Iíll be forthright: Stitches may be one of the best pieces of graphic literature you ever read.
It tells the story of young David Small in the 1950s, a child to an unhappy middle-class family in grey, mechanized Detroit. His father, an aloof radiologist, is about as personable as the X-ray machine in the basement. His mother is downright emotionally abusive. Friendless and a stranger in his own home, young David immerses himself in drawing as a means for escape. The plot veers away from the typical when, during a surgery to remove a growth on his neck, his vocal chords are severed, leaving him mute, made all the worse by the vicious irony that the growth was a cancerous tumor brought on by his fatherís radiation treatments for childhood asthma. Forced into silence by a mutilated throat instead of just fear of his family, teenage David is given a no-holds barred introduction to lifeís cruel ironies and unforgiving jokes.
Stitches transcends its more or less straightforward plot in a number of ways. The most obvious is its complex drawing style. Small makes heavy use of shading and simple pen work to create deep textures and harsh spotlights. His most impressive illustrations combine realist and abstract representations with grotesque surrealismĖĖyoung David crawling down his own throat, scenes of barbarism parodying religious ritual, a rainy street twisted into geometric forms and shadows. Faces are richly detailed. One could say, on the basis of facial composition alone, that Stitches is an ambitious study in the various expressions of longing and contempt. Small exposes a whole range of human ugliness in his illustrations, alienating his humanely drawn protagonist all the more.
The landscape of Stitches resembles a classically Kafkaesque nightmare. Present throughout are signs of a childís hand, expressed through the typography and whimsical doodles, that underscore the complete loss of innocence that makes up a major theme of the memoir. We see the world as young David saw it, and itís not easy to look.
Stitches is a study in cruelty and lapses in communication which completely isolate each of Smallís characters. These failings are felt as irreparable sins because they destroy any opportunity for future human connection. Even when his family genuinely attempts to reach out to him, they are stymied by their own crippling realization that they know nothing about their own son. While there is a fair share of dialogue in the book, the main form of family discourse is leering. After only a few pages, itís easy to see why Small sounds so bitter; one gets the impression heís had to spend his whole life shedding the calcified, isolated hatred of his childhood.
Itís a remarkable feat for a work of images to convey a sense of sound so masterfully. In the first half of the memoir, when Small still has his voice, he rarely uses it. His father is uncommunicative. His brother speaks in brief barbs. All this silence is contrasted by the frustrated noises his mother makes
- slamming doors, slapping pans on the stove - as she suffers through her own
routine. Stitches manages to sound like awkward, grating silence punctuated by bursts of hideous noise. When Davidís mentally unstable grandmother punishes him by scalding his hands in a sink, we hear his flesh burning. If nothing else, the ťlan with which Small elaborates on the theme of enforced silence makes this something of a masterpiece.
Most importantly, none of this is gussied up or editorialized: Stitches hits you where it hurts. Itís beautiful and terrible and refuses to loosen its grip. It is this visceral emotional grip the book has on the reader which leaves the deepest impression. This may not be the most original story, but it is perfectly told. The restrained-but-imaginative surreal art, the fine attention to detail, and the sounds related by images make this one of the best literary
- and certainly best graphic - accounts of the traumatic everyday.
But enough talk. Stitches emphasizes the importance of communication outside of speech. Go to Smallís website and see his artwork for yourself. Let this sample do its bit of black magic, then go and buy this book so it may never let you go.