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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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While I was promoting my second novel, School for Tricksters, ThreeGuysOneBook.com asked me what books made me a reader for life:

This is embarrassingly unliterary, but comic books started me reading.  I remember my first: The Defenders #15. The cover is the desktop background on my laptop.  This was around 1972, when my parents were involved in the civil rights movement. I was too busy studying superheroes to take much notice.  Until someone sprayed “Niger Lovers” (yes, they misspelled it) on the side of our house.  My parents were suing our Pittsburgh suburb to desegregate their police force, which also explains why our phone was tapped.

I was seven and more concerned with the Defenders’ battle against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  I was living on a planet of pulp paper, neatly sorted into stacks in my bedroom closet: Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk. I have a box of tattered survivors in my attic, and have tried to woo my ten-year-old with them, but he prefers real novels (Percy Jackson, Eragon, Artemis Fowl).

My Defenders #15 vanished, so I recently bought a reprint collection the size of a New York telephone book. It’s in black and white, but I still recognize the stories, even exact panels: the way Magneto sits plotting over an ancient book of magical science. After thwarting the Brotherhood, the Defenders went on to battle the Sons of the Serpent, a supervillain group I only now see is based on the Ku Klux Klan. Their evil plan: start a race war and force all non-Aryans out of America. I wasn’t living on as different a planet as I thought.  Hawkeye, the Defenders’ newest member, is a millionaire playboy by day, and he soon discovers that his African American assistant has been secretly financing the Sons of the Serpent with his fortunes. Why? Because it’s good business. This isn’t another planet. This is America, only more so. America dreaming about itself.

I grudgingly grew out of comics by the end of elementary school, and went on to devour Heinlein in middle school, Vonnegut in high school, and finally the novels that most inspired my writing: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior.  It was Morrison’s Playing in the Dark that opened my eyes widest, showed me that all writers are writing about race. It’s just a question of whether they know it or not.  I read it the year it came out, 1992, the year I started writing my first novel.

Or that’s the literary way of telling the story. My new novel in stories, School for Tricksters, may owe as much to Marvel Comics. It’s about an evil government plot to destroy non-Aryan culture.  It’s about heroes with secret identities: a young white woman and a young black man passing as Indians in a school designed to turn Indians into Whites. Everyone there learns to wear a mask. Including myself: I am a white man writing as a black man and a white woman about Native America. Unlike The Defenders, the novel recreates real people for its characters. Its world is painstakingly researched history, but the true tale is as amazing, incredible, and uncanny as any of Clark Kent’s or Peter Parker’s. It’s America, only more so.

I’ve tried to go back to comic books—those shelves of graphic novels in every major book store. Like real dreams, their absurdities are embarrassing, sometimes revealing, but most often banal.  I teach a college seminar on superheroes, and my research unearths an occasional gem like “Wyatt Wingfoot,” a Fantastic Four character based on Jim Thorpe, a central character in School for Tricksters.  Wyatt and I were both born in1966, just a month apart. More often my discoveries are uglier: the roots of the superhero in 1930’s fascism, 1920’s vigilantism, 1910’s eugenics. America dreaming in nightmares. That’s not the history Marvel Comics taught me. But then my American history texts didn’t teach me about the Carlisle Indian School either.  It’s our job to go deeper, to read under the surface of things.  Comic books are as good a start as any.

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