Stitches by David Small, Grandville by Bryan Talbot

15/11/09, The Times

The celebrated children’s book illustrator David Small, feted with numerous awards in his native USA, is not exactly a household name here. One hopes that Stitches, a beautiful, painterly memoir written with his heart’s blood, recounting episodes from his childhood and adolescence fifty years ago, will radically invert the current state of affairs. Small grew up in Detroit in a family that was emotionally withdrawn and ungiving in the extreme. His mother, silently resentful, ungenerous, jittery with anger, had the effect of inducing a great anxiety in the imaginative child. His father, a radiologist, irradiated him with massive doses of X-rays to cure him of a persistent sinus trouble. At the age of fourteen, he has a throat operation to remove a sebaceous cyst. No sooner has he come to than he is wheeled into the operation theatre again to have half his vocal cords and thyroid removed. As Small recovers, he discovers three things: first, the huge gash in his throat has been stitched up like a boot (and the drawings for this bit will burn your vision); secondly, he has lost his voice and become partially mute. The final revelation is unbearable: rummaging through his mother’s desk he comes upon a letter where she confides to her mother that the boy had throat cancer. As all the pieces come together in his head, Small, seething with rage and helplessness at having been left in the dark, finds that even the most rudimentary expression of anger, a howl or cry, is beyond him.

His head full of stifled screaming, his sleep beset by recurring nightmares, Small enters a private hell of an incommunicably huge magnitude, a situation exaggerated by his mother’s simmering fury. It finds its perfect expression in a full-page panel of endlessly recessive silently screaming heads, nested within each other, drawn in black, a departure from the book’s dominant palette of greys, and saturated with wrenching anguish and frustration. A visit to a kind therapist brings some rain of affection on his parched soul but also the bitter knowledge that his mother doesn’t love him. From this point on, Small’s difficult road to redemption begins. Central to this are two more shocking revelations which it wouldn’t do to give away. Towards the end, the thirty-year-old Small drives all the way from upstate New York to Detroit to visit his dying mother in hospital. The scene is so heartbreaking that you have to look away from the page. And then, in a gesture of devastating magnanimity, he offers a kind of forgiving understanding to his mother in a coda. A bleak, brutal, unrelentingly honest masterpiece, Stitches, with its pellucid shades of grey and white, is its own evidence of the salvation that Small found.

At the very opposite end of the scale is Bryan Talbot’s utterly delightful steampunk ‘scientific-romance thriller’, Grandville. Set in an alternative universe where Britain has lost the Napoleonic war and, after two hundred years of French domination, has only managed to gain recent independence, Grandville is best seen as part of the hommage mode. Clearly, the most conspicuous homage is to the 19th-century French cartoonist, Jean Ignace Gérard, whose nom de plume was ‘J.J. Grandville’ and who drew animal-headed people; Talbot’s book, too, is entirely peopled by these creatures. The other abiding presence is that of Albert Robida (1848-1926), the French artist and writer who did so much to imagine and realise what the future looks like.

Grandville opens in classy thriller fashion: a stunning chase sequence prelude, full of guns and explosions and blood and high-precision, deep-focus drawing, before the titles begin to roll. The story: Detective Inspector Archie LeBrock (badger) of Scotland Yard, accompanied by his Watson, Detective Ratzi (a monocle-wearing rat), fetches up in belle époque Grandville (Paris) to investigate the murder of British cultural attaché, Raymond Leigh-Otter. France is a cauldron of anti-British hatred, fomented by its newspapers and the rabidly nationalistic rightwing ruling party. This is not helped by the recent Robida Tower outrage, the destruction of a huge, iconic building, allegedly by British anarchists who flew a dirigible packed with explosives into it (geddit?).

In a twisty, gripping plot, mined with deep danger, LeBrock uncovers a nasty conspiracy in high places. The contemporary political resonances are sharp and pointed: as an amoral arms-dealer remarks, ‘An empire needs to be at war … it’s its engine, its driving force … and … we need Britain’s oil.’ It’s a playful, allusive book in which there’s a witty touch or deliciously knowing in-joke on almost every page: the French press whipping up Anglophobia; LeBrock’s Holmes-like unpacking of apparently innocent signs, which yield vital information, when he makes his first appearance; the drug-addled Milou/Snowy, dreaming of plotlines of Tintin books in his opium-induced stupors. The numerous fight sequences are simply cracking, especially the beautifully rendered sprays of blood and, throughout, the glossy gorgeousness fills your eyes.