Graphic novel paints portrait of Roberto Clemente

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If you think about it, there's something inevitable about the portrayal of Roberto Clemente's life in the pages of a beautifully illustrated graphic novel. "21: The Story of Roberto Clemente" brings together comics and baseball, two of America's most popular conveyers of epic mythology.

Author Wilfred Santiago also incorporates elements of classical and avant-garde jazz in his sinuously illustrated narrative of Clemente's life. It takes an imagination as rich as Mr. Santiago's to tap into various mythological languages to tell the Pittsburgh Pirate's iconic story from his youth in Puerto Rico to his death in 1972 delivering earthquake aid to Nicaragua.

"I was 3 years old when he died, so I don't remember him playing," the Chicago-based graphic novelist said. "I always heard about him while growing up, and I lived in the same city where he was born.

"Clemente has always been present as far as I can remember in my childhood in Puerto Rico up to my adulthood.

"It was after finishing my first graphic novel ['My Darkest Hour'] in 2002 that I was looking to work on a biography," Mr. Santiago said. "Clemente was the subject that has always come into my mind. Nothing clicked until 2004, though."

He immersed himself in research about Clemente's life and times to compensate for his lack of personal memories in the shaping of his narrative. "21: The Story of Roberto Clemente" displays several distinct narrative art styles ranging from the photo realistic to a cartoony, angular and simplified approach.

"The graphic novel has many levels to it," Mr. Santiago said. "It is about his personal life and his professional life as a baseball player. Sometimes the elasticity of the style that I use is [solely] for the purpose of achieving that goal.

"By having a medium like the graphic novel, I have a lot of tools and angles that can't be achieved in any other medium whether a book or a movie," he said. "I tried to capture the dynamics and some of the physics of the game without being too static in terms of the visual style."

The book effectively captures the tension and triumph of the sports icon's early years with the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, Clemente was subject to the Jim Crow laws that were still in place in much of America in 1954 when he joined the team.

Like Jackie Robinson, Clemente kept his cool in the face of racial provocations and fan rejection whenever the team traveled in the South because he had the burden of representing every Puerto Rican who would ever follow in his footsteps.

As tempting as it may have been to milk those situations for every bit of dramatic tension they were worth, Mr. Santiago chose ordinary moments to highlight, as well. We're treated to several panels of Clemente teaching himself English by reading men's magazines. We're also introduced to the ordinary decency of the Garland family of the Hill District, the folks who took Clemente in as a boarder during the early years of his 18-year stint with the Pirates.

Instead of dwelling on sources of obvious resentment, Mr. Santiago defaults to illustrating Clemente's humanity. We're treated to close-ups of his most noble and ignoble moments. The artist refuses to treat him like a plastic saint, because a perfect Clemente would make boring reading, indeed.

In the center of the novel, the reader is treated to a fantastic two-page spread of workmen at a steel mill gorgeously rendered in monochromatic tones, photo realism and zip-a-tone. You would be excused for involuntarily coughing at the sight of clouds billowing out of smokestacks casting their shadows on the Monongahela River.

For a man who will be coming to Pittsburgh for the first time to sign copies of his books at Phantom of the Attic on South Craig Street in Oakland on Saturday, Mr. Santiago managed to get many of the little details about the city right. There's even a shot of the Cathedral of Learning as seen from Forbes Field.

Old-timers will be thrilled to see Bob Prince shouting "Arriba" in the announcer's booth at Forbes Field, references to Iron City and even banner shots of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Although the outcome of the 1960 season home opener against Cincinnati is a matter of record, Mr. Santiago makes the reader sweat through a particularly tense game all over again.

Mr. Santiago's treatment of the 1960 World Series between the Pirates and the New York Yankees is worth the price of the book. If you can't bring yourself to sing "Beat 'em, Bucs" along with Benny Benack's Iron City Six during the multi-page sequence chronicling scenes from that nail-biting series, then you'll never be a Yinzer in good standing.

When Clemente failed to garner enough votes to be crowned series MVP by the baseball writers, we're treated to one of his rare tantrums. It's scenes like this that go a long way in humanizing someone we're accustomed to thinking of in mostly iconic terms.

Still, for all of its fluidity and visual grace, there are a few patches in "21" that are confusing. The sequence dealing with what happened to Clemente's younger sister early in the narrative is hard to untangle if you don't know the story.

That is a minor bump in what is otherwise a masterful approach to telling a story that many readers will assume they already knew.

"There have been many biographies about Clemente," Mr. Santiago said. "I was trying to come at it from a different angle."

That angle includes meditations on religious themes and imagery, a touching sequence about his courtship of his wife, Vera, and two-page spreads that zero in on a Taino origin myth or an 1898 letter by Major-General Nelson Miles explaining the rationale of America's "benevolent" invasion of Puerto Rico. It is a literary approach reminiscent of historian Eduardo Galeano's magisterial history of this hemisphere in the "Memory of Fire Trilogy."

A colleague who saw Clemente play when she was young said she appreciated Mr. Santiago's book but couldn't bring herself to read it to the end because of her dread of how the story ends.

Nearly four decades later, the death of Roberto Clemente still resonates with many of his fans. They'll be relieved to know that the author handles the plane crash obliquely and in a way that does justice to the overall narrative. While a story that ends in death can never truly be described as ending on a positive note, Clemente's death had tremendous meaning given that he was on a humanitarian mission.

Roberto Clemente's body was never recovered, but Wilfred Santiago has done as good a job as anyone ever has in reintroducing the longtime Pittsburgh Pirate to a new generation.

Wilfred Santiago will be signing copies of "21: The Story of Roberto Clemente" (Fantagraphics, $22.99) from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Phantom of the Attic Comics, 411 S. Craig St., Oakland.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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