If you enjoy experimental art, then do check out the new graphic novel by Frank Santoro. This is a work that will transport you to an immersive mindscape where Mr. Santoro tracks memories and explores family history. It is a refreshing approach to the comics medium that plays with elements like text and panels, shifts them, redirects them, and presents them in unexpected ways within a finely-tuned structure. Pittsburgh, a New York Review Comic published by New York Review of Books, brings together a lifetime of storytelling. This is one of the notable titles debuting at this year’s Small Press Expo this weekend, September 14-15, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Frank Santoro is a well-respected and celebrated independent cartoonist and trailblazer. If you are looking for a new way of looking at the comics medium, then consider taking his comics course. Frank Santoro’s work has been exhibited at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and the Fumetto comics festival in Switzerland. He is the author of Storeyville and Pompeii. He has collaborated with Ben Jones, Dash Shaw, Frank Kozik, and others. Santoro lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which brings us to his latest work. In Pittsburgh, the reader is introduced to life in the Rust Belt, that region of the country known as the manufacturing hub, the area famously known as the demographic which Hillary Clinton neglected to win over enough votes. It’s a tough working class landscape. Santoro shares that region with you: his growing up, his family, and especially the doomed relationship between his father and mother.
How do you best convey your observations and feelings about your family? In a documentary? In a novel? In an art installation? The possibilities are endless. What Frank Santoro has done is find a different path that combines aspects of various disciplines within one. This is a comic but not a comic that you are typically familiar with. This could be called a graphic novel or memoir but it also manages to be something more. At times, I felt as if some of the actions, dialogue, characters and settings in this book were shifting from one medium to the next. Very easily, I could imagine the whole book being turned into an art installation. Santoro’s method basically breaks down barriers and pares down to essentials. He likes to play with geometry and create backbones for his pages. The goal is for each element on the page to play off each other, each opposing page, and the entire work. He wants the process to show through so, if he makes a mistake, he’ll sort of leave it in and lightly cover it up so that you can still see it. In a sense, each page becomes animated with unexpected movement.
The quotidian of life, the everyday moments that can blur into each other, that is what Santoro aims to capture and evoke. This is one of the things that the comics medium does best! It is akin to a tour de force cinema vertie experience with the camera being replaced by a sketchbook. Santoro is hardly alone in attempting this but what he does is distinctive. And he makes it look easy and, in a weird sense that actually takes years of experience to appreciate, it is. Whatever the case, it can’t look forced. It comes natural to Santoro as he edits, rearranges, and composes. He make various choices which include various ways of telling the story most efficiently while allowing things to breathe. He wants ambiguity but he also demands clarity. He keeps to a basic palette that, in the end, brings out all the color he could ever want. In the end, he presents something new and compelling. In this case, it is his coming to terms with having grown up in a dysfunctional family that ultimately breaks apart. Like any good documentarian and artist, Santoro picks up the pieces, examines them, and with heart and soul makes something out of them.
Pittsburgh is a 216-page full color hardcover, available as of September 17, 2019, published by New York Review of Books.