I had heard a lot about Stitches, a graphic novel memoir by David Small, and what I heard usually featured words like “harrowing” and “uncomfortable”. Normally I am reluctant to grab the critical darlings of the comics world because they’re often some fairly banal words with very good art accompanying them. So I didn’t run out and grab Stitches, but let it languish on my Wish List until a gift-giving occasion got it into my hands.
I’m happy(?) to say that this one does not disappoint. Small’s story, while hitting a lot of familiar beats for anyone who reads autobiographical comics these days, weaves these threads together delicately yet also forcefully. When the blows come, the fact that you may see them coming makes them more effective, not less. (It’s like the movie Sling Blade, which, from frame one, only has one way it can end, but you can’t look away.)
Even if the specific issues Small handles aren’t something I can relate to, the business orbiting around them are certainly familiar to me. I don’t particularly need these family issues brought up for me, as they still resonate pretty loudly in my head, but it’s a reminder that not only can they (and worse) be overcome, but more importantly, they’re a lot more common than you think. A criticism of autobio comics I’ve heard is, “Yeah, yeah, you had a shitty childhood, so did everyone.” but I think that “Everyone had a shitty childhood” isn’t an unimportant statement to make. We’re all coping with some junk of this type.
And of course, the story Small tells here goes well beyond “shitty childhood”. This is a story of a person who, every step along the way, is abandoned and betrayed by the only people he has around. And for me, its message of, “Sometimes the best thing to do is get away” is a welcome antidote to a constant barrage of “Family is so important.”
Small’s artwork also does a great job of bringing the work together. I’m not familiar with his other work, but here the style is ghostly and fragile, every panel threatening to shatter at any moment. It’s not quite dreamlike, though fantasy and reality mix, it’s more like being in a house that had every potential to make you believe in haunted houses.
It’s really good, and it is harrowing and uncomfortable, but in the end, it’s a story of triumph.