Review: “Stitches” by David Small

I am not sure about you, but I've always been of the opinion that it is probably a lot more interesting to write a memoir than read one. That's not to say they are not interesting, but I have always been kind of leery about memoirs, most likely because I worry that in the time I am reading about how interesting someone else's life is, I am missing the opportunity to do something interesting with my own. But these feelings probably have less to do with critical thinking than my own white-knuckled fear of mortality.  (That, and the fact that my uncle (Tobias Wolff) has written a truly fantastic memoir that was actually made into a movie with DeNiro and a very young Dicaprio, building what can only be a nagging inferiority complex — let's be honest here.)


In one of the several magazines on the coffee table (we get a lot of magazines, when people come over, I often fear that they think they are actually in a waiting room, waiting for a checkup, not a living room, waiting for a margarita), there was some discussion of the "best of the best" graphic novels. It was in Esquire or something–some magazine that none of us would really consider to be a source of solid comic book reportage–and I went down the list with a skeptical eye, agreeing with some of the pics, but finding myself a bit worried that there were quite a few books that I didn't recognize at all, including Stitches by David Small. Not only did the magazine think it was one of the best graphic novels–ever–but it was also in the running for the 2009 National Book Award. Sure, it was a memoir, but, heck, it was my duty as a staff member at iFanboy to investigate!


A best-in-class graphic novel that was also a national book award that I had never heard of?  Within seconds I was ordering it from Amazon (using the iFanboy link, natch) and, after reading it this weekend, I wanted to discuss the book with you.


The cover for Stitches does not look like a graphic novel, or, really, even a prose book. It looks like a kid's book, with this ungainly kid sprawled out against a door, making me think that this was more about a grumpy kid trying to keep "Stitches," the monster in his closet, from coming to school with him. However, the opening pages of the first chapter ("I was four…") set the tone for something far less whimsical, with bleak and freezing shots of Detroit in the 40's.  I actually started the book a few times before I went to bed, but the dreary gray ink washes of the first few pages just felt too heavy, too "National Book Award"-y, and I exchanged the book for yet another issue from that Bruce Wayne's Coming Home And You're Gonna Pay For It series.  


Then I started to read the book.  


That one sentence really is a paragraph, because this book is just…well, let's just get it out: it's hauntingly good. Small has been drawing all his life, and I guess he's made quite a name for himself writing and drawing children's books, and his characterizations and storytelling reflect that, with wonderful, free from pages that defy layout–he uses the page to reflect moments in way that comic book folks may be uncomfortable with, even mildly distrustful. This is, truly, a novel that uses graphics to tell the story of David's youth.  


Much of the story takes place before David turns ten. While I am not going to discuss specifics, it spoils nothing to explain that he was often sick as a child, and his father, a doctor, was his primary caregiver, with lots of examinations and x-rays being used to figure out what was going on.  His father, a steadfastly distant figure in reflective glasses who always seemed to be smoking cigarettes or a pipe, is a constant background presence for most of the book, while David's mother was responsible for most of the day-to-day child rearing.  And it's not "parenting" that we are privy to in these pages. It's child-rearing, it's heartbreakingly strict and..unfeeling? No…that's not right. There is feeling there but…I don't know how to describe it–I'd much rather you read it and experience it. There is love there, but love is not, shall we say, immediately obvious.  From the beginning of the story, the scenes with David's mother just make you tense; you just wish she wasn't around, you know?  It's just easier when she's doing her own thing.  But that's too dismissive.  David's mother, as he relates in the author's notes at the end of the book, is one of the most complex and memorable characters I have read about in years.


This is not a happy story, but it's not one of those books where the pain described within its pages is almost exploitative. This is the story of a family at a certain time, with certain beliefs, with attitudes that seems shocking to us now, but are understandable and certainly not unheard of. It's just a different time, and the relationships between parent and child, between father and son…were more rigid. The love for the child was tempered by something else, something less to do with heart and more to do with order.  

