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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

When Art Spiegelman’s Maus II premiered at number thirteen on the New York Times nonfiction best sellers list in 1991, graphic memoirs became the comics form’s most prestigious genre. Since Maus II had been listed on the fiction list until Spiegelman wrote a letter to the editor describing it as “a carefully researched work based closely on my father’s memories,” the change happened literally overnight.

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Frank Santoro would have been eighteen and starting his first self-published comics zine then. According to his own graphic memoir, Pittsburgh, he was more interested in Spider-Man and Aeon Flux than documenting family memories. But not only is the forty-something Santoro able to explore those memories now, he’s capable of expanding the limits of the genre in the process.

I’ll admit part of the memoir’s appeal to me is personal: I grew up in the Pittsburgh area (Penn Hills, not Swissvale); the author and I are similar ages (okay, I was twenty-five in 1991, but close enough); and my parents divorced too (though mine didn’t wait till I was eighteen). Unlike Spiegelman, who opened the door to the graphic memoir genre, or Alison Bechdel, whose 2006 Fun Home raised it to even higher literary prominence, Santoro’s subject matter is unremarkable in summary. He’s one of a demographic of kids whose empty-nest parents divorced while he was a first-year college student, and he places the continuing history of his parents’ estrangement at the center of his memoir.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

Though specifics add flesh to that familiar skeleton of a family story, Pittsburgh offers more than just “story” in the usual sense. Santoro’s graphic memoir is most significant for the “graphic” half of the term. It’s a comic—one that cannot be translated into another medium (including prose summary here) because its story is told not simply in pictures, but in a style of image-making that has no counterpart in prose or film or other medium.

Open to any page and you’ll find the photo reproduction of a yellow piece of paper covered in colored marker. I wanted to write “Magic Markers,” the brand I used as a kid. The paper looks like the kind of yellow construction paper I used too, what was once found under magnets on refrigerator doors across American suburbia. Santoro’s pages even show the wear of wrinkles. Those imperfections could be corrected in Photoshop, but he’s aiming for the opposite aesthetic. His pages look like they’ve been torn directly out of his childhood.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

And yet his style isn’t childlike. It fluctuates between quick gestural sketches and carefully crosshatched portraits. But even the most naturalistic images retain a rough energy, and the two styles are often superimposed. Traditional comics artists sketch in pencil and finish in black ink, leaving white areas for a colorist to fill later. Santoro overturns those norms. The still-visible bottom layer of his images are colored marker, variously thick- or thin-lined, sometimes gone over with additional marker lines in contrasting color and thickness. The colors—purple, red, blue, yellow, green, brown—seem to have been selected with a child’s intuitive randomness, with no regard for the colors of the real-world objects being drawn. Santoro also leaves the internal spaces of his figures open, allowing previously drawn images to remain visible as if through them. When his grandfather sits in a chair, the lines that compose the chair appear behind the lines that compose the body. Though the shapes of both sets of lines are naturalistic, the combined effect is not.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

Other times Santoro superimposes images with the aid of paper cut-outs and tape. Sometimes the cut-out paper is the same opaque yellow; sometimes it’s tracing paper that mutes but doesn’t block the images underneath it. The always-visible tape is even stranger, as though the entire book were a mock-up of some idealized but forever-undrawn finished version. The effect is odd and oddly poignant. For some reason the sight of the family dog Pretzel taped beside Santoro’s mother on their front porch resonates deeply for me—perhaps because the intentionally clumsy construction emphasizes the imperfection and so transitory quality of the moment.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

That metaphor runs under every page. His parents’ estrangement reduced his world to a permanently unfinished preliminary sketch. If the structure of his family could be revealed to be so unstable, so provisionary, then the entire universe may as well be cheap paper held together by bits of tape.

Santoro’s style is idiosyncratic. As it should be. A non-idiosyncratic memoir would defeat its purpose. While that’s arguably true of all memoirs, it’s especially true of graphic memoirs. If Santoro rendered his family members and neighbors in the generalized style of __________ [fill-in any name from the long list of renown graphic memoirist], then he wouldn’t be documenting personal experiences but a knock-off world peopled by familiar figures who happen to be performing parts in his family story. Though divorce may be a generalized story, the divorce story of Pittsburgh is not because of Santoro’s artwork.

But Santoro’s approach to that story is effective in literary terms too. There’s a pleasantly odd looping effect, where a handful of moments keep returning in slightly different forms, sometimes retold from a different point of view (Did his grandmother really threaten to send his mother to an asylum if she married his father? Did his father really leave because he couldn’t bare refereeing his drunk brothers-in-law?), and sometimes simply retold. Like the layered pen strokes of Santoro’s images, each layer would be sufficient to communicate the content, but something deeper happens through the accumulations.

Image result for frank santoro pittsburgh

[A version of this post and my other recent reviews appear in the Comics section of PopMatters.]

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