Frank Santoro is a Pittsburgh-based artist who first became known in 1995 for Storeyville, a “perfect match of form and content” that was re-released in 2007 by Picturebox. More recently he has collaborated with Ben Jones on Cold Heat where the two storytellers are “applying Jones’s surreal, biting prose to Santoro’s elegant yet dynamic renderings”. Many folks will also recognize Santoro for his rather passionate opinions about comics and storytelling in general as shared at the group blog, Comics Comics. Through such efforts as Cage Match at the blog, as Santoro recently noted: “It was—and remains—our hope that people care enough about comics to take a stand, one way or the other. To get involved, to build a dialogue that will help create an emotional as well as intellectual foundation for the comics of the future.” This email interview took place soon after the initial David Heatley Cage Match, but before Heatley responded to critics (and the ensuing comments section from hell).
Tim O’Shea: If you had the chance to tell Heatley in person what you thought of this work, would you be this passionate? In asking this I’m not implying you would not have the guts per se to say these things in person, but rather the written word allows nuances and complexities lost in standard conversation. You were excited about his potential five years ago, but now feel far differently. Do you think Heatley squandered his talent and failed his potential–or that you were mistaken in seeing potential in his efforts in the first place?
Frank Santoro: I might not be so “passionate” but I plan on being honest. I’ve known him for years. He’s a nice guy. I don’t think he’s squandered his talent but I do wonder, openly and in a public forum, what the big deal is about his work. Why does it get so much attention? I think it has more to do with David’s “provocative” themes and his careerist approach to the new “graphic novel” landscape within the publishing industry than it does with how sound his comics are.
O’Shea: As a storyteller yourself, do you fear that the potential audience for your work might be alienated (wrongly, I must admit) because they don’t agree with your opinion as a critic?
Santoro: I think most cartoonists are afraid of stating their real opinions of their peers’ work. Why? Because it’s a small community and things get around. And they’re afraid that if they make some critical comments of a colleague they will be “blacklisted” somehow. They are protecting their own “careerist” concerns. Critics on the other hand are free to say whatever they want. No one is going to snark them in the comments section and say “yah, but your comics suck, how can you write that?” It’s an interesting situation to find myself in. I sort of relish it.
O’Shea: You have a high appreciation for printmaking, as evidenced by this YouTube piece where you state: “The shittiest printing of 1951 in my mind is better than the top notch quality printing of today.” Clearly your trained eye is far more discerning than some consumers. Is there printed work you enjoyed when you were younger, that now the more you know, when you look at it with an informed view, you like the work far less?
Santoro: Well, sure. There’s stuff I look at and say, man, is that bad quality printing. What I was trying to get at in that video was that in comics today it is no longer a FOUR COLOR process but a FULL COLOR process. Meaning that the 1951 comic went through the press four times, one for each color. Nowadays, it’s MORE affordable to print all the colors in one pass, the color, all the colors are made up of lots and lots of little dots like an inkjet printer at home. The four color process printed flat or screened colors one at a time and the complimentary colors were printed by means of “overprinting”. It’s a totally different process and look. The 1951 comic may be on cheap newsprint and the new comic from today might be on nice, crisp paper, but to me it’s not the “quality” of the paper or the “look” of book, but of the process itself.
O’Shea: Do you think a typical person who purchases Cold Heat fully appreciates and understands what it takes for you to produce an issue–and the fact that all the art is hand-made–no use of a computer at all?
Santoro: No, but that’s okay. I know most people think it’s printed in “full color”, that it’s digital. It’s not, it’s simply a two-color offset job. They print the blue and then the pink and together, in certain places, that creates the purple. Simple. And, as far as people thinking it’s done on the computer, thats okay too. My intention, and “my hand” is in the work. And that’s enough for me.
O’Shea: In the hype about issue 2, someone in marketing it wrote “demonstrating how our internalization of international affairs creates monsters in our minds that are every bit as dangerous as anything we’ll meet on the street”. What does that even mean?
