Friday, January 15
by David Small
This graphic memoir about the illustrator reinforces the stereotype of the suffering artist, but does a fine job doing so.
Small recounts the major periods of his life that center around his having cancer as a child that developed to the point where he had to have glands in his neck and half his vocal chords removed. His father, a radiologist, and his emotionally closed mother created an atmosphere of silence in the house that was oppressive and forced Small and his brother to find other forms of escape. For his brother it was playing drums, for Small it was escapism through art. It isn't until the end when Small has begun to make his own life, after years of therapy, that his world opens up beyond the suffocating world of his family. As a portrait of an alienated childhood, coupled with the horror of misdiagnosis, it's a wrenching story that is also full of poignant moments.
Growing up there were always images and stories of people who suffered for their art. Comedians may be the only other profession I know of where suffering is practically a prerequisite. Sure, artists can suffer through elective poverty as well as adverse childhood circumstances, but other creatives seem only to have misery for their bread.
Graphic memoirs are curious in that they tend to present a more stark world of childhood than most fiction. I can't say this is true across the board for all memoirs though I know people who cannot or will not read fiction because it lacks this verisimiltude. What is interesting is how graphic memoirs fare with younger readers and whether they make the same distinctions or if realistic fiction is as real to them due to lack of experience.
What instantly came to mind with Stitches was Alison Bechdel's Fun Home which came out a few years ago. That book had people singing its praises right and left, and recommending it for mature teen readers (due to content issues), but it didn't work for me as a book for non-adults. I couldn't really articulate why until reading Stitches. Both stories feature closeted gay parents and the confusion of not understanding their parent's behavior until the narrator was older, but despite Small's more menacing treatment by his parents his self-portrait comes across better because he personalizes the narrative. Bechdel, a cartoonist, delivers a narrative that delivers a story but very little emotion; Small, an illustrator, conveys the emotions and deals more directly with the symbolism that comes from literally having no voice. Without understanding the child protagonist and their emotion we are left with a child's view of the adult world intended for adults to siphon meaning. Inexperienced younger readers are otherwise adrift in the experience.
I think we're still in the Wild West days of graphic novels for teens and younger readers. The medium grew up outside the world of children's publishing and has yet (if it ever will be) incorporated into the fold. Added to that, the graphic memoir is a form of creative non-fiction with its own set of rules that also tends to fall outside the purview of what is generally created specifically for children. Non-fiction for non-adults is still somewhat viewed as materials for instruction and not necessarily enjoyed in their own right. Graphic novels tend to have a higher profile because of their accessibility (i.e. they look like comics, which makes them an easier sell to kids) but I think this puts an unfair burden on them.
I also happen to believe that both Stitches and Fun House were latched onto as books suitable for a younger audience simply because their protagonists are children. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones features a teen girls who is raped and murdered and narrating from the beyond, but this book was never marketed for younger audiences; if it had been made into a graphic novel I'm fairly certain it would have been. This is an area that deserves more discussion. We either need to open up what we consider to be acceptable material for children, or we need to stop assuming that graphic novels with children as protagonists are automatically suitable because the are "cartoons."
Norton created a dust-up last fall by submitting Stitches for consideration of the National Book Award for Young Readers. Was it because, as some suggest, because they thought they had a better "in" by not competing with novels in the adult category? Because Americans do not take graphic novels seriously as literature? Because Small is primarily known as an illustrator of children's books? No matter, it was a shrewd move for the attention it received but it further muddied the waters of what is or should be considered a graphic novel for teens.