Pittsburgh. Frank Santoro (New York Review of Books)

For narrator Frank Santoro, it’s a mind-boggling affair. His parents, now senior citizens, divorced, are working in the same hospital. They cross each other often, but don’t speak to one another. Why is that? Even though there is no mystery waiting to be solved, crime story-style, or a single-event trauma shockingly revealed at the apex of the plot, Pittsburgh is nevertheless a sort of personal meandering psychogeographical walk down the proverbial memory lane in which the author tries to investigate what underlies this standoffnishness. 

At one time, Pittsburgh is a book about Santoro’s parents and about life in our spiritually broken times. The story delves into Anne Marie´s and Sam’s childhood and first adult experiences, how they met, their marriage and life together, and then Frank’s own boyhood in the neighbourhood. It’s peppered throughout with small memories, little stories and scenes locked in a couple of pages. Like a journal.

Frank Santoro - Pittsburgh, 02

A contemporary and recurrent critical concern when discussing auteur comics is the materiality of their work. If one follows certain less mainstream scenes, one knows that there are many approaches that go way beyond mere inking and colouring over pencil on paper, and that collage, cut-ups, abstraction, installation, performance, improvisation, parlour games, randomness, stamping, and many other methods and strategies are part and parcel of this creative discipline too, as in other art fields. If one understands experimentality as a sort of spectrum between, say, the usual pencil-and-ink approach and three-dimensional installation (admittedly, a poor of way of thinking about this), then Santoro is somewhat caught in the middle. He is interested in telling a story, for one, and he is engaged with representational techniques. However, his approach brings elements from sketching, doodling, diary-making, note-taking, scribbling, collage, in such a way that his figures, objects, houses and landscapes seem always on the verge of dissolving or not quite materializing, as if by that very nature they better translate the slightly doubtful scaffolding of memory.

Frank Santoro - Pittsburgh, 01

Using mostly what looks like light brown cheap legal paper as background, and what seems to be sharp, bright colour felt-tip pens creating wonderful juxtapositions, and perhaps colour pencils, pochoir techniques, with beautiful textured and soft colours, post-its adding or correcting something underneath, the whole book feels like a register of sorts. Connecting it to the history of print and artistic and personal memory disciplines that are cousin to comics, Pittsburgh is particularly adroit to convey the fluidity and ongoing negotiation of memory, vicarious experience and testimony.

In fact, if the book starts in the first person, this is really an autobiography of an other, in this case, Santoro’s parents, bringing it into a small constellation of works such as David B.’s Epileptic, Emil Ferris’ My Favorite Thing is Monstersor Emmanuel Guibert’s Alan’s War, in which the authors become, in different degrees, visual and textual vehicles for other peoples’ lives, implicated with their own, one way or the other.

But as we were hinting before, Santoro’s scope in this book is very wide, in terms of time and space. Despite what I said about trauma, and while not turning it into the core of the book, Santoro does not flinch from the PTSD (then called by any other name) suffered by his father in Vietnam, and other addictions in the family, and how that condition would shape everyone’s future life.

What’s more, and despite not engaging with a direct discourse about it, one can comb through the pages of the book and feel the undertones about the city of Pittsburgh that Santoro builds into the story. I am not familiar at all with Pittsburgh and its realities, but I surmise that issues of urban social decay, economic depletion, abandonment, and so on, are in the order of the day, and they are indeed tackled with by this book: they are enmeshed in a vivid manner in the realistic and daily lives of this family and small business and their friends. These are ruins in which we’re meandering, even if the people inhabiting them don’t know it yet. We must fight to restore them, and impede more ruin, and avoid people from suffering in them, no doubt, but there’s poetry in ruins, nonetheless.

I want to bring to the table Chris Ware’s relationship with Chicago, Julie Doucet with Montreal, Jacques Tardi with Paris, From Hell with London, Marco Mendes with Porto, and Richard McGuire with the elusive spot he calls “here”, as examples of the multiple, passionate, intricate relationships that comics storyworlds can create with the cities to which they’re anchored. In Santoro’s book, the sense of “place” is extremely strong if understated, it touches everything.

Frank Santoro - Pittsburgh, 03

Frank Santoro’s work is always riveting, surprising and nimble in what makes comics a great medium. I’ve written about Chimera back in the day, and Storeyville (in Portuguese only), but it is not easy to bring a “horizon of expectations” to any of his new work. There’s no guesswork for the ways his output will delightfully discomfort us. Actually, there’s one guess: I guess that while Santoro is creating, there are unforeseen consequences to where his material and poetic processes lead him.

In Pittsburgh, it’s as if the seemingly surprising and unexpected, yet real and hurtful breakdown of Santoro’s parents’ marriage mirrors that of the city itself. Incrementally, and happening when we are not looking – Santoro was living elsewhere before returning to Pittsburgh –, things wobble, fall apart, and then it’s too late to mend them. But is it too late to understand it? Perhaps so, but memory work is always trying to salvage things, even if ultimately it cannot restore them, like Benjamin’s Angel of History. Pittsburgh is an incredibly powerful, soteriological, beautiful comics pean to how memory, even in decay and sadness, can save us.

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