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21 august 2013

Wilfred Santiago's comic-book biography of Roberto Clemente, 21, owes a great deal of its structure to David Maraniss's prose biography Clemente (and duly cites Maraniss's book in its bibliography). It has the same structure and focal points (the 1954 Royals, the 1960 Pirates, Clemente's courtship of his wife Vera). It elides a few of Maraniss's concerns (in particular Clemente's querulous streak and his unconventional friendships with young women), but it spends a bit more time on Clemente's family and upbringing in Puerto Rico, a background that Santiago evokes lovingly.

For reasons hard to puzzle out, baseball's two great humanist heroes, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, are known as much by their numbers as their names. Robinson's 42 is exactly twice Clemente's 21, by chance, but Clemente looms as large for Puerto Ricans as Robinson does for African-Americans.

During their careers, though both reached iconic status, they were, of course, also just ballplayers, taking part in a large and increasingly diverse American pageant. Robinson retired before I was born, but Clemente lived till I was in high school; I saw him play in person against the Phillies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and often on TV. He didn't do anything remarkable when I saw him live; he was just another Pirate, albeit one of the more famous ones. Santiago does a good job of showing how even a great star can be somewhat tangential to the day-to-day contests of a team sport; unlike the way the film 42 treats Robinson and the Dodgers, the book 21 doesn't present Pittsburgh Pirate baseball as a non-stop Clemente highlight reel.

Clemente's mystique arose for the most part later, after and largely as a result of his untimely death. Santiago keeps foreshadowing that death in sequence after sequence, pausing on images of the 31st of December (Clemente's death date), presenting eerie sequences of Clemente on various airplanes, returning to motifs of the Three Kings and the Christmas season. Clemente here is a haunted character, even as his play is exuberant and splendid.

Santiago's 21 takes its structure from Maraniss, and indeed it will help to have read Maraniss, if you are interested in following the narrative of the comic book. Prose-centric readers, I imagine, frequently assume that comics are way easier to read than "real" books: after all, don't they have pictures? But in the 21st century, it's almost always the exact reverse: comics are elliptical, abrupt, oblique, and heavily allusive, far harder to follow than expository prose. There's no skimming 21; you skip a panel at your peril. And like all good contemporary comics, its continual shifts from language-heavy elements (including, at times, good ol' expository prose itself), to languageless visual narration, make for a vigorous workout for a reader's senses and cognitive modes.

Santiago rarely approaches an episode from Clemente's life in formulaic comic-narrative fashion, and rarely tries the same narrative mode twice. Sometimes, images begin to set up a montage familiar from biopics, only to break into discursive dialogue or zap-cut storytelling. Sometimes Clemente is hemmed in by the comic frame; sometimes he leaps across the pages like an unabashed superhero.

By contrast to a narrative like Sturm & Tommaso's Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, the action of 21 can be brisk and bewildering, defying the reader's expectations of clear resolutions. But there are no dull moments in 21; unlike Maraniss, Santiago barely slows down to tell any element of his story.

And it's a hagiographic story. What did you expect? Nothing faintly derogatory comes out about Clemente in the course of 21; there are no scandals or failures; there is little real stress or frustration, for all the images of disaster and doom that shadow the main baseball narrative. In this, Santiago is true to his sources, which have failed to disclose anything sinister about Clemente's life or death. But it also means that 21, for all its postmodernism, is a very much an old-school, hero-centered comic book.

Santiago, Wilfred. 21. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2011.