Although baseball has served over the years as backdrop for comic strips from Ozark Ike to Peanuts, the less-than-frenetic pace of the game would hardly seem an obvious fit for the longer-form graphic novel. Yet in his new book, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, a 200-page graphic biography of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, artist Wilfred Santiago captures the physical grace of baseball and creates a story of visceral and emotional force, one that suggests that the game and format just might be a perfect fit after all.
Santiago, 40, an illustrator and writer who grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, just minutes from where Clemente played stickball as a boy, has produced a rich and surprising work. The compositions and framing are intricate and varied—panels depicting game action shift from intense close-ups to wide shots that emphasize one of baseball's most resonant emotions: loneliness.
Ridiculed as a hypochondriac by the press and the target of racist taunts, especially early in his career, Clemente endured a sense of isolation that was cultural as well as physical. "By the end of his life," says Santiago, "Clemente managed to chip through the wall by slowly gaining a fan base of support. You can't have light without darkness, and Clemente is about dusting things off, not wasting time and going full speed ahead."
Santiago's book owes a strong narrative debt to David Maraniss's 2006 biography of Clemente, but it is driven by Santiago's skill as a visual storyteller. His figures are drawn in a cartoon style, but mixed with clippings from newspapers and magazines they convey a hyperrealism that highlights the relationship between Clemente and the world around him. "You don't have to make something realistic to make it feel real," says Santiago.
Clemente proves to be an ideal subject for a graphic novel—a famously stylish player who attacked the game with controlled violence; a great fielder, famous for his laser throws; and a bad-ball hitter who stroked wicked line drives. Describing his performance in the 1971 World Series, Roger Angell wrote that Clemente played not simply to win but "as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field."
Santiago captures Clemente's relentless vitality as a player, frames the story around the historical and religious traditions of Puerto Rico, and handles Clemente's tragic death with restraint, all with a gimlet eye and the sensitivity of a true artist. It is a classic story given new life in this fresh, innovative telling.