FRANK SANTORO is a poet of the passing glimpse and the pivotal instant. His graphic novels do not chronicle sweeping passages of time but crystallize moments: a defining decision, a life-altering incident. His milestone Storeyville culminated in a brief, transforming reunion between two railroad-riding vagrants in the early 20th century. In his new Pompeii, it is the intersecting aspirations and deceptions of a painter, his apprentice, the apprentice’s girlfriend, and the painter’s wife and mistress, in the days before the volcanic eruption that wiped the title city from the next 16 centuries of history.
Pompeii is itself a kind of historical reclamation. Storeyville came out in 1995, and had a high-profile republishing in 2007. It has remained the work Santoro is “best known” for, and it is a testament to the stature of Storeyville’s achievement and Santoro’s own presence in his field that he has remained well known — and this new book ardently awaited. Born and based in Pittsburgh, Santoro filled the years between the two books with short-form experimental works, he intermittently abandoned comics, and he established himself as a visual theorist and art educator. He also detoured to New York City and for some years was a studio assistant to 1980s art-boom luminary Francesco Clemente. Now, 18 years later, Pompeii arrives and explores that painter’s apprentice experience through the imaginative refraction of period detail, while illuminating certain eternal human tendencies.
In the serialized Cold Heat (also put out by PictureBox), Santoro (with collaborator Ben Jones) explored vivid, extreme color, and for Pompeii he has said he wished to simplify — restricting himself to pencil, drawing at the exact size that the work would be reproduced, even choosing a thin paper stock to prevent himself from reworking too much without having to start over.
The materiality is important to the published version too; Pompeii has the physical surface of an artist’s sketchpad, and the tactile presence has the satisfying and sobering textures we associate with the substantial art object. Touch was central to Storeyville too; in its original edition it was the size of a tabloid newspaper and printed on the same kind of paper, conveying a feeling of exhilarating and unsettling ephemerality to match the tenuous existence of the transients it portrayed. When PictureBox rereleased the book as a handsome hardback edition in 2007, it took on the feeling of a newspaper morgue compendium or Victorian records ledger, as well as a welcoming vintage storybook. While Storeyville was dense in detail, Pompeii is the culmination of a minimalist quest that Santoro has been on in the intervening years. Sense of place is still paramount, and Santoro has not evacuated intricacy from his frames. He arrives not at a feeling of emptiness, but of charged space.
Narratives that unfold over time, in a paper medium, are inevitably also a matter of pace, and the mechanics of pacing. Setting the schematic of a comic’s layout is the basic unit that Santoro believes allows artists to sequence and pace their stories, to create narrative momentum and emotional effect. This is an art that he feels was lost, like the relics of Pompeii, in the 1990s surge of indie comic creators who fruitfully bypassed the commercialized model of Marvel and DC but also might have missed those powerhouses’ fundamental techniques.
Pompeii follows aspiring portrait artist Marcus as he mixes paints for his master, Flavius, while helping keep the older man’s wife (Alba) and lover (an unnamed Roman princess) from encountering each other. The power imbalance and workplace harassment burdens are familiar to us, as is the tension between Marcus and his girlfriend, Lucia, who is nostalgic for the smaller town they both left so Marcus could pursue the ancient equivalent of a big-city arts career.
Santoro’s work resembles the preliminary sketches of the finest canonical painters, a rough draft of history that has been somehow celestially salvaged from the ephemeral, authentic moments of emotions that are both ancient and immediate, and in either case almost impossible to capture and examine.
As if exposing the clockworks of existence, Santoro applies deceptively literal, schematic textual directions to occasional actions and elements (the label of a color of paint, the motion of a swinging door), but imbues more significant incidents with the grand sweep of orbiting planets. In one moment early on, for instance, Marcus finds himself positioned, in classic proportion, between the in-progress portrait of his master’s lover and the landscape regularly rolled in to hide her, both mounted on easels in receding perspective as Marcus cleans the floor in their exact, but incidental, center.
The sureness of Santoro’s optical summaries, the remarkable sense of substance in his simple spaces, is complemented by the emotional geometry of his storytelling. The triangle between Flavius, his wife, and his lover impacts other people’s lives, and the counterpoint between Flavius’s divided affections and the clarity of Marcus and Lucia’s focused devotion is poignant. When the infamous volcano starts to blow, its plume of smoke seems frozen in place like the single pillar of some pantheistic temple, or, “like an evergreen tree,” Flavius remarks, and while individual lives are erasable, we get a sense of the eternal dynamic of benevolent servitude, Marcus’s to the whims of his boss, and Flavius’s to his impulses. Santoro shows our passage through time and the traces it leaves on our knowledge of ourselves — using, for instance, the erased stages of an arm’s or leg’s progression for a simple stroboscopic sense of movement, or the transparent contour of a figure against a building, as if we’re already seeing their optic echo after they’ve left the space. In one masterful scene, Marcus comes upon Flavius and the princess, her portrait an empty outline and her own face an empty shape; only Flavius, the fulcrum of attention and import, is rendered in full tones and identifiable detail.
Santoro is a consummate storyteller, one whose work is as much about flesh as form. The ironies that converge and the tendernesses that emerge as the volcanic disaster approaches and occurs, and the sheer horror of its devastation, raise history to the level of art.
We’ve seen the mummified lovers, the people frozen at the moment the tide of lava hit, but these most concrete of remains are in fact the emptiest of traces, nowhere near as alive as Santoro’s animate marks. The essence of life is unreclaimable; there is no sculpture of fear, no historical record of fleeting feelings, no trace of a million tears. This is what imagination is for.
Frank Santoro has found himself a significant figure in the comics tradition’s line of succession, an important agent of the art form’s evolution and transmission. And mentorship is a crucial factor in his practice and his themes — he credits comics scholars like Pittsburgh publisher and entrepreneur Bill Boichel for acquainting him with his own work’s precedents, and he consults with cartoonists who emerged after he did (like Dash Shaw) and helps prepare the next generation. In both Storeyville and Pompeii a father figure overshadows the point-of-view character’s life and actions; Storeyville’s figure shows himself to be a sound parent and Pompeii’s to be an irresponsible one, but in each case, a new path is embraced by the symbolic son in a mix of necessity and brave self-definition. We can learn much from what went before, and need to make the first marks of what can come next. Whole ways of life are lost to history and great cities can fall without a trace, but the blank slate is always waiting. And Frank Santoro’s odyssey to find a way of conveying everything by expressing less is not a quest to break down, but to rebuild.