Comics creator Frank Santoro explores growing up in ‘Pittsburgh’
Frank Santoro, a comics creator of international stature, has a new graphic novel set in the Swissvale neighborhood where he grew up, entitled “Pittsburgh.”
The book — first published in France, now in the U.S. by New York Review Comics — is a family saga chronicling the relationship of his parents, who were high school sweethearts, and its gradual deterioration, to the point where they pass each other in the halls of the hospital where they both work without speaking.
It’s refracted through a child’s hazy memories of growing up in and around his grandfather’s convenience shop on Monongahela Avenue in Swissvale, as the steel industry begins to crumble around them.
“Pittsburgh” is a book of remarkable empathy and sincerity and seems destined to enlarge the defining literature of the city, alongside the works of John Edgar Wideman and August Wilson.
“I grew up in the ’90s, which was drenched in irony,” explains Santoro. “You could only make ironic art in the ’90s. It was rare to find sincere, straightforward work then. I’ve tried to have an emotional throughline. I respond to art that’s heavy with emotion, whether it’s art, film or comics. I’m interested in having a real light behind people’s eyes.”
The project’s beginning
It began as a project for the Pittsburgh Biennial at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2011.
“I did a 16-page newspaper comic about my parents and neighborhood of Swissvale and Pittsburgh at large,” says Santoro. “I was trying to do something for the Pittsburgh audience, and was surprised at how well received it was. I’d see people reading it on the bus! My parents liked it. It gave me a pass to try to tell my parents’ story.”
Instead of the the smoky gloom of a slowly decaying Pittsburgh, the book is a riot of color — dominated by bright pinks and purples, rendered in marker. Everything seems suffused with the light of half-remembered sunsets.
“The sun on a red brick building will be pink,” says Santoro. “It’s more responding to 20th-century art, trying to pull in modern or contemporary art into comics. I wanted to avoid the stained-glass effect where everything has a black line around it.”
“Pittsburgh is fairly gray, of course, but when the sun shines you see other colors. There’s a scene with my mom where there’s lot of reds, because it’s a very emotional scene. I try to view the landscape with the same emotion. I try to have an evocative color that plays in harmony with the emotional scenes that are playing out on the page.”
There’s a dreamlike quality to a lot of the illustrations in the book — images have lots of layers and stray lines visible underneath. It somehow captures the fleeting nature of memories, while veering into abstraction at times.
The book is filled with little moments: arguments in the grocery store, a child waiting for Spider-Man to come on TV, snatches of Motown records playing in the other room. Moments of great importance, like a traumatic childhood accident and Santoro’s father’s war in Vietnam — his buddies were all killed while he was on leave in Hong Kong — pass by with minimal fanfare.
Universal Pittsburgh experiences
“I think this book might speak to a lot of people’s experiences in Pittsburgh, parents who were formed by the Industrial Age of Pittsburgh and its decline and current rebirth,” says Santoro. “My story is not necessarily unique. People can bring their own experience to the work and get something out of it.”
The hardest part wasn’t depicting the hills or mills of 1970s-era Pittsburgh. Santoro says that was the fun part. The hard part was capturing the countenances of his family.
“I did not want to reduce them to comic book characters,” he says. “Drawing from life doesn’t always look like the person. Even if you capture their likeness, there’s a slight caricature there. I didn’t want to reduce people very close to me to overly simplistic cartoons.”
Santoro’s choice of markers is instantly distinctive, and fairly unusual.
“There’s no black,” he says. “The only black is the words. It’s markers, some colored pencils, sometimes some gouache paint. Markers tend to scan better. They’re more true to the color you put on the page. With paints, the light of the scanner picks up and changes the color.”
Curiously, the name “Pittsburgh” was suggested by Santoro’s publisher in France. It was originally going to go by its subtitle, “Never Comes Tomorrow,” but that didn’t translate well into French, and the publisher thought “Pittsburgh” would locate it better for the European reader.
“I’m like Jerry Lewis — I’m big in France!” says Santoro, laughing. “(His previous comics) ‘Storeyville’ and ‘Pompeii’ were translated and published in France. I was in France promoting ‘Pompeii.’ I sold just as many copies in France as in the United States. Households just normally visit the comics shop. They’re very popular there.”
Pittsburgh artist gaining acclaim
Pittsburgh seems to be a great place for comics creators at the moment, with the likes of Ed Piskor (“Hip Hop Family Tree,” “X-Men: Grand Design”), Tom Scioli (“Godland”) and Jim Rugg (“Street Angel”) gathering international acclaim.
As a child, it was at the family’s convenience store and news stand where Santoro first encountered comics. He later started taking art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
“In Pittsburgh, we have such a wonderful foundation for art and comics,” says Santoro. “I played hockey and did art. I tried to hop the fences between those ways of life. In Pittsburgh, you can be jock and still be kind of arty. I was lucky to have that.”
In particular, he singles out Bill Boichel, owner of Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill, and formerly BEM in Wilkinsburg, for fomenting a supportive community for aspiring comics artists.
“Being a painter or a classical musician, you can kind of slot into the tradition,” says Santoro. “With comics, you don’t. The traditions are the local stores.”
Santoro’s parents have read “Pittsburgh.”
“My mom said she didn’t love everything about it, but she loved it and was proud of me for making it,” he says. “My father said he loved it and it brought him to tears and he couldn’t believe how much I remembered.”
Santoro will be talking about “Pittsburgh” at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland, at 6 p.m. Nov. 6.
Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.