W.W. Norton: 330 pp., $23.95
Since the first caveman drew images on walls, human beings have had an urge to document their stories in pictures. While that impulse made its way onto paper as comics by the mid-19th century, the emergence of fully rendered graphic stories didn't begin until the 1920s and '30s -- and the medium's artistic side wasn't completely realized until 1978, the year that both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's "Silver Surfer" and Will Eisner's "Contract With God" appeared.
Eisner in particular pushed the boundaries of storytelling with pen and ink, creating in "Contract" and two later works a trilogy that is equal parts comic book, fiction and graphic memoir. Others have followed Eisner in using the blend of comics and graphic forms to tell their life stories -- Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home," for example, and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis." Some of these stories have gone on to become films, which is not surprising considering the connection between the panels of a comic book and the storyboards for a movie.
David Small comes to the graphic memoir from a different route, as a cartoonist and an award-winning illustrator of children's and young adult books. His "Stitches" is a devastating memoir of his childhood in 1950s Detroit. David and his older brother Ted are the sons of a mother who expresses herself with "her little cough 'KHN!' . . . some quiet sobbing, out of sight . . . or the slamming of kitchen cupboard doors." Their pipe-smoking, distant father is a radiologist whose confidence in science spurred him to give David X-ray treatments for sinus problems. David and his brother try to withdraw from this stultifying household: the older boy into playing drums in the basement, David into drawing and a fanciful, imaginary world in which he becomes Alice in Wonderland. This painfully repressed family is presented in a sci-fi style reminiscent of the 1950s and '60s -- the looming adults monstrous, their eyes and questionable intentions obscured behind eyeglasses; the X-ray machines, hospitals and family trips otherworldly in their menace.
When David develops a growth on his neck at 11, it's ignored by his parents while they buy cars and household furnishings and pretend at having glamorous lives. At 14, the growth is finally removed and, in a second surgery, David's thyroid is excised and one vocal cord severed, leaving him with a gash on his neck -- 29 disfiguring stitches from ear to collarbone -- and unable to speak beyond a plaintive "ACK?" The unspoken secret behind David's condition and treatment makes the teenager a furious albeit silent player in his family drama.
How David fights for his freedom and finds his voice, both literally and artistically, makes "Stitches" an engrossing story. But it is Small's talent and empathetic treatment of a child's perspective that elevate "Stitches" to great art. Small's children's books often feature colorfully whimsical caricatures and illustrations; he limits himself in this very adult tale to black and white. Yet through the sophisticated interplay of charcoal shading, harsh lines and dramatic composition, Small powerfully juxtaposes a child's retreat into fantasy -- from a preserved fetus he imagines chasing him in the hospital to the recurring imagery of "Alice in Wonderland" -- with the grim secrets of adult life. "Stitches" moves beyond Eisner, Bechdel and Satrapi to evoke the artistic imagination of films like Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth."
Yet "Stitches" also stands uniquely apart as a not-so-nostalgic midcentury American story -- a triumph of both the spirit and of graphic storytelling.
Woods' crime novels include "Strange Bedfellows," "Inner City Blues" and "Stormy Weather."