November 2009

Martyn Pedler


Inside Out: Graphic Sickness and David Small's Stitches

There's a cute touch on the cover of David Small’s Stitches. Small's credit is held in a word balloon coming from his grandmother’s mouth, surrounded by her own introduction: “by my durn grandson DAVID SMALL durnit...!!” Adorable, right? But this image is a panel lifted from the interior of the graphic novel, and in context, it’s actually a disquieting dream sequence with both an abusive grandmother and a crucified Jesus shouting their approval of a child’s painful punishment. The friendly cover is actually a redubbed nightmare.

Small’s memoir arrives coated in praise. It features glowing quotes by strange bedfellows like Robert Crumb and Stan Lee, and now comes with a National Book Award nomination, too. The fact that it’s in the Young Adult category, however, is puzzling. Is it because Small’s produced children’s books in the past? Or maybe because this is a memoir of his life mostly between the ages of six and fifteen years old? (If a young protagonist is all it takes, then Kubrick’s The Shining is my favorite children’s film. Those twin girls are as cute as a button!) I imagine that what everyone suspects is true happens to be right: it’s considered Young Adult because it’s a comic book. Even the book’s own blurb seems a little embarrassed about its format, claiming that it’s “a silent movie masquerading as a book.” 

Enough about the book's outside. Let's crack its spine. Inside, Stitches is a cancer memoir, of sorts. David takes us from seeing a “growth” in one of his father’s medical books to finding a lump on the side of his neck at age eleven to his botched treatment, years later, and subsequent recovery. When you finally see the stitches from his surgery, about halfway through the book, they look almost cut-and-pasted from a 1970s horror comic. They're vivid black scratches against the soft gloom of the artwork around them. His wounds are intimately linked to his relationship with his dysfunctional parents. He slams this home by including a chapter heading of not just his age, but how long he's been forced to wait for treatment. It feels wrong to call David by the authorial "Small" after reading an intimate story of his childhood, so I hope he doesn't mind. 

I don’t mean "dysfunctional" as it’d be written on the poster for a Christmas comedy. I mean it in a very real sense: his parents do not function as parents should. From the book's very first pages, he presents their home filled with a nervous potential violence. It begins with his account of the various non-verbal vocabularies of his family: his brother’s drums, his father’s punching bag, his mother’s disapproving clucks and mutters. His own childhood voice? “Getting sick, that was my language.” David visits his father, working late in hospital with his fellow radiologists. (David sees them as heroic “soldiers of science” in a propaganda-style splash page.) When he sees a fetus-like “little man” in a medical jar, it wakes up and pursues him through empty, horror movie hospital corridors. David's sickness seems predestined. It always is in these stories. Like a mystery writer starting with the ending and working backwards, David knows exactly what's in store for him, and he highlights the chunks of his childhood that clearly point the way to looming tragedy. 

“No one can love a hospital,” says fourteen-year-old David, but the look on his face says otherwise. Anywhere other than home is like heaven. He escapes through the usual creative-child fantasies like imagining drawings coming to life as playfriends. When he shows his himself climbing down through a blank page, down into a new world underneath the house, it looks like he's crawled down into some kind of stomach. Later, after his surgery, David asks us: “Step inside your mouth with me for a moment, won’t you?” He takes us spelunking to see the damage doctors have done to his throat, to his voice. David also imagines his own parasitic passenger: that same "little man in the jar” living inside the lump on his neck. Stitches wants us to see whatever's lurking, invisibly, inside.

Comic books are no strangers to cancer: Cancer Vixen, Mom's Cancer, back to Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year. Perhaps the best is a story from another David about a different affliction: David B.’s Epileptic. In this autobiography, David B. draws his younger self, who is, in turn, drawing “…fantastic battles in which Genghis Khan’s Mongols are replaced by regiments of ghosts, robots, and devils.” But as his brother, Jean-Christophe, becomes sicker and sicker, this illness infects every aspect of his life. Demons leak from margins of the page and quickly overwhelm everything else. Epileptic was originally serialized in France with a title translating to The Rise of the High Evil, but most will have encountered it in one thick collection. If you read it in one sitting, the sheer volume of black ink feels like it will splatter out if you close the covers too quickly. Late in the story, when David and his wife are trying to conceive, he finds out that there’s something wrong with his sperm. “I draw monsters,” he concludes. “I produce monsters.”

