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March 31, 2011


CR Opening Day Of Baseball Interview: Wilfred Santiago

imageWilfred Santiago's challenging and frequently breathtaking In My Darkest Hour was one of the most under-discussed, significant comics works of the last decade. With his long-awaited follow-up 21: The Story Of Roberto Clemente hitting the stands for the opening of the 2011 baseball season, it will be difficult for the immediate future not to discuss the Chicago-based cartoonist and his work. 21 can more than handle the attention. Santiago brings the same playful complexity to the story of the Puerto Rican baseball slugger and humanitarian that he's put on thrilling display in previous comics. Many of the pages are to die-for gorgeous, and Santiago routinely finds compelling visual solutions to communicating the physicality and grace of a player whose heyday was long enough ago we have more stories than film to go by. The insights into the man's personal life are perhaps even more engagingly portrayed. As biography, 21 is admirably restrained and leaves a lot to the reader's interpretation of what they’re seeing on the page. It is a book bristling with intelligence that will bear re-reading in the same way that Roberto Clemente continues to invite our regard and admiration for his accomplishments on and off the field.

Santiago wrote in before this interview was published to say that Jacob Covey is responsible for the cover design, working from Santiago's art, and that he was worried that Covey hadn't received full credit for his contribution. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I thought we might have seen this book a couple of years ago. I don't mention that to get after you, but after seeing the size and scope of the book -- it's huge, and the storytelling at times is incredibly dense and textured -- I wondered if it might have changed as a project as you went along. Is there a reason we're seeing it now as opposed to a couple of years ago?

WILFRED SANTIAGO: Well, there are things in 21 that were a little bit more complex than I expected, for instance the baseball aspect of it. Baseball is very detailed, and there's a lot of data. That was a complication, but I don't think it was a main reason. It took a few years to finish. There wasn't one main reason, and frankly I don't think I'd remember all the reasons why I've been delayed at some point. When I embark on a project, you can say there's a lot of fun, right? And I guess at some point the fun for 21 ran a little short. [laughter] There was time to do other, side projects.

It was difficult to work full time on 21. I began 21 in a very high resolution, and then I found out in the middle of it that the computer I owned, it was very hard for it to handle the files. It wasn't until I was able to upgrade to a better system that I could really pick up on it. I could do the same amount of work in a fraction of the time. It sounds kind of stupid to be talking about it, but a lot of the research was on-line, and not having the right technology, the right hardware, made it very hard to keep the pace. So that was one of the reasons. Sometimes there were editorial reasons, like if something wasn't working in terms of the story and a new page had to be made. Something needed to be fixed, or a panel needs to be altered. So you understand, all this starts adding up, and it ends up being five or six years. There were a lot of people -- I don't want to say upset, but not too happy -- "Dude, I'm still waiting for it." I did feel that pressure, but at the end of the day it wasn't ready until it was ready.

SPURGEON: From what I recall from past interviews, is it safe to say that you work intuitively, that page to page you might not know which strategies you'll employ as opposed to sticking to a decision you might make at the beginning of the book?

SANTIAGO: It all changes. When I was working in mainstream comics, there's a certain procedure on how you do a monthly comic, right? I'm sure you're familiar with how it works: the writer, then the penciller, etc. etc., and then you get a monthly book. Technically. The point is that it's totally different than In My Darkest Hour. That was a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I had a vague outline in terms of the narrative of the storyline, but I wrote it as I illustrated it. So the artwork and the script, it wasn't one thing first and then the other one. That was the idea, anyway. It's a fictional story. But when it comes to 21, the story of Clemente, that was a little different. Each project is different in the way it's approached. The advantages and disadvantages and the shortcomings become part of the process of how you're going to approach that project.

In the case of 21, there's the fact that it's a biography, so you have to take care of that angle. At the same time, you want to tell the story in a way that's not a textbook. Right? Not something you're studying. The story can be emotionally engaging at the same time you look at the records and it's totally accurate.

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SPURGEON: You mentioned your research, and you publish a bibliography in the book. Clemente was such a revered figure, and it was certainly a much different culture when he played in terms of the attention we paid to athletes. Was the research difficult at all in terms of getting a grasp on him from these outside sources working in, or were you pleased with the material you were able to find?

SANTIAGO: Well, Tom, there were kind of two different kinds of research. There were the personal Clemente facts, his personal experiences. Then there was the baseball aspect of it. All of those are related to Clemente personally. You also have to consider when you do a biography, the context of the living years of the person. In this case, Clemente's life was from the '40s into the early '70s. You have to do a lot of research in terms of the context of where that figure is going to be, whether it's the country, or the culture where he's from. I tried to pay as much attention to the details about Clemente. I thought it was important to a biography to provide that context. There were those two sides.

