The great Roberto Clemente is more than a baseball legend to cartoonist Wilfred Santiago. A native Puerto Rican, Clemente looms large, as much a part of the Puerto Rican cultural landscape as coffee and Catholicism. Santiago set out to try and capture the cultural realities underlying the legend in his new graphic biography, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, to be published by Fantagraphics Books in April.
“He was somebody who, even after he’s dead, people talk about him,” Santiago said about the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder and humanitarian who died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering emergency supplies to Nicaragua after a massive earthquake. “I don’t follow sports as much as when I was younger, and I wasn’t quite a fan because I never saw him play, but I heard about his playing style or things he did outside the field and such. And there are coliseums named him.”
Clemente seemed a natural choice for Santiago, who was working on a follow-up to In My Darkest Hour, a 2004 graphic novel published by Fantagraphics in which he explored the grim dead-end life of a depressed young man. He knew he wanted to do a biography—partially for the challenge—and Clemente was the figure who leapt off his possible projects list for several reasons. Santiago felt that he might be able to tackle the baseball star’s life from an angle usually not taken by others biographers — that of a fellow Puerto Rican.
It was also a chance to explore Puerto Rican politics and history — and the nature of the island’s relationship with the United States — in the context of a well-known figure. Santiago said that while he didn’t want to “beat people over the head,” but he believes that the backdrops of cultural history were “important in the context that he lived two political realities at the same time,” that of being an Afro-latino in racist 1960s America. By widening the scope beyond Clemente’s baseball life, he was able to make the storytelling more intimate.
“I tried to look from the outside,” said Santiago. “I wanted to tell the story as if you asked me about somebody that I knew and I just started rambling and telling you about him. I wanted the book to have that free flow to it.” In doing so, it gave Santiago a chance to look back at his culture and realize that the distance between it and life on mainland American provided some clarity about the culture in Puerto Rico and how it shaped Clemente.
“I know as a society Puerto Ricans are very religious, we are mostly Catholic Christians,” Santiago said. “Being in the United States and looking back, it seemed like there was more religion than I thought, and a lot of the values that Clemente had, whether it’s his eagerness to help people he thinks are in need or help sick kids or other things, these are pretty much values inculcating him into [Puerto Rican] society itself because they are values that are taught by the Christian faith.”
Catholicism is so much of a part of Puerto Rican culture that it becomes an unconscious guide to the direction of an individual’s life, Santiago explained, as well as that of its broader citizenry. This Catholic subtext to everyday behavior is something that Santiago has discovered in his own life, despite his distance from religious practice.
“I’m not a religious person, but at the same time when I call my mother, I ask for her blessing, because it’s something I’ve always done,” Santiago said. “Why do I ask for her blessing? I don’t believe in God, but I still do because it’s part of the country itself.”
Santiago also pointed out that the Catholic religion is of course influential in many Latin American countries, but it is Puerto Rico’s history with the United States—its status as an unincorporated territory of the United States that has flirted realistically with actual statehood—that differentiates it from all the others. And Santiago said that this duality—the split between the nature of life on the American mainland and Puerto Rican culture—is another aspect of Puerto Rican life that each native feels and which shaped Clemente.
“It’s completely strange — I grew up with David Lee Roth and American television that is translated in Spanish,” he said. “I was more attuned to American pop culture than Latin culture. I think every Puerto Rican has a relative in New York or somewhere in America. There’s nobody on the island that is completely disconnected.”
While Santiago identifies with this dual cultural heritage, it was Clemente’s dark skin that brought him into the harsher side of American life, a side that Santiago cannot really identify with. Because of that skin tone, Clemente was often mistaken for African American and encountered the outright racist prejudice of the times—as if Latin Americans didn’t have to face enough of their own battles against prejudice. This was something that Clemente found confusing, and the language barrier did not help either his understanding of the situation or any racist perception of him.
“He was a dark skinned Puerto Rican and during that period in the 20th Century, that was a big deal in the United States,” Santiago said, “and that was a completely foreign experience. There’s racism in Puerto Rico but there’s no institutionalized racism like there was in the United States for a very long period.”
“He gets treated like some sort of African American because on the outside he looks like one, but at the same time he’s Latino, so he has an issue with language, for example,” Santiago explained. “He’s a public figure so he speaks and sometimes he found it difficult to translate perhaps not words or grammar or sentences, but perhaps more the emotions--more of what’s behind a statement that you might say in Spanish.”
But the core of this complicated cultural relationship, Santiago said, is that Puerto Ricans are American and have suffered, sacrificed and died for American freedom. “My father was a Vietnam veteran, and once you start entrusting a society with things like that, it becomes a deeper tie,” said Santiago. “When people die representing certain things, it’s not just a colony now. You are an American, you have people who die defending the values and goals of the United States. And even though Americans are not that familiar with Puerto Ricans or the island, that’s still not going to change that fact.”
Santiago’s challenge was to take all this history and culture and translate it into something more than a dry biography, to make a book that would be an enjoyable sequential story that didn’t require a deep knowledge of Clemente or Puerto Rico or baseball, and wasn’t an illustrated text book. To do this, he pulled from some unlikely conventions within the comics form and applied them in a way that he thinks will keep Clemente’s story more vivid and less conservatively told than other graphic biographies out there.
He even compared his story to a superhero comic. “There are certain similarities between baseball and a superhero comic,” Santiago said. “Whether it’s the costumes or two teams battling it out. I wanted to capture that sense of comics--a lot of biographies, it seems to me have this static feel, whether it’s the heavy reliance on picture reference or biographical data,” Santiago said. “I was trying to walk this fine line: I wanted a baseball fan to read it and be crazy about it, but at the same time I wanted the same for someone who might just like to read comic books.”
Fantagraphics plans an 11,000 copy initial printing and the book will be published just as the Major League Baseball season begins and Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds—a self-acknowledged “huge baseball fan”—couldn’t be more excited. Fantagraphics sent out more than 50 galleys to comics shops; Reynolds is targeting sports media like ESPN (he's gotten impressive blurbs from ESPN sports writers Rob Neyer and Jim Caple), while his Latina publicity director Jacqueline Cohen said she is putting her conversational Spanish to work on American Spanish-language and Latin American media. Reynolds said that although the Clemente family has not been involved in the book, copies have been sent to Roberto Clemente Jr. and the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh. In addition, ESPN.com will run an interview with Santiago in early May and baseball sites including SBnation.com and BaseballProspectus.com are also slated to interview him.
Santiago will appear in conversation with Rob Neyer at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery in Seattle on May 4 and on May 28, he'll appear at Chicago Comics, his hometown comics shop. Reynolds hopes to set up events in Pittsburgh and at the Clemente Museum and he is also reaching out to the Mariners as well as the White Sox in hopes of getting Santiago a chance to throw out the first pitch.
"How many times will I ever get to contact the Mariners or the White Sox in any professional capacity? I've had more fun publicizing this book than anything in recent memory,” Reynolds said. “I’ve been amazed at how many baseball fans are also comics fans. There’s a lot of overlap.”