Monday, November 28, 2011

"21" The Story of Roberto Clemente

Written by Wilfred Santiago
Illustrated by Wilfred Santiago
Fantagraphics

He's a legend in Pittsburgh and Puerto Rico.  He's arguably the greatest Latin American baseball player to ever touch the field of play.  He's hailed as a humanitarian and died in the service of his fellow man.  He is Roberto Clemente, and this is his story, as written by Wilfred Santiago.

Santiago's Clemente comes from extremely humble beginnings and is haunted by the idea of death, right up until the end.  He's always nervous about flights, as though something tells him they will be his undoing.  He's watched oppression his entire life, but carries on regardless.  This Clemente knows what others say about him, from the mild resentment of fellow players to the outright racism of those who don't like him or who root for other teams.  This Clemente lives life as best he can, trusting in God and family and his abilities.

It's a very uplifting story, as Clemente rises in the baseball world to reach glory twice in the World Series and in making his 3,000th hit.  Santiago spends most of the book outside the baseball field, however, which might disappoint some readers.  I liked getting inside the home life of Clemente, but I admit, as a Pirate fan from a tender age, seeing less of the baseball side of Clemente's life did diminish my enjoyment of the book just a bit.  I also think that Santiago is a bit unfair to the city, showing more of its problems than its triumphs and leaving Bob Prince out to dry by not explaining his verbalisms more and making the "Bob Clemente" thing more offensive than loving by leaving it out there on an island (no pun intended).

While I did enjoy this as both a fan of comics and baseball, I do wonder about its outreach.  I'm not sure how many of Fantagraphics's usual readers are interested in sports, even if the figure was one of the early players to break the color barrier (and to do so in a way that far eclipsed Jackie Robinson in terms of talent and ability).  On the other hand, the extremely stylized art style that uses exaggeration at every opportunity is likely to turn off anyone who likes sports but thinks that Hagar the Horrible is the height of comic storytelling.   I think it's great that Fantagraphics gave this book a chance to exist for an American audience, but I'm just not sure there's a wide range of people looking for a sports biography via Scott Morse craft.

That being said, I was extremely impressed by Santiago's artistic abilities.  He manages to shift the comic page in ways you'd never think of for a biography, using all sorts of layouts, from jagged panels to Family Circus ovals to standard grid formats.  His characters wiggle their way through when in motion, show their feelings on faces that are slightly oversized and full of expression, and sometimes contort themselves into shapes that aren't quite natural.  It's an artistic tour de force and shows that bio comics do not have to be the stolid, one step at a time narrative that we often see.  The question is:  Can the comics market support this sort of experimentation with a topic that's generally given to a conservative take?

I really hope so, because "21" is an excellent book that profiles the only man who entered the Hall of Fame without waiting the traditional five years and inspired an award named after him.  Clemente is every bit the important figure in baseball history that Robinson was, and more people need to know his story.  "21" is an excellent place to start, either for you or the baseball fan in your life.

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