Wilfred Santiago has a striking cartooning style that he can mold to fit any of the diverse projects he has created or contributed to. He has worked on everything from Capes to XXX to the alternative In My Darkest Hour, his first graphic novel for Fantagraphics. His newest project, 21, is about one of the most inspiring individuals to ever play the sport of baseball: Roberto Clemente. Rob Neyer from ESPN.com said about the book: "Wilfred Santiago's 21 is brilliant and beautiful, challenging and lyrical…which seems exactly right, as Roberto Clemente was all those things and more." Santiago and Clemente are both natives of Puerto Rico.
ERIC BUCKLER: What is your personal relationship with baseball?
WILFRED SANTIAGO: As personal as any other sport. Growing up, you either did sports or you did not. You called a couple of neighbors and you played baseball, basketball or whatever.
It's been years since I played any sports at all, and it feels a bit weird not to have that today, so I got a kick out of "playing baseball" on 21.
BUCKLER: You are from Puerto Rico; what did legendary Puerto Rican baseball star Roberto Clemente mean to you as a kid, and how is he seen by Puerto Ricans?
SANTIAGO: As a kid, it was different. In Puerto Rico, he was more of a myth than anything else. Sure, 21 played great baseball, but it was his reputation as a good-hearted Christian that preceded his game: perhaps to the level of deity. And you get this sense, because that's all the adults talked about. I never saw him play; he had already died. For a time, I didn't get that I couldn't go to a game and watch him play, like he never left. But his image was almost everywhere: a coliseum with his name on it. I haven't been to the island for years so I couldn't tell you about his impact on the present.
BUCKLER: This book is a biography. How did you go about capturing what he was like when he was alive?
SANTIAGO: Dissection. Clemente was a private man. Once you go through the rudimentary written biographies and any available footage of the man, you can start shaping his presence.
There are two parts to Clemente: The athlete is one way on the field, and another way as a father and husband. Roberto doesn't have a secret identity per se. However, in order to write Spider-Man, you also need to depict his life as a regular teenager. Peter Parker in costume becomes someone else and so are athletes. And of course, the people that surrounded him, the period when he lived, these are things that shape all of us, which are the same things that shaped Clemente as a character. Many times you have to separate the myth from the person and sometimes you have to speculate within parameters. For example, it was a known fact that Clemente went to a certain restaurant, but you have to speculate about whether he had chicken or ribs.
BUCKLER: This seems like an anomaly in alternative comics, a biographical sports story. Can you talk about how this idea came together?
SANTIAGO: By process of elimination.
Non-fiction is something I enjoy very much and a biography is something I thought of doing after In My Darkest Hour. I compiled a list of people, and Clemente was the one that came out on top. It was a hard decision because there were so many good subjects out there, but there was a personal connection with Clemente even though we couldn't be more different.
That, however, was not the reason.
Once I narrowed the list down to three, it was an easy decision for Clemente to be the first biography.
The fact that sports, outside of manga, was an anomaly in comics was appealing, but that wasn't the reason either. Or that comics biographies sometimes make you feel like you are back at school, and I thought that was a good challenge. There were many reasons. It was a very calculated decision. I mean I knew it was going to take years to finish a book and do it well, and that wouldn't guarantee its success at the end.
BUCKLER: Did you have any particular challenges in the process?
SANTIAGO: Lots. There were challenges that you expected and then there were those that popped up during the process of creating.
BUCKLER: Could you give us some examples?
SANTIAGO: 21 took about a six years complete and a lot of things could happen in that period of time.
Known challenges —
Exhibit A: Sometimes it was difficult to decide what to cut out or leave in the story. For example, in the ‘60s Martin Luther King [Jr.] visited Puerto Rico and hung out at Clemente's farm. It would have been a nice scene to work on, but it didn't really move the story forward, so it was left out the book.
Unknown challenges —
Exhibit B: As I got close to finishing the original page count of 148 pages, I realized I needed more pages to make it work or give it to FB the way it was. The book was going to be delayed because I calculated I needed to add about 50 pages, bringing the count to 200 pages, so I was going to miss the deadline. I didn't anticipate any of this and at the same time the "21 funds"
dried. Book went over budget and I couldn't afford to work solely on 21 because I needed to get paying gigs, delaying the book even more. Yes kids, doing comics will cost you money.
BUCKLER: What did you hope to accomplish with such a concise title? Was his number that much of his identity?
SANTIAGO: It was and I still think it is. When Sammy Sosa used to play for the Chicago Cubs he wore 21 in honor of Clemente.
The first time I flirted with the idea of doing a biography on Clemente was back in 1997. I lived in Long Island City, NY on 21st Street. Every time I saw the street number, I thought about the idea. I'm glad I didn't take on the project back then because I would not have done a good job.
