Graphic Narratives > “Word Books” (updated)

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” does not receive as much credit as it should. In David Small’s Stitches, and Tillie Walden’s Spinning, each individual picture has an underlying meaning and story behind it. The decision to utilize the power of images instead of words to explain their journey from trauma to recovery allows the reader to empathize with the author’s struggles. The impact that these events can have on victims can be difficult for them to express, but by illustrating their experiences with pictures, David Small and Tillie Walden are able to convey a level of emotion that overshadows what any combination of words can deliver.

Small and Walden figured out that by taking their childhood trauma and turning it into a graphic memoir, the traumatic events within their stories seem much more intense than if they were to simply write about them in a normal memoir-style book. In Tillie Walden’s, Spinning, there is a span of pages (340-345) where there is not a single word written, yet the story that the pictures tell is clear as day. The reader is provided with a five page summary of Walden’s entire life as a skater, and how it quickly crumbled to pieces. The most interesting page is the last page, pictured below, a completely black rectangle. This represents how now that Tillie has decided to conclude her skating career, she has just lost what provided the most light for her in her life. That is why the page is black; to show us that a chapter in Tillie’s life has just come to an end. The previous two pages is where Tillie Walden realizes her life-changing idea : “I did not want to go to skating” (Walden 338-339). While Tillie Walden could have used dramatic words and description to recount how she felt in that moment, she created a montage of her life using pictures to explain what led to her exact feelings.  Similarly, in Hillary Chute’s essay, “Graphic Women”, the idea of illustrating trauma is used in several graphic narratives written by women: “The stories to which women’s graphic narrative is today dedicated are often traumatic: the cross-discursive form of comics is apt for expressing that difficult register, which is central to its importance as an innovative genre of life writing” (Chute 2). Chute believes that in order for the significance and weight of the traumatic events that occurred to be accurately depicted, a graphic narrative is one of the better routes to take because pictures convey much more sentiment than words do. Detailed drawings bring radiant life to the story and give the reader something to wrap their mind around when thinking about the traumatic experience. It is also easier to pick up on the intended emotion that the writer wants the reader to feel when seeing expressive drawings rather than words.

In David Small’s, Stitches, there is a span of pages where all that is shown is rain. What precedes these images is David being told by his therapist, who he trusts wholeheartedly, something that breaks his heart: “Are you ready. Your mother doesn’t love you. I’m sorry David. It’s true. She doesn’t love you” (Small 254-255). The amount of sentiment that should be experienced by the reader is immense, but it is heightened by the next eleven pages, page 257 through page 267, which include detailed drawings of constant rain, showing how destructive this news was for David to hear. Small included eleven straight pages of rain to emphasize the sadness he felt in that exact situation. The pages start out showing a single tear drop and quickly transition to a heavy downpour. Including these images shows us how heartbroken David was when he finally understood the truth about his mother. It also could have meant that David was about to experience a rebirth. After finally being told what he had known all along but couldn’t accept, he is now ready to move on to a new chapter of his life. Small helped the readers put themselves in his shoes. He could not have done this had he simply written it out. There were simply no words to describe the way he felt, which is why pictures are the better option to elucidate a traumatic experience such as this one. Walden and Small incorporate the same ideas in their graphic narratives because they know how to use their drawings to convey the emotions that they want the reader to feel at certain parts of their stories, however, where they differ is the level of emotion and the intensity of the usage of their pictures.

David Small’s decision to turn his life story into a graphic narrative came about through an organic process. In an interview with Becky Ohlsen, a representative for the “Book Page” review site, Small stated, “When I started making it a graphic [memoir], it started coming back” (Ohlsen 1). Small continues to elaborate, explaining that when he first started to write his story, he couldn’t recall his memories because he was writing it as ‘prose.’ He had been having bad dreams about it and decided he needed a change. As he turned his work into a graphic narrative, the imagery and the memories came back instantly. He stated that he would be looking at a random object, no matter where he was in his house, and the memories would materialize in his mind. Hillary Chute also concurs with this point; she believes it is more common for authors writing about traumatic childhood experiences to use graphic narratives as their medium: “Images in comics appear in frag-ments, just as they do in actual recollection; this fragmentation, in particular, is a prominent feature of traumatic memory” (Chute 4).  To depict these fractured memories as images is more authentic to Small’s story of trauma; fragmented drawings not only illustrate how he felt in the moment, but are representative of his entire writing process as a whole.

Tillie Walden, contrarily, decided to turn her twenty-two years of life into a graphic narrative, simply because she had been involved in comics ever since she was young. Her father had gotten her to see the amazement of them when she was a child and she has been involved with them ever since. In an interview, when asked about her father and comics, she responds, “…all he did was present me with material that I could learn from and enjoy…he signed me up for a workshop with Scott Mcloud and that was the turning point for me” (Wong 3). I think that Walden had always intended for Spinningto be a graphic narrative. She knew how significant comics were to her and that the best way for her to share her traumatic experiences, and her road to recovery, was via pictures. She learned long before she even thought about developing Spinningthat comics are a much better medium for stories such as hers, where the traumatic experiences and steps to recovery are required to be deeply and vividly comprehended.

Evidently, both Walden and Small have produced beautiful art in their graphic narratives, for the pictures and dialogue within their books truly depict their experiences from trauma to recovery. The crucial decision made by both of them to turn their memoirs into graphic narratives, rather than writing them out solely with words, was also a large factor in producing such emotional and sentimental elements within their books. Hillary Chute’s viewpoints on trauma in graphic narrative touches base with both of their pieces of work, and stands true for Small and Walden.





Works Cited


Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia University Press, 2010.

Ohlsen, Becky. “Stitches: A Memoir by David Small – Interview | BookPage.”, WCSoC3Myu4.

Small, David. Stitches a Memoir. W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2016.

Walden, Tillie. Spinning. First Second, 2017.

Wong, Alex. “‘Everything I Had to Say about My Life Is in That Book’: An Interview with Tillie Walden.” The Comics Journal,