Writer & Artist: Frank Santoro
Release Date: November 15, 2013
What some people might see as the greatest weakness of Frank Santoro’s new book, Pompeii, is, in fact, its greatest strength: one might call it intentional amateurism. Santoro’s lines are loose. His pages often look unfinished. The lines between panels are often interrupted (or disrupted, more accurately, because you can still see the lines) by figures’ heads poking up into the space above speech balloons. In some ways, the whole book feels like a sketch, a first draft of what would become a polished final product. But buffing out all the roughness would deprive Pompeii of its forceful and direct qualities, which are, in the end, what most make it worth reading.
This approach is not new for the artist. Back in 2008, he complained about the “baroque craft” of comics in The Comics Reporter: “That’s what comics is, it’s so much about being this coded symbolism in drawing and rendering and all the little marks and shading. You have to have the same style from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. This uniformity. I never understood that. I never strove for that, really. Whatever the scene dictated, whether it was a painting or a drawing or anything, you always just tried to pull out the feeling and the meaning of the piece through the media.” Saying his drawings are too rough is like looking at Andy Warhol’s sketches or Picasso’s paintings and pointing out where they depart from realism. This is not to say Santoro is Warhol or Picasso or in a comparable league, but his lines are there to serve a purpose and capture a mood, not to create Alex Ross-esque perfection.
Here’s a different analogy that’s probably just as much of a turn-off. Pompeii is a lot like James Cameron’s Titanic. Doomed young people focus on their own small lives while the audience waits with (somewhat gleeful) dread for the inevitable horror to come. Also: there is drawing from the nude. Like Titanic, it does not present a completely mature perspective on love or tragedy, but, again, Santoro is going for immediacy, which he absolutely succeeds at.
The story grew out of his own experiences as an artist’s assistant for Francesco Clemente, and Pompeii protagonist Marcus holds the same job for a painter named Flavius, trying to hold onto both his mistress/muse and a potential patroness. The premise sets up farce, with a fair amount of backstage dealings, but the book isn’t really comedic. It’s too straightforward for that. The characters are pretty much whom they appear to be: the homesick and put-upon Marcus, the venal and ambitious Flavius, the ladies (who don’t have much in the way of personalities to differentiate them, but do have different hairdos).
Where the book delights is in its restlessness. Santoro, like his colleague Dash Shaw, has an itch for experimentation, and the simple narrative here allows for some weirdness around the edges. Sound effects are rendered descriptively, in brackets, in a manner that adds nothing in terms of plot and very little in terms of scene setting. Faint words in the background linger, like notes from the artist to himself. Arrows point out the direction in which a door opens (with the word “door” helpfully included). More than a sketch for a comic, the format comes across like storyboards for a film, an impression reinforced by the extremes of motion in some scenes. All of this may make your brain a bit antsy, tickled by the carbonation of questions bubbling up, which is the point. Pompeii may not be perfect, but that seems to be its goal.