Wilfred Santiago tells the story of Roberto Clemente
Graphic novel 21 recalls the legendary Pittsburgh Pirate
Wilfred Santiago’s comics underwent a shift after 2004, when he set the dark, angst-ridden graphic novel In My Darkest Hour in his own neighborhood, Hyde Park. The artist became interested in historical underdogs who “even within their limitations left a mark,” he told me by phone recently.
The result, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente (Fantagraphics, $22.99), is a lovingly written and superbly illustrated biography of the baseball legend. Clemente rose from poverty to fame as an MVP-winning right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and died at 38 in a plane crash.
Santiago received his first acrylic paint set along with a “how-to” manual as a boy in Puerto Rico, and he’s pursued a DIY education ever since. Learning to draw is “no accident,” he says. “A comic-book artist has to draw thousands of shitty pages before getting a good one. You have to sit down and do your time.”
After high school, Santiago moved to New York City and began his comics career as a penciler for the character Static at DC’s imprint Milestone Comics, which gave the artist an education in superhero illustration and storytelling. When the comics market slumped in the late 1990s, Milestone shut its doors. During a visit to Chicago in 1998, Santiago was drawn to the city’s “influential and vibrant comics community” and its “renowned local cartoonists,” he recalls. He never left.
Milestone’s influence can be seen in Santiago’s illustration of Clemente imbued with superhuman powers (pictured): Smoke pops from the speeding ball, and his fingertips sprout eyes. Urgent, thick action lines and diced, off-kilter comic panels suggest speed and emphasize the athlete’s godlike skills. Santiago renders Clemente with a sympathy that recalls Chicago-based Harlem Renaissance artist Archibald Motley Jr.’s humanist illustrations of African-Americans. The racism that Clemente experienced as a Puerto Rican with dark skin is a key theme in 21.
Santiago executed the book in charcoal washes and india ink before editing it with a computer. He limited the palette to the Pirates’ colors, gold and black. Stylistically, he considers himself something of a chameleon, tackling each challenge with a new visual approach. “Actors change accents to play different characters,” says the artist, “and I have the same graphic flexibility to interpret different kinds of stories.”
Manga also informs the above composition from 21, as Santiago abstracts the crowd to flared nostrils and gaping mouths. He explains that he was influenced by Japanese artist Mitsuru Adachi’s H2, a late-’90s manga series about high-school baseball that couples close-ups and action-shot layouts to grip the reader. But Santiago, who compares having the Internet as a resource to “going to college for free,” also looks to the golden age of American illustration: His flat, blocky work recalls famous Disney animator Mary Blair.
Santiago attributes part of 21’s remarkable verve to the music he listened to as he created the graphic novel. Because he wrote and illustrated it at the same time, he listened to music, read magazines and watched movies from each decade of Clemente’s life as his biography unfolded. When asked what the book’s biggest failure is, the artist laments, “No sound.”
Works on Paper is a new column about art books.