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Graphic novel '21' tells story of Roberto Clemente

The story of Roberto Clemente is a little harder to tell than the average legendary ballplayer. Between his astounding abilities on the field, his quiet, dignified humanity off it, and the shocking tragedy of his death, it's difficult to find the line where the man ends and the myth begins.

Especially in Pittsburgh.

Here, he's literally a larger-than-life character: There's a massive metal statue of him towering over an entrance to PNC Park.

Chicago-based, Puerto Rico-born writer and comics artist Wilfred Santiago has managed to capture both aspects of Clemente -- the legend and the human being -- in his new graphic novel "21: The Story of Roberto Clemente" (Fantagraphics Books, $22.99). Santiago will sign copies of his book on May 21 at Phantom of the Attic Comics in Oakland.

"He's like Clark Kent who turns into Superman," Santiago says. "There's a transformation from Roberto Clemente the family man, to Roberto Clemente the baseball superstar. As soon as he gets into the stadium, he turns into something else, right?"

Santiago's sinuous drawing style subtly shifts to address the many sides of Clemente. At some points, it's sharp, detailed, almost photo-realistic. In others, it's distorted into the exaggerated shapes and movements of a superhero comic. The sugar cane fields of Clemente's boyhood, and his days growing up in a large, loving family -- although one often touched by tragedy -- are given an extra helping of lyrical detail. The panels of Pittsburgh in the '60s are also especially vivid.

"Some of the Pittsburgh pages were really fun to draw," Santiago says. "It attracted me -- that whole iron city, gritty city that Pittsburgh used to be back in those days. It was a blast. Also, Forbes Field -- though it was difficult to grasp the dimensions of it. I had to rely mostly on still pictures. It was a great expereince, trying to capture the moment and seeing myself sitting on those benches."

There's a lot of vintage Pittsburgh in the book, from Benny Benack's band performing "Beat 'em Bucs," to Bob Prince calling out "Arriba, arriba!" when Clemente does something significant.

Curiously, the only colors used in the book are the ones found in a Pirates uniform -- all shades of black and gold.

"It worked great -- better, I think, than if I had all the colors in the world," Santiago says.

Between some chapters in Clemente's life, there are short essays on various aspects of Puerto Rican culture. One explains the three major cultures that combined in Puerto Rico -- the native Tainos, the Spanish colonial occupiers and the African slaves they imported to work the fields. Others address the musical style of "bomba" and the first impressions of American military officers, who took posession of the island in the Spanish-American War (1898).

"Clemente is a very complex figure," Santiago says. "Puerto Ricans are. We are Latinos, Latin Americans, but we're also American. So there's always that balance between those two. In trying to define Clemente, I had to find out what it means to be a Puerto Rican. When he was in the States, a lot of the time he was seen as an African-American, but he wasn't. He was a victim of laws and treatment that was targeted to another group of people."

The strong religious faith of Clemente's family is sensitively illustrated, particularly in a chapter where his mother tells a young Clemente the story of the Three Kings.

"It's not so much a religious background as a cultural background," Santiago says. "When you grow up in Puerto Rican culture, there is a deep religious element. If you believe that people are shaped in their young years, it naturally was important to let people know what kind of place he came from. That's where he began to incorporate those values that made Clemente Clemente."

One episode from Clemente's life that is treated in a less vivid, more abstract way is his death, in a plane crash while delivering aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. It's illustrated simply by a blip disappearing off a radar screen.

"It was a conscious decision -- I wanted to keep the book kind of optimistic," Santiago says. "Not to pander to the audience or anything like that, but I feel like any time people talk about him, (his death) is the big highlight. Although it was kind of remarkable, in a way, he did a lot of things in his life. You could argue that when he died, he had already made his mark. He not only met the targets he set for himself, he surpassed them. So I felt like I wanted to leave on that optimistic note."

Additional Information:

Wilfred Santiago

What: Book signing by author of '21: The Story of Roberto Clemente'

When: 1-4 p.m. May 21

Admission: Free

Where: Phantom of the Attic Comics, 411 S. Craig St., Oakland

Details: 412-621-1210

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