Here's the pitch from Wilfred Santiago
Evanston author creates graphic novel about Clemente
Author Wilfred Santiago pictured inside his studio on Wednesday, Jun. 29, 2011, in Evanston, Ill. (July 1, 2011)
How, though, to convey that energy and grit and grace on the flat page of a graphic novel? How to suggest the up-and-at-'em vigor of a Roberto Clemente in a venue that just sits there?
Wilfred Santiago came up with the perfect game plan.
The Evanston artist's new book, "21: The Story of Roberto Clemente" (Fantagraphics), based on Clemente's biography, is drawn with a jagged whimsy that gets at the sudden sharpness of a baseball game's action, the frenzy that comes from out of nowhere to temporarily replace the long, slow stretches of waiting, scratching, spitting and eyeballing opponents that are endemic to the sport.
The result is a captivating work that reflects the complexity of Clemente (1934-1972), a dedicated humanitarian as well as an uncommonly gifted athlete.
"21" is the second graphic novel by Santiago, 40, who, like Clemente, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Santiago came to the U.S. mainland when he was 19, living first in Texas and New York before moving to the Chicago area five years ago.
In New York, Santiago worked as a graphic artist, illustrating other people's projects. "It was work for hire," he says. He did his best on every job, but his heart was elsewhere.
Coming to Chicago coincided with a newfound determination to follow his own star exclusively. "It wasn't, 'Now I will completely change things.' It was a gradual leap," Santiago says. "I knew how to do the art. But it was intimidating to write."
His first graphic novel, "In My Darkest Hour" (2004), is a grim story about a man's descent into depression.
For his second, he returned to an idea that had come to him years ago: the story of his fellow Puerto Rican, the baseball marvel Clemente, an outfielder whose clutch hitting and acrobatic defensive work with the Pittsburgh Pirates made him a beloved superstar. His death in a 1972 plane crash while on his way to deliver supplies to an earthquake-decimated Nicaragua shocked and saddened the world.
"Everything started aligning itself," Santiago recalls. "It was an accumulation. I wanted to do a graphic novel about baseball, I wanted to do a biography — and everywhere I looked, I seemed to see the number 21."
"I knew the culture he came from, because I came from the same place," Santiago says. "And there was a mythic aspect to him that was part of the story I wanted to tell.
"Comic books bring a different kind of narrative that's not possible in any other medium — not books, not movies."
Eric Reynolds, associate publisher of Fantagraphics, who edited "21," says its strength derives from authenticity. "Santiago's understanding of Puerto Rican culture sets his book apart from other Clemente bios," he says. "It's an immersive experience."
And then there's the author's ability to render hitting, fielding and running onto the page. "His playful approach to the action of the game is one of the best and most visceral depictions of the sport in print form," Reynolds says.
Santiago, who works in his home, is already deep in his next project: "Thunderbolt: An American Tale," a graphic novel based on the life of John Brown, the fiery abolitionist whose violent exploits helped light the fuse that led to the Civil War. On Monday, Santiago will release a trailer with excerpts of the work on the website captainjohnbrown.com.
The date is no coincidence, Santiago says. "John Brown was a different kind of patriot."
Triple play: 3 more baseball books
The July Fourth weekend is a great time to crack open a baseball novel. Here are three of my favorites:
"Blue Ruin" (1991) by Brendan Boyd. Playful, punchy, lyrical, filled with the swagger and slang of the game's early days, this tale of the gamblers who fixed the 1919 World Series is a winner all the way.
"The Natural" (1952) by Bernard Malamud. Many people adore the 1984 film starring Robert Redford that was based on this novel, and for good reason. But the original is still worth a gander. Never has baseball's grandly mythic element been on such rich display.
"The Kid From Tomkinsville" (1940) by John R. Tunis. This author wrote dozens of sports books for young adults, and though the moral lessons are simple — work hard, keep your nose clean, don't let adversity get you down — Tunis knew how to spin a great yarn.