How Cinema Influences the Memoir "Stitches"

David Small, an illustrator of rare talent, has created a visual memoir about his dark upbringing. "Stitches" tells the tale of Small's transformation into a virtual mute following an operation for throat cancer when he was 14. Before his illness, Small had been subjected to repeated x-rays by his radiologist father. His mother, a distant, scolding figure, offered little comfort. The stitches of the title refer to the way his slashed throat had been "laced back up like a bloody boot." We asked Small through an email exchange to discuss the project.

How is drawing a memoir different from writing one?

Well, in fact, "Stitches" is both drawn and written. There had to be both words and pictures because wordless exposition is such a horror, not only to create but to wade through as a reader. The writing was kept to a minimum because I'm an artist, not a writer and, since the book is about being voiceless, it seemed appropriate.

I'm a voracious reader and have always considered writing the superior art form. Still, the power of images to instantaneously sum things up is undeniable. It was an exhilarating experience to be able to combine the two in this way. I've been doing this for years in picture books but never with this kind of opportunity for expansion and, of course, for a very different audience.

I think what is potentially so fantastic about the graphic novel medium is the possibility for both words and pictures to work together, as they can in film.

By the way, people are right to call my book cinematic because the influence of certain filmmakers in my work is very strong. You can see from the videos of "Stitches" that what I basically did was to storyboard a film. The sequences in the videos are exactly as I set them up in the book. Gary McGivney, the producer/director, is extremely talented at getting this sort of thing done perfectly and seamlessly. His camera glides across my panels the way I intended the eye to do. He edited to the music I gave him with such sensitivity and precision, it's better than I ever dreamed it could be. I'm very pleased with the videos because they show me that my instinct for cinema -- untested before this -- is good.

The fact is, however, that "Stitches" is not a film, it's a book. Perhaps it's a kind of fusion of the two, I don't know, but it's definitely hard to define.

My technique was to write out nearly every scene before I drew it. For some reason I needed that framework of language to hang my pictures on. The rough sketches usually incorporated a lot of what I had written, either as text or dialogue. But then, as it turned out -- because so much of what I was clumsily trying to say in words could be shown more purely in my images -- and especially when I realized that my book was basically about speechlessness, I slashed away as many words as I possibly could, without destroying the comprehension of the thing.

The power of "Stitches" lies in how strikingly straightforward you are in portraying your tale.

I tried to be completely candid, but without the complaining quality or, for that matter, the philosophizing that makes so many memoirs unreadable for me. I took my tone from the memoirs I've been moved by, most of which were from the events in Europe during World War II. In these brief, usually harrowing memoirs, there is a remarkable lack of adjectives because the facts stand alone. If you get caught up in, as it were, "customizing" your story (the way they customize, or tart up cars), it detracts from the verisimilitude, which should be the goal of any memoir.

On the other hand, if by straightforward you mean uncomplicated, I tried for that as well. As I said, I come out of picture books, which are very condensed stories. I have always felt that a reader should be able to look through a picture book and get the whole plot without having to read the words.

An example of this kind of condensation in "Stitches" comes on p. 213 where, in a single full-page picture, I sum up my entire post-operation teenage social life. I was 14 when I woke up from a supposedly harmless surgery to find my throat cut from ear to sternum and a vocal cord gone. I couldn't make myself heard in any place with noise in it; not in the school hallways, not on the bus I rode home with classmates, not at a party. Although I had a loyal coterie of friends from before the operation, things by then had changed for me in a huge way.

That entire episode of my life --- about my friends and our activities -- if drawn out panel-by-panel, might have taken up 20 or more pages of my book and diverted readers from the swift arc I was trying to create. Instead, I made a decision to sum it up in a single picture. In the foreground, very large, is my teenage boy's fantasy, i.e. a handsome guy about to get lucky with a lovely young lady. In the background is the whole crowded, thumping, noisy party scene, which, because I had no voice, I could no longer enjoy. And there, wedged between the two in the middle ground, is me, the Invisible Man, slumped in a chair, feeling very sorry for my whispery, dissolving self.

