David Small is a Detroit-born children’s book author and illustrator. His illustration credits include Imogen’s Antlers, Once Upon A Banana and The Christmas Crocodile. Stitches is his first graphic novel, published in 2009 by W.W. Norton. Stitches is the story of David Small’s traumatic childhood and teenage years.
The story begins in 1951, with a long series of establishing shot panels complete with narration by the author, telling us his old stories of powerlessness, all tied to the unfettered anger and mental instability of his family. Small’s chief tormentors are his mother and maternal grandmother, both products of a world where women were expected to fulfill “The Feminine Mystique” and nothing else. The free floating anger of these women, who were confined to such limiting roles, is visited upon their children and spouses. While Small’s book deals primarily in coping with the idea that neither of these maternal figures ever truly loved him, his liner notes at the end make it clear that he wants now, in retrospect, to understand them in a way he never could when he was younger.
Much of the page-real estate is spent on Small’s childhood. These segments are devoted to flights of fancy about his fears and inability to change anything around him. As Small ages, a clearer narrative thread is established where he begins to develop a growth on his neck. In what was likely 1961, he undergoes surgery to remove the growth, and this procedure leaves him with half of his vocal chords; practically mute. Much of the rest of the novel focuses on how such a seemingly innocuous surgery could have such a devastating effect. His family is to blame.
The illustrations are rendered in ink for line art, and ink washes for value. The linework is penned quite loosely. It isn’t a meticulously drawn affair. What stands out are the slightly more fantastical imagination sequences and the perpetually angry facial expressions on almost all of the human figures. Another detail that stood out is how dazed the human figures look due to how lightly colored the iris and pupils of their eyes are; it’s a nice touch. I also enjoyed how furniture and architecture was not penned with much regard for structural integrity, as it added to the believability of a very wacky looking house that makes an appearance late into the novel.
David Small’s memoir told a gut-punching story that I can’t even come close to relating to, due to how lucky I generally am in life. I felt just about as bad reading this as I did reading a memoir aside from Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. All I can say is: damn the 50s were a fucked up time to be alive. The most jarring element of the story is how often the illustrations go from featuring whimsical escapism to innocence-shattering realism.
This style of memoir is undoubtedly my favorite kind. Memoirs of people living troubled but ultimately balanced lives are nice and all, but I really get into ones written by people who have experienced things that I can hardly even imagine going through myself. I don’t regret picking this one up from my local library, and due to the number of accolades this novel has, I don’t think it will be a difficult task to find it at your local library either.