Requiem For A Dream — And A City : Frank Santoro’s “Pittsburgh”

Look, I get it : Frank Santoro’s constructed “persona” within the comics scene rubs some people the wrong way, and that’s started to bleed over into how folks view his work. That’s as unfair to his comics on a purely technical level as it is entirely understandable on a human one, but once in awhile something comes along that’s bound to silence all naysayers, a la Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or Alan Moore’s Providence, which is to say : a work so undeniably accomplished that even people who “have it in” for the creator(s) behind it based on their “off the field” statements (usually those perceived, correctly or otherwise, to be a reflection of egocentrism) can’t argue with the FACT that they’ve produced something extraordinary. Something that will stand the test of time, no doubt — but may even take it one step further and be well and truly timeless. Welcome to another such instance.
Any way you slice it, Pittsburgh — just released in an English-language hardcover iteration by New York Review Comics after first being published in France last year — is a work of raw emotional honesty, expertly communicated : utilizing a wide array of tools including colored pencils, markers, masking tape, scissors, and various paper stocks, Santoro explores themes of dissolution and devastation, both as they relate to his parents’ marriage and the economic and social fortunes of his hometown. Crucially, never does this “as above, so below” or “micro/macro” contrast feel overly-obvious or forced, but that doesn’t mean they’re inextricably entwined, either : the fact that his mom and dad work in the same building and no longer talk to each other is nothing to do, specifically, with the steel mill closings happening all around them, but the downward trajectory of their relationship being concurrent with the city’s prospects exacerbates the feelings of despair and hopelessness engendered by each separately.
Certainly the amount of work that went into this book is obvious — the text itself refers to de facto “interviews” with family conducted as far back as 2006, while other events within the narrative take place in very nearly the present day. You might expect a fair amount of chronological “whiplash” as a result of this, but dividing the story into two distinct sections (Santoro’s 1970s childhood and 1990s early-adulthood) alleviates that potential pitfall tremendously, even as each segment comes complete with flashbacks and fast-forwards all its own. In that sense, as was the case with authors and artists ranging from James Joyce to Chris Ware before him, Santoro frees himself from the strict demands of linear storytelling while simultaneously placing occurrences at obviously fixed points — something that, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, both the aforementioned Messr.s Tarantino and Moore have also done with regularity.
I realize, at this point, that I’m placing Santoro alongside some fairly esteemed company, but rest assured I wouldn’t so so unless he’d earned it, so let’s go with it just a bit further : in the same way Joyce made Dublin a living and breathing character in Ulysses, and Moore repeated the feat with Northampton in Jerusalem, our guy Frank duly follows suit with Pittsburgh in, well, Pittsburgh. Even when when we’re back in Vietnam with his father, Frank Sr. (who accidentally shot a superior officer and was placed on psychiatric leave — a humiliating assignation that inadvertently saved his life when his entire platoon was shelled to death within the underground bunker they inhabited days after he shipped out, thereby doubling his already-acute case of survivor’s guilt), the “Steel City” looms large, as it does for Frank Jr. decades later when he high-tails it for California. You can take the kid out of the neighborhood, as the admittedly done to death saying goes —
And yeah, that neighborhood — Swissvale, for those interested — is as blue-collar as anywhere else in the so-called “Steel City,” literally “ground zero” for the “beer-and-a-shot” crowd, but it’s not like life there is portrayed as an endless series of hardships and mishaps, quite the contrary : Santoro spends at least as much time showing the early years of his parents’ against-the-odds love story as he does its protracted demise, and his childhood is filled with the kinds of carefree and generally happy memories we’d hope any kid would have, the eventual loss of that sense of innocence and joy made all the more quietly tragic due to the fact that the narrative, bravely, “spoils” its own ending right from the outset — a move which almost always backfires, but it absolutely essential to the character of the story here.
Just as essential, however,  is the looping, organic nature of memory itself as relayed in both script and art by Santoro, events being “organized” and juxtaposed with one another not so much by dint of when they occurred as how they left their mark — the fluid nature of the illustrations echoing and amplifying the ever-shifting nature of what is remembered as well as how. All of which means that Pittsburgh may not be the most strictly accurate work of memoir you’ll ever come across, but it’s definitely among the most honest. It’s also one of the very finest comics you’ll read this year.
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This review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. In fact, I’ll go you one better : it’s taken from it directly. And no, this is not just me being lazy.
You see, my friends, in an effort to gin up interest in said project, I’ve decided to offer a handful of “free previews” of the sort of content you’ll find over there, so if you like what you just read, I’d be very appreciative if you’d direct your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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