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Silenced Voice, Searing Pen

By Michael Sims
Sunday, October 11, 2009

STITCHES

A Memoir

By David Small

Norton. 329 pp. $24.95

The boy sits on the floor, on a sheet of drawing paper almost as large as he is. Crayons lie scattered nearby. He leans forward, resting the top of his head on the paper. Then he begins to literally sink through the floor, to disappear into the paper. A last kick of his legs reveals that he wasn't sinking so much as joyously diving head-first into the world he created, leaving behind the world he was born into. Now that I have read David Small's brilliant and heartbreaking graphic novel "Stitches," I look back on this magical paper frontispiece as one of the more moving self-portraits I have ever seen.

How will Small's relatives respond to his shockingly candid memoir of one family's legacy of anger and repression and sadism? "Seeing truly and giving the human news frankly are both discourtesies," wrote John Updike, "at least to those in the immediate vicinity." Small's parents, the villains of this tragedy, are both dead, but often surviving family members use death as an opportunity to whitewash history. That won't be possible in this family with the publication of "Stitches."

Back in 2000, the British illustrator Raymond Briggs, famed for his wordless children's book "The Snowman," published a superb graphic novel about his parents, situating them as a typical English working-class couple during the half-century between the Depression and the 1970s. Now another children's-book illustrator has turned to the form for a memoir of his childhood. Small has illustrated many books to acclaim, including Russell Hoban's charming "The Mouse and His Child," and is both author and illustrator of "Imogene's Antlers" and other books.

Like Briggs, Small portrays in his memoir an era and a way of life as well as a family. But his story is more tragic, a drama of constant abuse -- emotional, verbal and often physical. His mother, who might have made a great concentration camp guard, reinvests her own legacy of sadism and repression in the next generation, tormenting David at every turn. His father, a smug, pipe-smoking radiologist, tries to treat David's many childhood illnesses with x-rays -- and instead seems to have given him throat cancer. The botched surgery for this disease results in the stitches of the title and leaves young David with one vocal cord. As he remarks, "When you have no voice, you don't exist," especially around parents who communicate largely through vicious mockery.

Although the dialogue and narration are well written and moving, Small often shows us the story without a word of speech or commentary -- not just for a few panels but for several pages at a time. He employs angled shots and silent montages worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. Revelations trigger haunting flashbacks in which we see an earlier scene from a new point of view. Small's drawing is masterful and evocative, from the wet-on-wet blurs of Detroit's hellish, smoky skyline, which launches the cinematic opening montage, to the carefully drawn tubes in his mother's nose as she lies dying in the hospital toward the end of the book. At each stage, Small tells us his age rather than the calendar dates, but there are plenty of historical clues, including the American publication of "Lolita," which was in 1958; his mother's purchase of what is clearly a 1959 Thunderbird; his mod clothes as a young man and the VW Bug he soon drives.

Fanciful touches add a welcome leaven of whimsy. David's therapist, the only other truthteller in this story, appears as a human-size rabbit, Carrollian down to his waistcoat and watch fob. In one scene, young David lies on the floor drawing, after being slapped around and sent to bed hungry, and a comical animal figure climbs up out of the paper and cavorts around the room. Soon we see the frontispiece scene in context, along with its sequel, David's tumble down an esophageal-looking tunnel to an underground hideaway far below his prison-like home, where his animal characters greet him with cheers.

Such moments remind us of the emotional power and immediacy of drawing. "As cartoonists and their longtime admirers are getting tired of explaining," says critic Douglas Wolk, "comics are not a genre; they're a medium." The medium has turned into a wonderfully flexible art form that has proven its worth in every genre. All sorts of stories get adapted into graphic novel form; P. Craig Russell's recent version of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" is a fine example. Like filmmakers, however, graphic artists seem to do their best work when they are both writing and directing. Just think of Daniel Clowes's "Ghost World" or Megan Kelso's "Squirrel Mother" stories or Art Spiegelman's "Maus." Now, to the list of powerful works of art in this versatile medium, we can add the horrific but ultimately redemptive "Stitches."

Michael Sims's recent books include the companion volume to the National Geographic Channel series "In the Womb: Animals." He is currently writing a book about E. B. White.

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