David Small has made his name illustrating children’s picture books.* You know that; I didn’t, until Melissa told me about Small and passed me Stitches, Small’s first graphic novel, a medium about which I do know something. In the graphic novel market, I am not this book’s target audience, in that I find most graphic memoirs self-absorbed and overdetermined. I like Harvey Pekar in small doses, admire Mary Fleener from a distance, and consider the canonical cornerstone Maus excellent but overrated. Persepolis is the only recent graphic memoir to pull me in, in part because Marjane Satrapi had a truly big story to tell.
The story of David Small’s childhood and adolescence isn’t big, but it’s mightily weird, and he has both a sharp narrative angle and technique to burn. His story encompasses a cold mother with a tragic secret, a doctor father who personifies the blithe arrogance of the 1950s professional class, and deranged grandparents out of Sherwood Anderson by way of Cormac McCarthy. Small the character travels from confusion through rage and finally withdrawal, while Small the author never lets his (apparently) well-adjusted present divert the reader’s attention from his deeply troubled past. The narrative emerges from young Small’s hermetic point of view, but not because mature Small shares too many graphic memoirists’ narcissism. Instead, he demonstrates that self-absorption is both the affliction and the compass of youth, like a hormonal peyote trip from which we all get to learn and need to advance.
I don’t know Small’s work as an illustrator, but I assume he primarily does single images, which makes his flair for sequential storytelling especially impressive. Although he doesn’t come close to Will Eisner’s talent as a cartoonist, he has obviously studied Eisner’s narrative techniques, and few artists in contemporary comics have his facility for combining deliberately mundane sequences with arresting, even startling effects. Stitches accomplishes the rare feat of vividly depicting an ugly world to whose rich emotional landscape readers will want to return.
*from Melissa: my favorites are WHEN EVERYTHING CAME WITH DINOSAURS; THE LIBRARY; and IMOGENE'S ANTLERS, which Small also wrote.However, picking which David Small art is the best is like picking which chocolate cupcake is best. They're all good. I loved and was incredibly moved and horrified by STITCHES, but as it's not a kids' book and Greg is the graphic novel afficionado in the family, I decided to have him review it instead. Oh, and psst - Mr. Small - St. Louis is so close to some of your other tour stops...
Preorder STITCHES from an independent bookstore!
(Note from Melissa: this review is the first of what will be occasional reviews of graphic novels from my husband Greg, a lifelong comics nut who still picks up his books every Wednesday.)
In the past year, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline has become a cross-media extravaganza. By now, most readers of this site should be very familiar with the original novel that crept onto shelves seven years ago, especially in the wake of Gaiman’s Newbery Award last year for The Graveyard Book. In case anyone needs a refresher, Coraline tells the story of a teenaged girl who moves with her parents into a flat in a country house populated by vaguely disturbing oddballs. Craving more attention from her parents, Coraline delights in finding a secret passage that leads her into a seemingly better version of her own life. But things (as you had to figure) are not what they seem, and Coraline soon must confront a threat that tests her mettle and changes her sense of the world.
Probably you know about the recent animated film of the story, crafted by Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick in the same, painstaking stop motion technique that brought that earlier classic to vivid, eerie life. Selick outdoes himself on Coraline: the narrative pulls the viewer along breathlessly, and the film perfectly captures Gaiman’s characteristic blend of whimsy, wonder, and horror. Respectful of the material without falling into slavish reverence, Selick adds a young male character whom he incorporates perfectly into the plot. (Maybe Selick had to add the boy to assuage somebody’s fear about pulling in a male audience, but feminism wins out; Coraline has to save him.) Selick’s visual imagination matches anything you’ve seen in an animated feature, especially in the film’s 3D version. Early reports on the DVD/Blu-ray release have panned the attempt to translate the 3D effects for the small screen, but the regular version will do you just fine. At a time when Pixar has brought animated features to new heights, Coraline the film stands up to, well, Up, or anything else.
Probably you don’t know about Coraline the graphic novel, and if so you’re missing something great. P. Craig Russell adapted the book, as he recently adapted one of Gaiman’s Sandman stories, The Dream Hunters. Russell has adapted everything from Wagner to Wilde in his thirty-plus year career; he’s like the Kenneth Branagh of comics, but more diverse in his tastes and more consistent in his results. Russell’s Coraline has smoother fantasy sheen than Selick’s spiky Gorey-isms, substitutes poetic beauty for Selick’s eye-popping visual magic, and hews more closely to the novel while creating the same sense that the story was designed for this particular medium. Enjoy these two adaptations one after the other and you’ll get a sense of the broad expanse of emotion and imagination that Gaiman’s tale can traverse.
Almost certainly you haven’t seen the off-Broadway musical presentation of Coraline, adapted by David Greenspan with songs by Stephin Merritt of the brilliant band Magnetic Fields. You should keep it that way. I’ll confess that I take a dim view of most musical theater, but this is exactly the kind of departure my lot should go for – spare, edgy, with pop-identified music. Unfortunately, absolutely nothing on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theatre worked for me. The problems begin with the creepily outfitted but simple and static set, which constantly requires characters to say things like “I’m outside now”; continue through the sparse, monotonous use of percussion and a single pianist to breathe life into Merritt’s excessively fussy songs; and reach a nadir when a middle-aged actress, Jane Houdyshell, takes the stage as Coraline – whose narrative arc is meant to say something about how kids relate to the adult world. I like Brechtian distancing as much as the next lefty, but if you’re going to hold a fantasy at a far emotional remove, you’d better have something to say, and this show doesn’t.