Kalamazoo

Community celebrates couple with events as WMU Libraries acquire the archive of Small and Stewart

Original illustrations from "Stitches" and "Home After Dark" are up at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center until Oct. 29. David Small will be at the KBAC for a reception Oct. 22, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. RSVP required.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Writer and illustrator David Small is known for whimsical children's books and a couple of dark graphic novels.
 
Before speaking with him, we looked up his 2018 "Home After Dark."
 
It's sometime in the 1950s. A 13-year-old boy, Russel, hears his parents screaming and yelling at each other, "like hearing my parents' real voices for the first time." 
 
His parents divorce, and next we see his grim father, blank eyes behind large-framed glasses, bitterly smoking a cigarette as he ties down their belongings on their car. They're moving to California, to start a new life without Russel's mother.
 
On the way, Russel sees a puppy in a motel parking lot. He shows a hint of caring for it, but his father immediately says, "The answer is no... It probably has rabies."
 
The next shots -- Small's work is very filmic, so "shots" is a better term than "comic panels" -- are of the lone, helpless puppy in the road, watching them leave.
 
A truck comes along, and next we see the puppy dead in the road.
 
We gasped at the scene, and told Small.
 
"I'm sorry about that," he says from his home in Mendon.
 
Crawling In: From "Stitches," David Small as a child escaping into his art.Small has had to apologize a lot for "Home After Dark." 
 
Regardless, it's received rave reviews from around the world. 
 
The puppy foreshadows Russell's new life in small-town California. His emotional life is toxic, his father shows no feelings, he's bullied by other kids... and there's a psychopath killing dogs and cats, hanging their bodies in public for all to see.
 
"I'm not in favor of killing animals, but once I struck on the idea of an unknown menace in this small town going around killing animals, it seemed to be the most potent metaphor for something rotten at the core of the culture, that I could come up with," he says.
 
"There's a rule in Hollywood screenplays that's called 'save the cat.' It's the hard and fast rule that you always must save the cat in order to save your movie. So for me, the running over the puppy, the kittens, and so on, were sort of a slap in the face of that rule." 
 
It could've gone either way on its track to being published. "There were lots and lots of people who were involved in the making of the book. And a few were very adamant about taking it out, but others seemed to be fine with it. So, in it stayed."
 
There's a psychological theory that those who abuse animals are likely sociopaths who aren't very nice to people, too.  
 
"Yeah. I've known a few," he says.
 
Small then adds, a bit of strained laugh in his voice, "So, are you accusing me of something?"
 
No, we're not accusing Small of anything. He is just doing what any author does, pulling ideas from his subconscious mind. 
 
That's literally how he began writing and illustrating his first graphic novel. 
 
Discovery of the graphic novel, and of his own childhood
 
Over the years, publishers had asked him to think about graphic novel work, "but I just rejected the idea. It just seemed, like, way too many little drawings."
 
But when he reached his late 50s, he wanted to see if he could use his art as a form of self-help. 
 
David Small leaving home as a teen, in "Stitches.""I had reached the age of 55 or 60, over half a century of life, and was still having feelings that translated into dreams, often," Small says.
 
"I couldn't remember anything of my youth aside from a few small details that didn't seem to mean anything. But obviously, something was going on and I needed to find out," he says.
 
"What I really wanted was more psychoanalysis, because I had 12 years of a remarkable analyst back in Detroit. But where I live (Mendon), that kind of analysis is not available. So I realized if I really wanted it I was going to have to do it myself. That was the beginning, that was the impulse."
 
Using his art he tried to see what the dreams, fragments of memories, old feelings that had been imbedded for 50 years, were all about. 
 
Small associated graphic novels with comic books, which never appealed to him. But while in Paris he was introduced to "bande dessinee,"  a genre of graphic novels inspired by art and film.
 
"They were much more fine-art kind of books, and they really dealt with much more adult themes. Most importantly to me, they seemed to have the same influences as I had had, especially in film," he says. 
 
They inspired him to take his self-psychoanalytical sketches further. "Every day, between my kids' book work at the studio, going home and spreading out my stuff on the kitchen table, and just beginning to draw on my memories. Without any intention of making a book. I had no idea that this would turn into a publication of any sort. But I was excited about what was happening." 
 
Small sent drawings to his literary agent, who "really loved what she saw."
 
"She said one very important thing to me. She said 'David, honey, the drawings are piling up on my desk. I love everything you're doing. But I've got to tell you, this is going to become a book, and books, as you recall, have chapters. Books are organized so that people can understand what's going on.'"
 
