’21: The Story of Roberto Clemente’ Blazes Trails And Breaks Hearts
There are a few ways to go about making a biography. You can do a strictly fact-based account to educate and inform your theoretical reader about someone’s life, such as you would see on Wikipedia. These tend to be bland, but informative. You can also chronicle their life without indulging in your fact fetish, perhaps with personal anecdotes from people who knew your subject, or maybe detailed explanations of certain events. The third is to simply tell a story about a person.
Wilfred Santiago’s 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente from Fantagraphics, a biography of the first Latin-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (and one of the greatest baseball players of all time, on and off the field), falls into the latter category, and is wildly successful because of it.21 is around two hundred pages long, a little smaller and squatter in dimensions than many graphic novels, and features a palette with precious few colors. If you’re looking for a blow-by-blow history of Roberto Clemente’s life, you’re looking in the wrong place. 21 tends to leap forward in time with little warning, and sometimes even in the middle of the page. Instead, it gives us a taste of Clemente’s life. We see a bit of his childhood, his adult life in fast-forward, his baseball career, and eventually the plane crash that took his life. It isn’t the read I was expecting, but in a way, it’s even better.
21 is split into around three chapters, beginning when Clemente was a kid (nicknamed “Momen” for his habit of going “Momentito!”), continuing on to adulthood, baseball career, and death. Scenes come in bursts, lasting but a few short pages, but a relative lack of captions makes the scenes blend, rather than jump. These brief spurts of information have the interesting effect of making this into a biography that isn’t concerned with the specifics of Clemente’s life so much as giving you the feeling of his life.
Appropriately, the overall tone of 21 is glowing. Certain scenes feature captions from a first person perspective, that reminisce on Clemente’s effect on the world, and latinos in particular. He’s presented as a beacon of hope, an example of what humanity can be. Clemente blazed trails and provided a role model to millions who needed one. Santiago’s work here manages to capture the magic and mystery of that position by putting Clemente on something of a pedestal, but it all hangs together very well. It’s exciting and incredibly easy to read.
Santiago’s art is fantastic. It’s not very realistic, which allows him to really get across the incredible feats of Clemente’s life. Speaking as the exact opposite of a baseball fan, when you add a dash of Jack Kirby’s signature visual style to a baseball game, complete with a squad of hitters leaping out of the bullpen like a Kirby splash page, you’re looking at an exciting game. Characters warp and pose unnaturally, but in such a way that you really get the majesty of what they’re doing.
There were a couple things I found really interesting about how Santiago chose to tell Clemente’s story. Race is inextricably tied to Clemente’s rise to glory, simply due to the time period he lived in. Whites-only restaurants, colored restrooms, and genuinely racist baseball fans abound, and serve as a source of both sadness and incredible frustration for Clemente and the reader. Santiago doesn’t preach, but he makes it plain that people are people, regardless of color or language, and that any other position is loathsome. It’s understated, but I like that Santiago let the reader come to conclusions via hints, rather than having Clemente stand up and give a speech before a raucous crowd of racists.
The way Santiago depicted language is fascinating, too. In comics, white word balloons are the default. Cape comics, in particular, tend to use angle brackets to signify foreign languages, and specially colored balloons represent a strange way of talking. Plain white balloons are the “normal” language. In 21, the white balloons have Spanish text (written in English, of course), while the bright orange balloons are English. It’s subtle, but I liked how it adjusted my perception of what I was reading. It presented Spanish-speaking, brown-skinned, Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente as being the default, which is something you don’t see too often.
Santiago’s 21 is a treat. Its 200 pages fly by, the visuals are great, and the dialogue dead-on. The last few pages are heartbreaking and effective. You can read an interview with Wilfred Santiago on the Fantagraphics site.