It made me laugh out loud when I got this right, and so economically. I think it's also a pleasure for the reader to have things occasionally gathered up in one powerful image. It's as if the artist is in a direct conversation with them and saying: "Well, as for this part of my life, in case you were wondering: here! Now, moving on ..." There's a humor in that technique, which mitigates the pathos of the situation.

The images certainly are evocative and wrenching but allegory is really kept to a minimum, except in a few cases such as the white rabbit psychoanalyst and the bat dream.

Several of my dreams are in the book, all of them allegories of my life. If you learn to read their language you begin to see that dreams tell us about our harshest realities, but soften them with fanciful symbols and clever similes. They entice us to reconsider things we might not otherwise want to think about. Because we can't bring ourselves to confront these matters directly -- because they might be too painful-- the mind does it by other means. In any case, these are things we must somehow deal with, or else --- in extreme cases, like mine --- we can become sick.

In that particular dream of mine, a little bat, caught in a storm, mistakes a closed umbrella for its mother. (The umbrella is black and its folds resemble bat wings.) When he opens the umbrella up, it turns out that, not only is it not a bat, nor his mother, but it's not even a good umbrella because, being so ragged and full of holes, the rain pours through. In other words, this "mother object" can neither perform the functions of a mother or even an umbrella, both of which are supposed to shelter and protect.

The bat dream told me exactly what I needed to know but couldn't bring myself to face: that my mother, because of who and what she was (a torn, broken person, really), was incapable of loving her own children. Furthermore, she really was as cold and unemotional as a machine.

You know, after I dreamed that -- or, I should say, after I figured out what the dream meant -- I actually felt more compassion for my mother. I understood that she really couldn't help being the way she was. She was damaged goods, as is said, and probably was right from the beginning.

I included so many of my dreams in "Stitches" because, to me, they are a continuum of my life. (I always write them down in a little book I keep on my bedside.) The great filmmaker Luis Buñuel seems to have shared this view, and his work helped me to understand how to show this cinematically.

For example, in "Belle de Jour," the only way we know that Sevérine is dreaming is by the faint sound of harness bells on the soundtrack. Cued by that sound, we are transported into her subconscious, with its disturbing fantasies and painful truths. Once or twice, when a dream occurs in "Stitches," I say it is a dream, otherwise -- hoping that I had educated my readers enough by then -- I used only subtle technical indications --- something on the order of Buñuel's bells, but visual -- to show that these episodes are slightly different from normal life. I might dissolve a panel's borders, or change the drawing style a little, but nothing that screams out, "Hey! This is a dream!"

As for the White Rabbit, I transformed my shrink into him for two reasons. The first was practical: I couldn't think of anything more boring to depict visually than psychoanalysis, i.e. two static people -- one in a chair, one on a couch -- talking in a room! The second was allegorical: the White Rabbit is Alice's usher into the world of the subconscious. This makes him an apt metaphor for the role of an analyst as well as an extension of all the other references in my book to Alice.

Let's hear a little more about the power of images. What can you convey in images that you cannot show in words -- for example, in the tears and rain you spread across the page after you learn your mother doesn't love you?

The rain sequence is cinematic. It does its job much better than words could have done. The landscape is used as a metaphor for a state of mind. This can be done in language, of course, but it wouldn't hit with the same visceral impact. Pictures get straight inside us, bypassing all the guard towers. You often see people in movie theatres with tears streaming down their cheeks as they watch the screen. This doesn't happen often in libraries, in my experience. Film -- and perhaps images in a piece of graphic literature -- can bring us straight to our inner selves in shocking, even embarrassing ways.

I keep coming back around to film. I study films as an art form. I do not follow comics and I'm not very knowledgeable, either, about graphic novels. Except for a very small handful of the ones I've seen, in so many graphic novels, either there are dazzling images but no story worth the telling, or the story is good but the art is incompetent. (That is the art snob in me talking, the child who loved Pogo but couldn't stand Nancy and Sluggo, his opinion based almost purely on the differences in their drawing.) That said, it's very rare to find both words and pictures used well together in any medium -- film or graphic novel -- just as, in literature, it's extremely rare to find a wonderful story matched with an exquisite use of the language.

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 9, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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