Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Scars From Stitches: A Review

As you may have figured out by now, I'm a mainstream comics type of guy. I like superheroes, zombies, explosions, and snark. I had no intention of seeking out "cancer comics" or other serious-minded sequential memoirs when I started this blog. But my buddy Jay gave me an advance reader copy of a new book that sounded too perfect for me to refuse. Stitches, by David Small and published by W.W. Norton and Company, is an autobiographical account of Small's childhood experience with thyroid cancer and a dysfunctional family, and his retreat into a fantasy world to escape the trauma and drama of both.

Small's style is minimalist, but he choose his shots well and the expressions and body language of his characters tell as much of the story as his narration.

It is a book filled with beautiful drawings of occasionally ugly people living what seems to be a terrible, lonely life. There's plenty of heart and some humor in the tale, but it's primarily about the rough time he had finding himself despite the grief and guilt he got from his mother and the neglect he got from his father. His parents are portrayed as cold, unhappy, and often insane people. His grandmother, even more so. And his childhood comes off as terrifying and isolated. I hate to give such a critique of a memoir, because it might offend the artist. It's his family and life that I'm commenting on, after all. But I can't imagine Small was trying to convey anything else. And in his parents' defense, he does include a sort of apologist afterward that puts his childhood perspective into context through the filter of his adult mindset.

But it is exactly that childhood perspective that I love about Stitches. Small does an amazing job of showing the world through his 6-year-old eyes, and later, his 11-year-old eyes, until finally, he's a teen and then an adult. But the majority of the book and the heart of the story is with him in those early years.

The childhood that Small portrays in the book took place in the 1950s, but the book has a timeless appeal. With the exception of one important plot point regarding Small's father's profession and the nature of how David gets his cancer, there's nothing about this story that I couldn't relate to on a personal level. And even the period aspects of the plot have a resonance and speak to a certain kind of inevitable obliviousness that parents risk when it comes to applying "modern thinking" and popular mechanics to their children, who will have to live with the consequences whether the parents are right or wrong--and long after they're gone.

The cancer stuff (that seems crass, but that's how I see it), is really easy for me to relate to. A few pages could easily be about me during these past few weeks. But the story isn't so much about David Small dealing with his cancer, as it is about him dealing with his family while having cancer...and dealing with how they deal with his cancer.

Despite its 320+ pages, the book is a fast read. In fact, I read it in one sitting in just over an hour...which would be frustrating if I had paid the $23.95 cover price, rather than having gotten the book for free. Other than that, the only negative comment I have about the book is that there were still a few typos in it, which I am pretty sure will be addressed in the final printing.

There's no question that this is the kind of graphic novel that can win awards and make non-comic critics' favorites lists. I suspect it will.

1 comment:

Jayf said...

Great review. And I'm glad you got something out of it. I've yet to finish the book, but I also found his style really neat in portraying emotion. I'm glad you got something out of reading it.