There was this story that Roberto Clemente Walker counted the number of letters in his full name and that's how he came up with 21. But according to the Maraniss biography, that wasn't the case. Nevertheless, 21 has always meant Clemente for a lot of people.
BUCKLER: Would you explain how you came up with some of the unique visual devices to display some of the ideas in the book (eyes on fingers, baseball bombs, etc.)?
SANTIAGO: I don't know how unique the devices are. Old cartoons are full of figurative language and puns.
With sports, baseball analogies are generally overused to describe something: therefore, you should be able to give an account of baseball with non-sports analogies or puns in an effective manner. The book tries to speak to a broad audience.
BUCKLER: Page 75 is one of the most engaging pages in the book: it depicts the "PANIC SQUAD." Would you talk about composing that page?
SANTIAGO: That's just a shout-out to the classics. Most of the comics I read are pre-1995. As far as mainstream comics, the Silver Age ones are probably my favorites.
The Panic Squad was a group of feared players in Puerto Rico that included Willie Mays and Clemente before he entered the MLB. As I read about the Panic Squad, the first image that came to mind was of the archetypal splash page with characters coming at you in comics. Why fight it? They all have a hell of an entrance: "Behold — The Sinister Six!" as they jump off of the page. Well, in this case it's "The Panic Squad!" I tell you, I haven't drawn superhero comics in a while, and that page gave me a fix.
BUCKLER: The colors you use in this book are very earthy: browns, yellows and golds (along with black and white). Why did you use this palette?
SANTIAGO: Yellow and a deep dark blue are the two colors I used; from these all the rest spawned. The Pittsburgh Pirates' colors (yellow, black and white) comprised the template. With the blue and the yellow, I could get colors as dark as black and sepia, browns, greens and beige, muted blues, etc. All this works great with the organic nature of baseball. You know, leather, dirt, grass, jockstraps: You get the idea. It was a nice coincidence that Pittsburgh's colors offered me a palette that compliments the story perfectly to the point I didn't need any other.
BUCKLER: How did you develop the cartooning style you have today?
SANTIAGO: That was just for 21. Today, I'm doing something different. I don't bug much on the style other than what I visually want the reader to see … or not, with various degrees of success.
In 21, there's manga, Mad magazine, Golden Age illustrators, Daffy Duck, Scorsese, Silver Age comics and the Bible between two slices of music sheets.
BUCKLER: Can you talk about how this has differed from projects you have done in the past?
SANTIAGO: For instance, in 21, the man's story has already been written and that differs from some of the past work. It was a slower process too, because of the many facts and elements to keep track of.
On a technical level, the two-tone color process was something I experimented with before in my previous work, In My Darkest Hour. Each project has a set of challenges and advantages, so each required different preparation. I wanted a knockout, not a split decision. That's part of why the process is so fun; I don't treat two projects alike. The book, the thing itself, has to be part of it. In the graphic novels I do, the story begins on the cover. Of course, this is just the way I approach the creative process. We all strut in different ways.
Speaking of the cover, I drew the wraparound image, but it looks so good because it was actually designed by Jacob Covey. This was a last-minute decision, and he wasn't appropriately credited in the book.
BUCKLER: Clemente has had a lot of attention in pop culture. What do you think this comic adds to his legacy? And/or, what do you think it can do that cannot be achieved in other forms his story has been told in?
SANTIAGO: It's comics; there's so much to explore through this medium, so many possibilities: simple, but with as many variables as there are people.
BUCKLER: What kind of people do you think will be attracted to this book?
SANTIAGO: At this point it seems like all kinds of people! There are compliments from those who don't even like sports but enjoy the comics, and that says something about the depth of Roberto's story.
Not to mention the praise from the Baseball crowd who can easily smell an "intruder" a mile away. I treated the sport and its history with respect and took time to immerse in the sport in order to effectively deconstruct it for the comic-book page. It was a lot of work but well worth it.
BUCKLER: Can you tell us about any other projects you have in the works?
SANTIAGO: There are a few things going on, my next project is called Thunderbolt — a biography based on 19th century American abolitionist John Brown. No publishing date yet, but those who are interested can register for updates and news at www.captainjohnbrown.com.
BUCKLER: Is there anything we didn't cover, or anything you would like to add?
SANTIAGO: Those who bought 21 should go to facebook.com/21thestoryofrobertoclemente and let others know what you think.
I'm doing a couple of signings, and I hope people will bring their copies to sign, or buy another to donate to a school for Roberto Clemente day later this year. In the Chicago area, there will be a signing April 16 at Comix Revolution in Evanston, IL beginning at 2:00PM. In Seattle: May 4 at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery.