stephen Hardman is a trainee Legal Executive Lawyer who currently resides in Bath, in the UK with his wife and their cat. Among other things he writes in his spare time. He is currently working on a novel which he hopes to finish soon, and he has written a few short stories as well, though has not had anything published. Yet. Stephen loves reading and is a huge crime fiction fan; George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Ken Bruen being particular favourites. He is an editor and contributor at the geek culture website Geeks Unleashed.
His obsession with comic books knows no bounds and he loves sharing news and reviews of all the great comic books and graphic novels being published right now. He also loves listening to music and seeing bands live, and is always seeking out new bands and musicians to obsess about.
You can catch him on Twitter @HardDaysWrite.