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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Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

Here it is, the final “top ten” list in our year-end wrap, and probably the one people are most interested in. Books in this category are comprised of all-new material, never serialized in single issues or online, and constructed specifically for the so-called “graphic novel” format. And your “winners” are —

10. Blood And Drugs By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – A visceral, harrowing firsthand account of addiction and recovery on the social and economic margins by a cartoonist with a busted hand. One of the most immediate and unmediated works in recent memory, this one will leave an indelible mark on your brain.

9. The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade By Viken Berberian And Yann Kebbi (Fantagraphics) – Exploring architecture and gentrification as inherently political topics, this exquisitely-illustrated book has much to say about damn near everything,  yet never feels like a treatise or lecture. There’s nothing rotten about it at all, comrade.

8. Theth : Tomorrow Forever By Josh Bayer (Tinto Press) – Incorporating elements of memoir and metafiction to tell this remarkable coming-of-age tale, Bayer uses genre to explore deeply personal topics and to paint a portrait of a life that could well and truly “go either way.” Utterly unique stuff that will make you glad your late-teens and/or early-twenties are over with.

7. The Death Of The Master By Patrick Kyle (Koyama Press) – Meet the new boss, same as — ah, you know the drill. But you’ve never seen that axiom bought to life in such a formally inventive and wryly satirical manner. Kyle is in full command of his considerable gifts here, and you pass on it at your peril.

6. Gender Queer By Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge) – An intellectually and emotionally resonant memoir of awakening that addresses issues of gender and sexuality, or their absence, with frankness, insight, honesty, and even a little bit of humor. One of the year’s most important and engagingly-drawn books.

5. Pittsburgh By Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – A lavishly-illustrated account of a family and a city’s declining fortunes and the oblique reasons behind them, this is the crowning achievement of Santoro’s career and a testament to the power of emotional survival and perseverance. As formally exciting as it is deeply personal, this is a book that richly rewards re-reading and reveals new thematic depth every time you do so.

4. Grip Vol. 2 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – The second volume of Westvind’s soaring, elegiac tribute to working women everywhere serves as both perfect companion piece to, and necessary extension of, the first. Bursting with dynamic action and illustration, this is a genuinely triumphant and transcendent work.

3. The Hard Tomorrow By Eleanor Davis (Drawn+Quarterly) – A moving and very much “of the moment” exploration of what it means to be human, to be involved in a relationship, and to bring new life into the world, Davis’ boldest and most ambitious work yet cements her reputation as one of our most important contemporary cartoonists. This is who we are, where we are, and what we hope for all wrapped up in one one visually sumptuous package.

2. Bezimena By Nina Bunjevac (Fantagraphics) – A searing and disturbing portrait of obsession and mania, this psychologically violent work is as essential as it is difficult, and Bunjevac’s amazingly detailed cartooning is the very definition of darkly alluring. Tough to read, sure, but absolutely impossible to forget.

1. How I Tried To Be A Good Person By Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics) – A towering achievement in the field of comics memoir, Lust’s dense and thorough-going examination of a pivotal and formative period of her life leaves no stone unturned and stands out for its absolute emotional honesty. Brave, confident, and visually literate in the extreme, this is one of those rare books that establishes its author as a true master of the medium.

And we’re done! It’s been quite the task compiling all these lists, but I suppose that was to be expected — after all, it’s been quite a year. 2019 saw more quality comics releases than anyone could possibly keep up with, and to call that a “good problem to have” is to sell the situation far short. In point of fact, we’re living in a new Golden Age of creativity and expression, and if you dig my ongoing coverage and analysis of it, then please consider subscribing to 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. I’d be very grateful indeed to have your support, so do give it a look at