David Small is a beloved illustrator of children's books and political cartoons. He will visit Williamsport for the Wildcat Comic Con that is being hosted by Penn College April 13 and 14. The Wildcat Comic Con is being organized by John Shableski, who has worked tirelessly to provide exciting programming at the nexus of the academic and fan markets.
There will be two days of discussion and celebration of comics and graphic novels as a medium, as a tool for teaching and as a pursuit.
Small will appear from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday night as a special guest. The Sun-Gazette talked with him about his recent graphic memoir, "Stitches," and about his role at the Con.
David Small is a beloved illustrator of children’s books and political cartoons. He will visit Williamsport for the Wildcat Comic Con that is being hosted by Penn College April 13 and 14. Above, a cover of Small’s graphic novel, “Stitches” is shown.
"Stitches" is a graphic memoir in which Small tells the haunting story of his childhood, beginning with early memories of being sickly and repeatedly X-rayed by his father, a radiologist; mistreated by his mother and grandmother; and, at age 14, being operated on under unknown circumstances.
Small finds out by accident that his surgery was to treat cancer and, bewildered, angry, depressed and silenced, winds up in boarding school, then in therapy. While there is little resolution for Small's relationships, near the end of the memoir, his father acknowledges that the cancer was caused by the excessive X-rays.
APRIL LINE: Do you know, or does your father know, why he decided to confess to giving you cancer?
DAVID SMALL: I can only speculate about my father's motives. A couple of years before he died, at 84, I tried to discuss it with him but tears sprang to his eyes and it made him angry because, I think, it humiliated him. He was a very prideful character. He'd said it once - fifty years ago - but he wouldn't speak about it again.
AL: The sense that the family is far, far wealthier than your very frugal mother expresses is clear early on. What is behind the mother's cheapness?
DS: My mother grew up in poverty during the Great Depression. Her mother scrubbed floors. Many of those people never outgrew their fear of landing in the poor house. They never could have enough money to wipe out that dread of poverty swooping back down on them.
AL: If the frugality is genuine, where does your father's salary go?
DS: Radiologists make far less than their colleagues - my mother might have researched doctor's comparative salaries before settling on a radiologist! He had his small boat and his little sports cars. I think he was content with this, but in my mother's eyes - the eyes of someone for whom nothing was ever good enough - he was a failure as a provider.
When she died, I recall, there was some talk about her having kept a separate bank account - I paid little attention; such things were out of my purview. Who knows? Maybe she was socking it away all those years.
AL: Since the father is a doctor, why-how does the family have to pay the going rate for medical care for the author?
DS: They didn't. My father had Blue Cross. My mother was lying to me. What's not shown in the book were her explosions about the cost of my analysis, how it was draining their coffers, putting them on the brink of penury. In fact, Blue Cross covered my psychoanalysis. My analyst told me so.
My thought is she was truly in a panic, but not over money. She was seeking any excuse to get me out of analysis, the thing that was, for her, a real Pandora's Box. She could not control my doctor, nor me, nor what came out of my mouth, once I was out from under her influence.
AL: I love that the psychologist is drawn as The White Rabbit. Talk about that decision. As a reader, I waffled between being creeped out and being comforted. The sense is that the author was comforted.
DS: Creepy and comforting, indeed! He's like an animal familiar spirit. I was conflicted about the idea of putting the psychoanalysis section into the book at all. For one thing, analysis is all about talking heads, not very visually interesting. Also, it would introduce a lot of dialogue into a book that had been, up to that point, essentially wordless.
But, to leave it out would have put forth the idea that my recovery was all my own doing.
AL: I am also shocked and happy that the psychologist says, so early in the author's treatment, that his mother does not love him. It is a startling observation and it's a narrative gamble to just hand that to the reader.
DS: A gamble, yes. It's a sacred cow, isn't it. You can't question a mother's love. Even I reacted with shock when I heard those words then - in the very next moment - the truth of it rained down on me, as it were. My analyst took a huge risk as well, doing that. Much later, when I asked him about it, he told me, "In general, I would have waited much longer, but you were so pathetic, so sad, so starved, I had to tell you immediately. Besides, you were very sensitive and perceptive; if I had not told you the truth, you would have known and might not have come back for help." He was a great doctor for me. I've kept in touch with him. He loved my book.
AL: Do you have plans for more books like "Stitches?"
DS: Plans, yes. At the moment, I'm making stabs at another memoir, but I can't yet talk about it with much clarity.
AL: How did the presentation gig at Wildcat Comic Con in Williamsport come about?
DS: John Shableski asked me and I immediately said yes. John is a force. John is the type of guy whom you would jump out of a plane for.
AL: What do you intend to talk about?
DS: I'm going to talk about what compelled me to make "Stitches." After that, I'm prepared to talk about anything the audience wants me to discuss.
AL: Is "Stitches" your first graphic novel? Have you drawn for other comic books?
DS: "Stitches" was my first and, to date, my only venture into comics. After it, I incorporated comic speech balloons into a kid's picture book, "One Cool Friend" by Toni Buzzeo, which is currently on the New York Times Bestsellers List, the hard-to-locate-on-the-web one, for children's books.
AL: In the acknowledgements, you mention that writing the book was "an ordeal." Is that as dramatic as it sounds?
DS: The old adage about being caught between a rock and a hard place is applicable here. Not to have done that book would have eventually killed me for sure. Doing it was the most difficult thing I've ever done, but also, in the end, the most satisfying.