If it were up to me, all biographies and memoirs would be written in graphic novel form. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, The Complete Maus, The Complete Persepolis, Blankets; these are all near-perfect expressions of personal and familial experience. The power of imagery saves the subject matter from being bogged down by the excessively wordy, self-justifying tendencies of some, and the oblique, pseudo-poetic drivel of others. The best graphic novel memoirs and biographies seem to combat these tendencies by utilizing a profound economy made possible by the the concentrated effect of the visual. Everyone knows the old truism, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but books like these show you what it really means to tell a story visually.
Stitches is perhaps one of the best examples of this, even compared to the aforementioned masterpieces of the genre. Spare is the keyword here, as simple and often entirely silent series of panels tell a heartbreaking but ultimately redemptive coming of age story.
Childhood is a bizarre and dangerous time; so much of who we are is the result of those formative years, and so much can go wrong. Some of us get lucky and we enter adulthood with nothing but a few minor scrapes and mental bruises, mitigated by affection and happy memories. But some of us are like David Small, and we are scarred.
A bleak childhood and the questionable practices of 1950’s medicine (including the ministrations of Small’s radiologist father) leave Small scarred inside as well as out. The story is not a pleasant one, and there is no real humor to lighten the burden of disclosure, but it is told with such subtle beauty that it is worth the pain, like life itself often proves to be. (I apologize at this maudlin tendency, but there it is).
Silence, both literal and metaphorical is the tool most often and effectively used by Small as he relates his traumatic and disturbing youth. Rendered voiceless for years by a mysterious medical procedure, he understands the power and difficulty of silence. His family doesn’t communicate— typical of their repressive time—and even with a voice, Small is rarely heard. Perhaps it is this lack of voice that gives him the ability to encapsulate a swathe of years in a few lines and the subtle shading of a face. He is definitely a master of facial expressions, if not of vocalization.
There are moments of, if not joy, then understanding from time to time. And there are some truly disturbing events as well. When your father gives you cancer, your mother is a secret lesbian and your grandmother is a homicidal lunatic, what hope do you have of normalcy? . But life is full of both, it just seems that he got a bit more of the latter and at the end of his story I found myself surprised that he didn’t grow up to be a serial killer. David Small (and the rest of us) should be very thankful for the cathartic effect of storytelling. And good therapists.