US: Sep 2009
Just when you thought memoir comics were finally waning in popularity, along comes David Small’s Stitches. Its release has already seen a lot of press, especially since it’s the artist’s first foray into the graphic novel medium (he has however, published numerous children’s books, some Caldecott medal-winning). Why all of the attention? What’s the hubbub about? Well, like many non-graphic memoirs that have received loads of attention and landed their composers appearances on Oprah, Small’s Stitches recounts an extremely harrowing tale of childhood. While it is nearly undeniable that the story is completely immersing and compelling, the word and image components don’t always work well together.
Despite the fact that it is perhaps what has gotten the book so much attention, the narrative is actually the weaker component of Stitches. While David’s parents may well have been quite cruel, the way in which this is presented comes off incredibly overwrought. They are borderline barbaric in nearly every utterance that is planted within the speech balloons that hover over their heads, even when they are only making pedestrian comments. Only twice do we really get to see David’s mother not screaming at him or being unbearably cold and distant: once when she and David take a road trip and she recounts some of her own (almost equally fraught) childhood and the other moment being when David walks in on her sharing an intimate moment with a female neighbor. The latter brings up another issue of the book: its tendency to introduce plot-lines that it never really develops. Beyond the discovery of his mother’s closeted relationships with women, Small briefly introduces the close relationship he harbored with his therapist, and how discovering art in college helped him reclaim a voice he never truly had before ( both literally and figuratively). None of these three occurrences are given more than perhaps two to five pages to be developed, and the effect is sometimes disorienting and makes Stitches sometimes feel lopsided.
However, this episodic nature, especially coupled with the adroit drawing style Small employs functions extremely well in producing the sensation of having memories, particularly childhood memories. When taken as a fill-in for remembered snippets over a period of years, rather than read as a traditional narrative, Stitches indeed holds up much better.
Moments like the remembrance of the many x-rays David’s father proscribed during his childhood as well as the operations he received without being told exactly what for play out best through the fractured, yet bold images that Small provides the reader. A large three panel remembrance of those x-rays is particularly effective as it shows what would have been David’s view of the equipment from his vantage point lying on the x-ray table. That vantage point of the equipment is inter-spliced with a close-up of David’s eyes and nose, looking perplexedly upwards, and another frame of a small child’s x-ray film, set starkly by itself on the page. The words, it seems, are merely supplementary, and in fact, some of the best moments in Stitches are the ones where the reader goes a number of pages without any text. Small’s drawings, too, are well adapted to giving the reader the sense of a child’s experience of all of these memories. Drawn often from a low-angle looking up, the frames of Stitches play out as if the reader is given the experience of actually being in the midst of the action through David’s perspective. Small’s drawings perfectly capture the fear and bewilderment of the experience of a child who is undergoing surgeries but doesn’t understand why exactly.
Though it does it largely in passing, Stitches is another book that explodes the myth of the great scientific and economic progress of the 1950’s. The nuclear family is hardly celebrated here, and scientific progress itself, in the form of the x-ray, is, to a large extent, at the heart of what unwinds the protagonist’s life. Much like the portrayal of childhood, Stitches’s commentary on the 1950s plays out best in Small’s drawings. One particularly striking moment is a full-page panel of David’s father with a number of other radiologists all striking the same pose with the slogan “piercing the unknown with radiology” behind them. The panel comes off as both propagandistic and absurd at the same time. In this way it belies the assumption at the time that any advance in science was necessarily good.
While, perhaps, Stitches has received disproportionate attention for its unbelievably heart-rending narrative, it certainly shouldn’t be passed over. The images form the best part of the story, and perhaps the text should be recognized as forming more of a supporting role. What it should, instead, be commended for is proving how well childhood is able to be represented through the graphic novel medium.