When it came to Clemente, it was difficult to find information. The baseball part, there was a lot of data, but when it came to the visual aspect, a lot has to be constructed from accounts in newspapers or books. In general, it took time, but it wasn't hard to find this kind of research and data.

SPURGEON: Did you feel that you had to reckon with the high regard that many have for him? Was there a legend’s aspect to his story that ever interfered with his personal story? Was it difficult that he was so admired?

SANTIAGO: No. Once 21 went from an idea -- a book about him -- and has a deadline, it becomes a product. Once a project becomes a product it's important that I keep looking at it that way. This is meant for a reader, and some consumers want to get bang for their buck. It's important that I keep opinions I have about the man or any other aspect I touch on in 21 and concentrate more on some of the goals that are established in the creation of the graphic novel.

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SPURGEON: One of the most striking things in the book is how pleasing and inventive the baseball scenes are. They pop, and are fun to read. I wondered how you approached those scenes to make them as lively as they are. I think in past baseball works in comics, there's a tendency to focus on the deliberate aspects of the game, or maybe its human aspects, whereas yours really jump, even tipping towards fantasy at some point. What kind of effect were you going for?

SANTIAGO: There are these old Warner Brothers cartoons. They're baseball things, and it's the same shit, you know? [laughter] A guy goes to the plate, he's dressed crazy or he walks funny. A slow ball is a slow ball.

Part of the narrative is a person who witnesses him as a teenager. There's a certain fantastical aspect to it I wanted to have. When you go to a baseball game when you're a kid, everything's bigger than life. Everything's larger than life. That's part of the idea of doing these pretty much Looney Tunes things.

imageSPURGEON: Is it fair to say that in contrast to In My Darkest Hour that 21 provides a strong contrast to the inward storytelling you employed in that first work? We see Clemente through the world's eyes, and the in the previous work, we're seeing the world subjectively through the narrator's eyes.

SANTIAGO: Well, Darkest Hour has that first-person narrative, right? That in itself makes a big difference. The purpose of the first-person narrative is in saying that this person may have some mental issues, and that this kind of person has a very first-person approach. There's a very narcissistic aspect. That's why Darkest Hour is in the first person. It's very speculative: I never establish that he's this or he's that. When it comes to Clemente, the main narrator is a teenage girl in the 1972 game where he finally did his 3000th hit. So yeah, there's an outside look.

Clemente would not have been the same figure had he lived in different times. It's important to understand that when he spoke about social injustice or on behalf of some of his fellow baseball players, it has to be understood in the context of what it is. I have to -- not have to -- but there's a certain from the outside look he has to have because a lot of the problems Clemente has to deal with is because he was perceived as an African-American. Kind of weird for him. At the same time, he was perceived as a little odd from the outside.

It could have been Clemente narrating the story, but that's just the way it was constructed.

SPURGEON: Did you consider going that direction?

SANTIAGO: No, the only way something like that could be done would be that I suddenly have access to his family and his wife and I could ask all sorts of personal details. That wasn't the approach; that wasn't even possible, either. I think it's more interesting, again, to highlight some of the other things. Part of the reason for moving from In My Darkest Hour into biography was pretty much that it was the opposite. Right? [laughs] It's not in first person; it's a completely different project. That's one of the things that I was looking forward to work on.

SPURGEON: Was it gratifying?

SANTIAGO: Honestly? It was a lot of fun. In terms of research, not just the historic -- the pop culture -- but I got to research about baseball, it was very pleasing from a personal point of view. There were things that were pleasing to me, but it didn't advance the story and they had to be left out. 21 is a product, right? And I have to make sure that it is the right way to present it, and not let personal, emotional feelings about the subject interfere.

imageSPURGEON: There was an interesting scene where we see a holiday celebration and Puerto Rican independence options were discussed... how much did you relate to what he was going through at the time, those cultural experiences, and his unique experiences as a man of two worlds?

SANTIAGO: The Puerto Rico scenes, his childhood scenes... one thing you have to ask of anyone that is the subject of a biography is what makes this person what he is. A lot of people have different thoughts about how that happens. Some people that your early experiences pretty much mold your personality, the way you approach problems, the way you solve them, the way you treat others. Although there were some details on Clemente's early life, some of it was speculative. You might know that they were having dinner but not know what they were having for dinner. I felt very confident because I'm Puerto Rican, too. So I'm familiar with at least the context of where he's coming from.

SPURGEON: Is it that you feel there are certain aspects to Clemente that you feel are uniquely Puerto Rican?

SANTIAGO: In the sense of what he might be eating.