"I said, 'I know that, but these are my memories. I don't think I can even put things in chronologic order at this point.'" 
 
Beginnings of an illustrator, from "Stitches." She told him, "You got to, because I guarantee you I'm going to sell this." 
 
This eventually resulted in his 2010 graphic novel, "Stitches: A Memoir." 
 
His jumbled childhood memories of cold parents, bullies, illness, his father's -- a doctor -- radiation experiments on him, and cancer surgery that left him a mute teen, are illustrated in stark black and gray. Publisher W. W. Norton & Company called it "a childhood from hell." It became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. 
 
Acknowledging the darkness in childhood
 
Small is also known for his whimsical illustrations for children's books. This side of his career is going strong -- Imogene, the girl who finds she's grown antlers, is now growing a peacock's tail, a giraffe's neck, and more in "Imogene Comes Back!" (2020, Knopf).  
 
In "Stitches" we can see where his whimsy comes from, a love of "Alice in Wonderland" and a love for escaping into a fantasy world by drawing. But we also see the bullies chasing six-year-old Small, calling him a "f-g" when he plays outside, pretending to be Alice with a yellow cloth around his head.
 
Maybe adults need this acknowledgment that childhood can be a very dark place? 
 
Small speaks of "Home After Dark," which "is the adolescent experience without cellphones, without Instagram, Facebook. It's the same kind of persecution, the same kind of bullying," as 2020's youth might face online.
 
"Dark" came out as the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements were becoming big topics, he says. 
 
His work has a theme of male toxicity and cruelty that felt relevant to the times.
 
"Maybe it was the puppy at the beginning, but it did not get the reception that the reviews seemed to warrant. It was the best-reviewed graphic novel that year." 
 
From "Home After Dark." Because of the reviews, his publisher sent him on a national book tour, "but it hasn't panned out yet in terms of sales. I think it's, like I said, either the puppy or it's the zeitgeist. I want to think it's the zeitgeist. Male toxicity sort of dropped out of sight as a big topic," he says. 
 
"Dark" hasn't seen big sales, but Small is happy with the responses it's gotten. Cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer said of "Dark," "Think of 'Lord of the Flies' and 'The Catcher in the Rye,' joined as one, yet even more painfully honest."
 
Reviews compared his visual style to Alfred Hitchcock's, and underground cartoonist Robert Crumb said Small is "a master graphic storyteller who has certainly captured male adolescence in 1950s America." 
 
"I've had a lot of affirmation from people I really respect," Small says.
 
He adds after a silent pause. "Which makes me think that the dead puppy is okay."
 
Then again, "My best friend pleaded with me for my next work not to put any dead animals in there. I promised that I wouldn't."
 
More about David Small 
 
He was born in 1945, Detroit.
 
He now lives in Mendon with his wife, author, and frequent collaborator, Sarah Stewart.
 
In August, Western Michigan University Libraries acquired an archive of Small's and Stewart's works, leading to a series of exhibits and talks around Kalamazoo. The collection includes drafts and original art, unpublished works, notebooks, sketchbooks, correspondence, and journals. Due to its size and complexity, the collection will become available as materials are cataloged and prepared for public use.
 
"I think I have a good base of readers there (in Kalamazoo). Not so much where I live, in this rural village (Mendon) about 45 minutes south. I think in the last 30 years that I've lived here people (in Mendon) have ever really understood that one could make a living doing little drawings and books. Also, there's a thing called 'localitus' which they suffer from. How could anybody be from here and be famous? Which is understandable."
 
He adds that Mendon is "very famous for its football team." 
 
However, there is a Mendon tie to the latest children's book he's illustrated, Betsy Bird's "Long Road to the Circus." 
 
Former circus queen Madame Marantette is the pivotal character, found riding ostriches on a Michigan farm. 
 
She sounds like a fictional character, but she's real. Marantette was born in Mendon, became a star horseback rider with Barnum and Bailey and Buffalo Bill's circuses, performed for the king of England, "and yet she's buried in a very modest grave here in the Mendon cemetery," Small says. 
 
Next for Small: He's working on a graphic novel of "short surrealist stories." And will have a book out next fall with Kristen Tracy, "Cat's Very Nice Day." "Make up for what I did to them in 'Home After Dark.'" 
 
Original illustrations from "Stitches" and "Home After Dark" are up at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center until Oct. 29.
 
David Small will be at the KBAC for a reception Oct. 22, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. RSVP here.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.