Small's background in children's books is evident not only in how he uses the pages, but with his ability to completely let go, creatively–I haven't seen many books that celebrate a child's imagination as well as Stitches does.  When young David escapes into his drawings, we literally get a page of his six year old self diving into the paper, crawling down to a cave where all his characters live.  Awkward to describe, devastatingly beautiful to see.  Small's treatment of adults as these towering, distant figures, talking at him instead of to him, is incredible.  As you go through these pages, sometimes the images on some pages are sharper than those on others, not unlike memory itself. You really get the feeling that you are living these memories, watching them unfold in your imagination.  The construction of the story lends itself to this as well, with age being the only chapter break–"I was six"; "I was elevent".  Is that not how we tells stories of our youth?  Less about the subject of the story initially, you know?  Much more about "this is how old I was, so imagine the events with that lens".  As the years past, as the memories get sharper, the chapters get more specific: "Three and a half years after the diagnosis" and " August 27th, 3pm".  This is memoir, a reflection on (and reaction to?) memories–the book's narrative construction reflect the form.


The drawings in the story–I find myself thinking about the art as "drawings" for some reason, this really feels like a story told through the pages of a sketchbook–are just beautiful.  The faces, in particular, are, as I said above, haunting. The mother…when she's angry, the way Small draws here furious face, from the kid's point of view…well, let's just say you remember what it was like when mom was having a bad day.  Indeed, this book really reminded me of just how closely kids are watching adults, just how much of an impact the words and actions the adults really have on a child.  The whole notion of "he's just a kid" really takes on new meaning after this reading this story.  This book really made me realize just how many memories I have from those early years, and just how fundamental even the smallest things were to me back then.  The way my parents acted to each other, the ways they would teach me about thing, what they would talk about when they thought I was not listening…I remember.  "Just a kid" should not be a dismissive phrase ("he'll get over it, he's just a kid") but one of caution, as if to say, "this is important, be careful here."


Stitches is not a particularly long story; 329 pages sounds like a lot but the book is physically smaller than other books (8.7 x 6.9 inches).  It's a wonderfully produced book, with a great binding and heavy paper stock.  The art, done in ink and ink washes, really soaks into the page…again, you feel like you are flipping through a sketch book, there's just that real intimate feeling to it, you feel like you are discovering the pages, as opposed to reading a book…it's hard to explain, but suffice to say, the book feels right for the story. Memoirs can be terrifically difficult to end, but the last page of this book comes at the right time, and it's the kind of book that you put down and just end up staring off into space for awhile after. There are a fair amount of scenes involving surgery and recovery in this book (hence the title), and as one who has gone through a bit of oral surgery, I can tell you that David nails the sense of powerlessness and confusion that one feels before, after and during such procedures.  It's rough, but it's not overdone.  And while I was admittedly a bit suspicious of it being a National Book Award nominee (I mean, I just had the feeling that it was being included to show people, "Hey, we're hip, we've got comics in this joint too!"), I can see why it was picked. This story would not be nearly as effective as a prose book. I don't think you could actually tell it using prose–it just wouldn't have the same emotional impact, it wouldn't even have the same narrative impact: it's important that we know that this kid who escaped his day to day life through drawings ended up being a professional artist who then used the very same skills to tell his story.  The drawings of his parent scolding him about his posture? That was how it happened, that's how it felt to live those moments. Words, photos, video–they wouldn't do that experience justice.  


I began this article intending to draw direct parallels to Jeff Lemire's Essex County, but I will discuss that work at a later date.  Suffice to say, I think using the graphic novel format is a distinctly modern and resoundingly appropriate way to craft a memoir. As we have talked about in the past, there is something unique when the writer of the story is also responsible for drawing it. (While Essex County is not necessarily a memoir, it does tell stories in a community that he is very familiar with; so it's more the personal relationship with the material the connects Lemire's epic work with Stitches.)  This is a masterful work, and I hope that it being a National Book Award nominee meant that people that would normally never read a modern graphic novel were exposed to the medium. For you, the regular comic book reader, if you have been longing for a story that didn't have to do with a Brightest Day or Heroic Age, something a tad more reflective to read as the days grow shorter and the nights more still…this is your book.



Mike Romo is an actor and writer in Los Angeles. He's really glad he didn't grow up in the 1940s. You can reach him via email, following on twitter or, uhm, ping him on ping, that thing he keeps forgetting to deal with on iTunes.



  1. Excellent review Mike, I’m excited to read this.

  2. This sounds very interesting.  I think I’ll add it to my wishlist (my incredibly long wishlist).

  3. Thanks for reading, guys! It’s probably at your local library, too…

  4. Another example of why ifanboy is the best comic website; great content every day.

  5. Wow. Incredible review. I HAVE to get it.

  6. I read this book last year and I absolutely adored it.  I felt SO bad for the story’s protagonist that I wanted to just scoop him up and give him a giant bear hug and protect him from the world.


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