There are things that are universal. He could be an asshole, he could be a nice guy, whether he's Puerto Rican or not. If he's a nice guy, you sort of have to speculate as to why he's a nice guy. You try to work around with the few facts that you have about his childhood, his parents, his brothers, the way people remember him. Now, you might not necessarily personally know the character A that talks about Clemente. But you might know the kind of person he is. It's a regional thing, right? If you're from New Jersey, I'm sure you can spot somebody from New Jersey, regardless if he's an asshole or a nice guy. I'm not saying anything about New Jersey people. [Spurgeon laughs]

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SPURGEON: I really liked the stuff with the family with whom he's boarding. I thought those scenes were funny, and provided a major contrast between athletes then and now. Did you enjoy depicting the day-to-day aspects of his life in Pittsburgh?

SANTIAGO: Pittsburgh is a place that's boring to me, I've never been in it. I've seen Rocky and stuff like that -- is Rocky in Pittsburgh? No, it's not.

To me, it was strange to see some of the era, the reaction to him. There's an ironic part of it, that he's not African-America. When somebody calls him, I don't know, a nigger, it had nothing to do with him being a Puerto Rican, it was about him being dark on the outside. There's a surreal aspect to it. A young person now placed in the context of Clemente, it would be surreal. Why is it that a black person can't go into a restaurant, but a dog can? He never had to deal with institutionalized racism. His relationships with other black people were different than those with people from Cuba or a country like Puerto Rico, other places where you had multiple colored people.

SPURGEON: In one of the final sequences in the book, you get into how Clemente courted his wife and their getting married. Why spend so much time with that? Certainly there seemed to be an exuberance to the pages of comics you provide after that, something that indicates he was a more grounded person for having that relationship. Why focus on that part of his life?

SANTIAGO: To an extent, that's Clemente. Clemente didn't waste much time. Everything was urgent to him. The pace of the book tried to capture that sort of non-pause, that sort of way of going forward without slowing down. He does have what you just said -- exuberance -- and that's such an important part of his life. So you approach it the same way. When you think about it, that's exactly the way he died, too. He could have slowed down.

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SPURGEON: I thought the coloring was beautiful throughout the book, I thought it very sumptuous for the kind of coloring techniques employed. Was there an effect you were hoping for?

SANTIAGO: In My Darkest Hour was made in two layers with two different colors. In 21, I took the same approach. There's two colors: yellow and a very dark blue. As soon as 21 was to be the book to work on, automatically I thought about the Pirates' color scheme, which is inspired by the colors of the city. With these two colors I was able to get a bigger range, right? I was able to do blacks, and very mild blues and yellows. These two colors worked great together. That was a great advantage. Sometimes they differentiate things like Puerto Rico from the baseball scenes -- at least the attempt was to help the reader be more engaged. In terms of balloons, the balloons in yellow are in English and the balloons in white are in English. Although there were limitations: there are just two colors and you have to play around with those colors and the white of the paper. It was a nice challenge with such a small palette, but I think it was enough.

SPURGEON: This book has a potentially different audience than a lot of graphic novels. Are you looking forward to putting it in front of sports fans that may not be comics fans? Are you looking forward to seeing how people react to it?

SANTIAGO: Although the book is not about baseball, it's important that people that are baseball fans, people that know about Clemente and all facets of baseball, it was important that they be able to read it and not cringe, for one. They won't see realism, but they will hopefully see veracity. I'm not sure I'm using the word right. But every scene or game depicted in the book, you can look it up and hopefully I got it right.

So far, the reception from sports fans and baseball fans has been very good. So I think I have half of it done. Now I have to see how comic book people think about it.

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SPURGEON: Something you wrote for the Robot 6 blog I thought was interesting, where you were talking about John Buscema and having to separate his art from some of the writing that accompanied it. You're a very accomplished artist. How difficult is it for you to make sure that your scripting holds its own? Has that ever been a worry of yours, integrating those skills, considering you're such a good artist?

SANTIAGO: [slight pause] I don't know.

SPURGEON: Do you feel as comfortable as a writer as you do an artist? Do you even consider writing and art two different disciplines when making comics?

SANTIAGO: I'm good. [laughs] There's not much to say. I'm fine.

I don't see myself at this point as a writer or an artist. I did start as an illustrator. But I always wrote. For a long time, perhaps, especially while doing My Darkest Hour, I did question what I was doing and why. It's hard work, to improve your writing skills, especially if your background is more that of an illustrator.

I still don't see myself as either. Sometimes the art is made before the writing, sometimes the writing is made before the art and sometimes they are made at the same time. I don't have to explain to the writer what I want as an artist.

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* 21: The Story Of Roberto Clemente, Wilfred Santiago, Fantagraphics, hardcover, 200 pages, 1560978929 (ISBN10), 9781560978923 (ISBN13), April 2011, $22.99

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* all imagery selected from 21

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