Saturday, February 23, 2013

Review: 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente
By Wilfred Santiago
Fantagraphics, 2011
Roberto Clemente is one of the most respected figures in the long history of baseball, as much for his extraordinary playing prowess as for his charitable works.  To those in his native Puerto Rico, he is nothing short of a national Hero.

Clemente was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico and spent much of his youth helping his father on sugar crops and playing stickball with friends. He was quickly drafted by scouts into the minor leagues, but the language barrier (he spoke little English), his dark skin - Major League Baseball was just a few years into integration - and inconsistency in play kept him on the bench until he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954.

It would be a few years before he would fully develop his skills at the bat, but his energy and defensive abilities (ultimately earning 12 gold gloves) kept him from riding the bench to the extent he did in development. Splitting his off-season between his enlistment in the Marine Corps Reserve and charitable work, at the beginning of the 1960s he developed the offensive excellence that would take him to 3000 hits, multiple batting titles, MVPs, and two world series for the historically struggling Pirates. He would win over the blue collar fan base of Pittsburgh and cement himself as a superstar in his home of Puerto Rico, but it was his charitable works that of which he was most proud - and tragically, which would spell his end.

It is against the backdrop of a burgeoning Puerto Rico and revolution in Baseball that Wilfred Santiago tells Clemente's remarkable story - or at least attempts to, in 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente (Fantagraphics, 2011). Visual historical dramas that aim to be biographies, be it film or comics, are always difficult to pull off. Without the advantage of prose or straight documentaries - and outside of autobiography - by necessity a potential chronicler must limit themselves to a specific period of time (take Spielberg's Lincoln) or cover as much ground as possible in broad strokes, which is what Santiago does in 21.

Trying to capture the essence of a man's life, let alone someone as outright deified in the history of a sport and of a people, is an unenviable task, and one that Santiago doesn't quite stick. Santiago starts in Clemente's formative years as a youth in Puerto Rico, but in a short biography with a premium on focus, he spends too much time painting a picture of war-time Puerto Rico and Clemente's early years. It is entirely feasible to weave a comprehensive cultural history into biography, just look at Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Indeed, if Santiago had chosen to limit the work to just Clemente's early years and a cultural history of Puerto Rico in the 40s and 50s, the graphic novel would be decidedly more successful in execution. But as it stands, the portraits of Clemente and Puerto Rico are both fuzzy, indistinct. We're shown brief bursts of social upheaval, and how it may have effected Clemente and his family, but the picture painted isn't very clear and come across as just a series of unconnected events. Do the things that happen to his homeland and his family in his youth play a definitive formative role in his development as a man and as a ballplayer in later chapters? The answer is unclear, the events portrayed just kind of happen. In later chapters he seems to be effected by the early loss of a sibling (who wouldn't be), but like everything with Clemente in this book it just hangs there providing no connection or impetus to any future events. As it stands, the lack of focus, the pointless digressions into Puerto Rican history and a useless narrative-stopping telling of a religious parable all contribute to the mess of the book.

After bogging down in the first third, the book flies through Clemente's career as a gifted ball player. We see his frustrations with his treatment by his coaches, the language barrier, and his anger and confusion at Jim Crow America. Again the difficulties inherent in the style of biography Santiago attempts come into play. Trying to be all-encompassing as it is, there are short bursts of Clemente's life, both professionally and personally. We see some scattered career highlights, some personal events, but again it is too unfocused. How could any of it be focused when you are covering so much ground? The professional achievements scattershot throughout are difficult to follow, never really put into context, focusing on random accomplishments over others. The portrayed events that happen to him personally over 20 years are equally muddled, with great frocus on the late loss of a relative, and almost none on the birth of his children.

Beyond baseball, beyond his superstar status in Puerto Rico, Clemente will forever be known for his charitable work. Not content with a life of comfortable fame, he leveraged his celebrity into helping thousands of underprivileged people throughout Latin America, often doing the hard work himself. In 1972, an earthquake devastated Nicaragua and he organized relief efforts from abroad. The corrupt Nicaraguan government was redirecting aid into its own coffers, so to ensure delivery Clemente set out to accompany a supply flight himself. The plane was overloaded. It crashed into the Caribbean, killing all aboard. In death Clemente was lauded as an international hero. But you don't get a very clear sense of his charitable work here. It is simply presented as a means to get to his death and the end of the story.

For a biography we simply never get a clear picture of Clemente as a man. The story is clearly told with due reverence and love, but everything that happens to him, indeed Clemente himself, are all just cardboard cutouts moved around at the service of the plot. 

That isn't to say that there is nothing to enjoy about the book. As a biography it fails, but as a comic it absolutely crackles. The art is stunning. Santiago clearly captures baseball's (and Clemente's) unique energy and the Americas of the '50s and '60s and most distinctly the Puerto Rico of the 30s and 40s. Santiago is a skilled artist and he portrays baseball, quirky and ancient and superstitious and unique and perfect and flawed as the sport is in all it's glory. There is so much to enjoy about the multifaceted, angular, energetic, lively art that the narrative frustrations take a back seat.

Is it enough to recommend the book? It certainly warrants a place high on the short list of comics about baseball. But its frustrations are above its strengths, its potential far above what it achieves.

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