Strange as it might seem, in a country where superhero yarns and graphic novels become hit movies — and Dilbert and Garfield are merchandising empires — comics in the U.S. are not widely respected as art, let alone literature.
That's certainly the experience of Frank Santoro. The veteran Pittsburgh-based artist recently returned from the Angoulême International Comics Festival. Annually, the fest draws some 200,000 visitors over four days to a small town in France. (The largest such fest in the U.S., Comic Con International: San Diego, draws about 130,000.)
In February, Santoro attended Angoulême courtesy of publisher Çà et là, which issued the French edition of his latest book, Pompeii. Although the U.S. has five times the population of France, industry figures indicate that comics sales are much larger there; indeed, Santoro says sales of Pompeii in his home country are equalled overseas, largely in France. American comics journalist Brigid Alverson recently called France "a place where comics really mattered. Comics aren't a niche product in France; they are available everywhere, they are widely read, and they are taken seriously." Hard-cover, full-color editions of comics are sold in bookstores, train stations and grocery stores.
In the U.S., Santoro has a cult following for his 1995 graphic novel Storeyville (reissued in 2007). Last fall, promoting Pompeii — a moving fictional take on the 79 A.D. volcanic eruption — he did the U.S. festival circuit, and a short West Coast book tour he arranged and paid for himself. And in December, Santoro's American publisher, PictureBox, announced it had ceased publishing new titles.
Çà et là, by contrast, seems to be going strong. France's largest publisher of non-French alternative comics flew Santoro over for the 41st annual Angoulême Fest, all expenses paid. The Çà et là booth featured 10 authors, including Santoro and Derf Backderf, author of Dahmer and Me (about his youthful friendship with Jeffrey Dahmer). Post-festival, says Santoro, the authors accompanied publisher Serge Ewendzyk by train to Paris — where each did his own signing at a different bookstore on the same night.
"The money's better from the French publishers," says Santoro. He also enjoyed reconnecting with fans he'd met at his first Angoulême, four years ago — and the fact that French fans consider him an author. "I'm like Jerry Lewis," he quips. "I can be better known in France than I am at home."
Pompeii was inspired partly by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks (Santoro then lived in New York City), and partly by his years as an assistant to famed painter Francesco Clemente. The book follows Marcus, the young assistant to a wealthy Pompeian painter, who in the days before the eruption is torn between advancing his career and returning home to the provinces with his girlfriend.
What's immediately notable about Pompeii is the drawing style. As in Storeyville (an early-20th-century hobo epic, set partly in Pittsburgh), Santoro's images suggest sketches, hastily scrawled and minimally shaded in earth tones. In fact, they are meticulously planned. "It's safe to say he puts more thought into the overall structure and design of his pages than a lot of his contemporaries," wrote Chris Mautner, prefacing a 2013 interview in the online Comics Journal.
Santoro, 41, is that rare comics artist who draws in pencil and doesn't always ink it over. He composed Pompeii as a series of two-page spreads, following rules of classical composition. Within that structure, he improvised, redrafting only when necessary. These are drawings reduced to the essential lines. "I want you to read it fast," he says.
Storeyville was championed by supporters including comics icon Chris Ware. Pompeii has been likewise acclaimed. In the LA Review of Books, Adam McGovern called Santoro "a poet of the passing glimpse and the pivotal instant" and "a consummate storyteller." Pompeii was even reviewed in Le Monde: "[T]he author could not have taken a better approach to evoke the evanescence of a world on the brink of annihilation, or how a whimsical romance in 79 A.D., following the sentimental troubles of two Pompeian couples, brutally transforms into pure tragedy with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius."
Santoro, who lives in Swissvale, is also a noted authority on the art of comics. He writes "Riff Raff," a weekly Comics Journal column. And he's four years into running the Santoro Correspondence Course for Comic Book Makers, an online certificate program for students around the world.
And he's feeling good about Pompeii.
"I've had more of an emotional response to this book than anything I've ever done," says Santoro. "I've had people come up to me and say they wept openly at the end of the story. ... I felt really good about that. Melodrama is really hard to pull off without feeling corny."