Graphic autobiographies – those written and illustrated as comics – tend to be deeply personal affairs. Illustrator David Small gets extremely personal in Stitches: A Memoir, which shares the story of his childhood with the world. Small is now an illustrator of children’s books (check out When Dinosaurs Came With Everything, to pick a personal favourite) so a graphic narrative seems like a perfectly fitting medium for his story.
Brought up by misguided, frustrated and unenthusiastic parents, David’s childhood was devoid of love. His radiologist father attempted to treat David’s childhood asthma with x-rays and, when he wasn’t hiding behind a lead screen or pummelling a punch-bag, was barely present. His mother, a carbon copy of her own mother, was secretive, uncommunicative, puritanical and deeply repressed.
When David develops a growth on his neck he’s shipped off to hospital to have the cyst removed. Only it turns out to be cancer, caused by David’s repeated exposure to his father’s x-rays. By the time David leaves hospital he’s had half his throat removed, including enough of his vocal chords to render him virtually speechless. The impact this – and a horrific scar that runs from jaw to shoulder – has on the boy is profound. By the age of 16 and the end of the book, his family has abandoned all hope of controlling him and he’s effectively left them behind.
Interestingly, it’s not as horrific a story as it sounds. From David’s perspective, he clearly had a childhood from hell. Yet there’s something uplifting about the book. Perhaps it’s because we have the knowledge of what David became – a gifted illustrator and storyteller. Perhaps it’s the psychologist David is referred to, pictured in the book as the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who swiftly tears David’s past apart as a bad job and helps the boy rebuild himself. Undoubtedly it also has something to do with the final scenes of the book, which show how David has grown far beyond his family despite everything.
It’s a darkly beautiful and finely crafted book. Small uses his artist’s flair to transition one scene into the next, the pacing is fast and the illustration offers a humbling child’s perspective view of a gruesome, mixed-up world. The stretched out pacing, relying heavily on illustration rather than words, makes this a surprisingly short read for the page count. But it’s worth dwelling on and absorbing David’s pictures, which speak volumes in their own right.
That a story so dark and sad should end on a relatively up beat note is a credit to David’s life and art. This isn’t the easiest of reads, made worse by its grounding in reality. But it’s also a great advert for the power of the human spirit to overcome diversity, especially once you lose the deadweight and start getting support from the people around you.