In the memoirs Spinning by Tillie Walden and Stitches by David Small, each author tells their story of childhood trauma through the lens of a comic. The medium of comics has an interesting history and perception; when people think of comics, an image of superheroes or the Sunday paper usually comes to mind. Though some might discount this medium at first glance, the use of both words and pictures adds a new dimension to a piece, forming layers where nuggets of insight lie hidden, waiting to be discovered by the reader. Hillary Chute’s essay, “Women, Comics, and the Risk of Representation” examines why comics in particular are effective mediums used to tell stories of trauma. She notes that this “hybrid form of expression” that tends to have plenty of nonfiction works about trauma, contrary to the medium’s stereotype (Chute, 6.) Perhaps the visual element of this medium allows the author to better convey what trauma was to them.
In Stitches, Small examines his family members’ respective “language,” whether that be his mother’s “little cough… or the slamming of kitchen cupboard doors,” (Small 15) his father thumping a punching bag, or his brother beating on a drum. His family uses these modes of expression to denote anger, something Small had to adapt to and learn from. These little nuances throughout the story help the reader experience Small’s childhood dread. Aside from those languages, there are two specific motifs that highlight his family’s anger: his mother’s wave of fury and father’s smoke. These images occur sporadically, though come into focus whenever his parents lash out their anger.
Since Walden doesn’t emphasize her family life, Spinning depicts trauma through color. Unlike Stitches, which is in black and white, Spinning is illustrated in white, purple, and yellow. I personally find this color choice to be very interesting since purple and yellow are complementary colors. In terms of color theory, this means that they are on the opposite side of the color wheel/spectrum, creating a strong contrast when placed together or neutralizing each other when combined. Walden uses yellow as a source of light, but only sparingly. It tends to appear whenever Tillie is skating or feels a strong emotion, whether that be good or bad. When used together with purple, this yellow light appears to be blinding. When Tillie experiences the car crash, the collision and headlights are depicted in yellow.
Aside from the accident, yellow absorbs the ice skating rink when skating “lost all its shine” (139) and covers the panels on pages 332-334 whenever Tillie messes up her routine and feels anxious or frustrated. Walden methodically uses the contrast between purple and yellow to elicit such feelings of unease and tension in order to better convey her experience of trauma.
Besides the visuals of a comic, an essential element of any narrative that helps set the tone is pacing. The speed at which the story is told changes according to what occurs: in times of intensity things can speed up while during calm events the story slows down to a stroll. Chute observes that “the form of comics has a peculiar relationship… to memoir” since the medium’s format “mimics the procedure of memory” (Chute, 4.) Specifically, the gutters in between panels suggest fragmentation, which happens to be a “prominent feature of traumatic memory” (4.) When used together with effective pacing, one can portray trauma in a way closer to what was actually experiences.
Stitches happens to follow this formula perfectly; it’s told at a relatively fast pace while scenes skip around from moment to moment. The book is divided into roughly four sections that all start with I was (insert age) and opens to a cinematic page that establishes the setting. The first section illustrates his memories of when he was six years old, only to skip to five years later and later on to when Small turns fourteen. These large gaps of time in between each section clearly imitate fragmented and traumatic memory.
In contrast, Spinning tends to be leisurely and very linear. Though it does not portray fractured memory, it does allow the reader to experience Tillie’s emotions at a somewhat natural pace. The title pages of each section name a specific skating move, which Walden elaborates on by describing its execution and how it made her feel. Her opinion about the move foreshadows the tone of each section. The tone of Spinning varies with Tillie’s emotions which vary like a sine wave, indicating instability. Rather than consecutively show key moments that convey trauma, Walden slowly builds up feelings of anger and resentment throughout the narrative to help the reader connect and understand the situation. This also makes the sudden shift in pacing around page 300 more effective. Pages 300-318 are whole pages that depict random moments in time after the tutor incident, thus completely contrasting the narrative’s typical linear format and thus resembling fragmented memory.
- Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. , 2010. Print.
- Small, David. Stitches: A Memoir. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2009. Print.
- Walden, Tillie. Spinning. , 2017. Print.