Is there something inherently sick about comic books? Something particular to the medium that lends itself to loving portrayals of infections and growths? Back in 1994, critic Scott Bukatman wrote about superhero bodies and his perpetual embarrassment over buying the X-Men instead of credible alt-indie titles. The essay was called "X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero." The mutant bodies that inspired him are the kind with biceps as thick as thighs and thighs as thick as torsos and necks as thick as -- uh, well, what necks? He says these bodies are "autoreferential": too far from actual human flesh to be comparable to anything other than their own team-mates or arch-enemies. And it’s not just superheroes. Look at the curved spines and bulbous noses and constant sweat of Peter Bagge’s beloved creations. By any conventional biology, these poor misshapen humans can’t have long to live! God knows it’s a medical miracle that enormous-headed Charlie Brown has lasted this long.

David Small's humans remain human-shaped throughout Stitches --– with one exception. The therapist that David sees in his late teen years is depicted as the White Rabbit from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's useful shorthand for his power: his wisdom isn’t from this world, so maybe he knows the way out. The book does skirt close to the Single Magic Moment In Therapy That Changes Everything, but having the advice delivered by an anthropomorphic rabbit helps defuse it. (As does the author's sincerity: Stitches ends with a “special thanks” presumably aimed at this therapist, so you can be sure this moment wasn't just included as a writer's lazy epiphany.) I couldn't help but think that once you've made someone into a rabbit, why not turn your parents into fairytale monsters? Or worse? Sitting alone, dredging up painful memories for art -- if it were me, I'm sure the temptation would've been overwhelming.

Scott Bukatman describes superhero bodies as possessing strange energies that burst free as “bodily traumas, emissions, and flows” -- and that’s true in graphic sickness memoirs too. It's almost too easy to yank out whatever's sitting inside and take a good hard look. Epileptic’s pages become overwhelmed with these visual demons. They're so fragmented that it's sometimes difficult to jigsaw its panels together, and leaves the reader suitably unsettled, lost. Despite the nightmares in Stitches, David Small avoids this kind of experimentation. Instead, he uses a cake-and-eat-it-too approach to his storytelling that accounts for its deep approachability -- and no doubt its literary nominations. There are long cinematic sequences, but they sit side by side with a storybook sensibility that lets imagined moments to stand alone: the black tidal wave of his mother's rage, or the screaming-face-within-screaming face of his own.

The artists of autobiographical comics -- to paraphrase the credits of The Outer Limits -- don't just control the horizontal and the vertical. They control everything: landscape, dialogue, their own faces, the faces of their enemies. It's a shockingly subjective playing field. David Small keeps his parents human, even his mother, and she's a character whose actions almost made me scream at the book in my hands. He does offer up one telling scene that might somewhat explain why she is how she is, but it does not act as a Rosetta Stone to her entire personality. In a postscript, David says that it'd be different if it was her story, but it's not. It's his; god knows he earned it. This is just another moment in a book full of them. It's disjointed, yes, but so's life. 

David has a recurring dream of admittedly obvious symbolism: he sees himself crawling deeper and deeper through tightening corridors until finally emerging "into that temple whose guts had been bombed." It's a dream that he finds just as shocking every single time he dreams it, even if he knows full well what's coming. There are plenty of moments in Stitches that fit that same description. We've all seen the transition between sudden tears and sudden rain a thousand times before, but that doesn't make seeing it here any less effective. The visual simplicity of Stitches is an illusion, of course, but an effective one. It reads so smoothly that you can disappear into it without noticing the artist's sleight of hand. You'll barely even notice you're at a magic show.  

There's another illusion at work, too, and it's why I can happily read these kind of memoirs when they're graphic novels, but remain deeply suspicious of them in, say, cinema. (Just imagine the swelling orchestra and brave Oscar-desperate teen in the lead role.) It's the sense that a book like Stitches -- despite the professional binding and famous writers' blurbs -- could've been hand-made, left to dry, and pressed into your hands. Even the words in David's dotted-outlined balloons are handwritten, rather than typeset, whispers. It helps it feel less like a neat package of angst and inspiration and more like a document of genuine pain. In the end, Stitches passes that test: it hurts. 

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He's in the middle of a Ph.D. on superhero stories and has always suspected he belongs in the Young Adult category, too. You can find him at: