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REVIEW: Muscle Memory

When Al Davison was born, he wasn’t expected to survive. He had severe spina bifida, and a lesion at the base of his spine left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was kept in the isolation unit for two years, on his stomach in a metal frame. Defying all odds, he finally went home — only to suffer physical abuse at the hands of his father.

Davison shares his difficult childhood in Muscle Memory, a followup to his graphic memoir The Spiral Cage. He’s been trying to complete Muscle Memory for over 10 years, and he’s launched a Patreon campaign to help him finish this breathtaking piece of work. It will likely be around 400 pages when finished — about 80 pages are done so far.

“I want to make it clear that this is not a story of victimization, but a story of survival and of winning against the odds,” Davison wrote on his Patreon page. “There will inevitably be distressing scenes throughout the series, but it is also an optimistic and often funny look at my life, because that’s how I am.”

That balance of distress and optimism is impressive and inspirational. It resonated with me during a scene in which Davison, as an adult, traveled to the seaside to find out if he can trust his memories of his father trying to drown him. He spots a flower growing through a pile of garbage.

“Going through all this, and you still notice things like that,” his wife says.

“Well hinny,” he responds, “maybe that’s why.”

Muscle Memory 1

This is a man who has been declared dead multiple times on the operating table. His father (aka “the bogie man”) has abused him at every turn. He’s even been struck by lightning. All of this seemingly endless heartbreak has made him appreciate the good things in life — like a flower poking through the rubbish.

Through his mesmerizing writing, detailed art, and wonderful colors, Davison crafts a memoir that proves beauty and joy can survive even in the darkest moments. While there are many disturbing scenes in Muscle Memory, such as his father pushing screws through his cast, there are signs of light shining through, like when he sees a cloud for the first time at 2 years old.

Davison’s writing is so natural, it’s like traveling back in time and watching these events unfold. His younger self talks like an innocent child who’s wise beyond his years, which usually adds a bit of humor. “They don’t call pediatwik surguns ‘dokta’ silly,” he tells his mom.

I could rave for hours about Davison’s artwork. Each page is obviously crafted with immense care. Most of the images are quite realistic and seem to be taken directly from his photographic memory, while dream sequences and childhood drawings add a magical feeling. His use of panels to control the pacing is masterful.

If you can, consider donating to the Patreon campaign. Muscle Memory is an important memoir that deserves to be completed.

Read Muscle Memory on Al Davison’s issuu page, and donate to the campaign on Patreon. What are your thoughts on this graphic memoir? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter!

About the author

Darryl Gangloff