Santoro: Ha. That was my mentor Bill Boichel (of Copacetic Comics in Pittsburgh). He’s an amazing “barker”. He can hand-sell anything. He really enjoys ALL comics and taught me how to share my enthusiasm with others about comics. In regards to that specific quote, Bill told me that he really thought Cold Heat was a reflection of these insane years we are living through. How fiction, how this narrative, filters the personal and media landscape and feeds it back into itself like an equation. Like a Fractal. There’s an expansion in one’s mind of the monsters “outside” and how one internalizes them, “inside”. I think that’s what Bill is saying. He understands that Cold Heat is a dark book.
O’Shea: In late August you started a blog for Cold Heat Comics, will you be adding to it, or is that an abandoned mini-experiment?
Santoro: Oh shit. You found that? It’s going to be a web-comic. The narrative will run alongside the main “text” of Cold Heat. The idea is to turn Cold Heat into a set of “signs” that will allow Ben Jones and I to collaborate with other artists.
O’Shea: What is it about Ben Jones’ storytelling sensibilities that makes you want to collaborate with him?
Santoro: He has an amazing sense of “cartoon” pacing. His writing and sense of narrative is very strong but kind of more like the pacing one would find in an animated cartoon. I think his stories are very, very readable. They are not “dense” in the traditional American way where there are lots of panels, people and words on every page. He sees things like an animator. Also, his pacing is “open” and it allows me a lot of room to go off in my own way. And he’s had a lot of experience with editors so he’s very cool with my additions. It’s a true give and take.
O’Shea: Did you and Ben map all 12 issues out before starting the series? When and why did you decide to abandon the 12-issue format and to do the project as a graphic novel?
Santoro: We mapped out the whole story. And we abandoned the comic book format because of the sales which were low. We figured it would pay for itself at least –like each issue would break even–and that was short-sighted. By issue four, Picturebox was in the hole for like seven grand. Dan Nadel was patient. But then he had no choice but to pull the plug on the issues. It sucked. It still sucks. I like comic books more than I do graphic novels so it was a bummer to see it end. But, that’s the way it goes. The graphic novel will be designed to incorporate the issues in a way that will maintain their “integrity” as sepaprate chapters.
O’Shea: I find it interesting that you talk about your comics work in musical terms at times. Viewing your craft through the means of another form like music, on some level does that help strengthen or inform your work.
Santoro: I’m a big Jazz fan. And I think the way, say, a clarinet plays obbligato (the “obligated” melody line that holds the song together) while the trumpet plays an improvised solo, is similar to the way line and color can “work” together. The color can retain the “melody” and that frees the lines to be less exacting and more nuanced. To me, most comics are essentially black and white even when they are in color. Meaning most comics artists draw everything in black ink first THEN add the color. Very rarely are there colors without black lines “containing” the colors. (Unless it’s a painted comic) I work the other way around. In Cold Heat, I do my color separations first and build up the forms. Then I draw my “blackline”. Sometimes, it’s the more traditional way, every page is different.
O’Shea: Do you think your blogging at Comics Comics has helped you understand the overall mentality of the audience you’re trying to reach?
Santoro: I’m really astonished actually at the reaction I get at cons or even as private emails or whatever where people are just effusively thanking me for doing the blog. It’s been really gratifying. Tim Hodler is really my ace in the hole, cuz he helps me edit down my run on sentences and weird transitions. And beyond that he was the one who encouraged me to just “post whatever” and see what worked. And the reaction was immediate, I couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe it. The first Cage Match (where we debate a particular comic) on the Jonathan Lethem Omega series for Marvel was just so much fun. Mostly because it got the community together in a way I haven’t experienced since the late 80s hanging out in the comics store after school. Seriously. And I think there’s a lot of real comics fans out there who don’t have an outlet or a hangout, y’know? So, I feel really great about it. I like to think (however selfishly) that the discussion breaks down the wall between artists and fans in a truthful, constructive way. (Or a helpful destructive way, come to think of it)
O’Shea: Recently you wrote about a Dash Shaw webcomic– “And the very format of the strip –the scroll– is really altering my ideas about how a webcomic can be enjoyed and how it might translate into a printed book.” Any chance I can get you to elaborate, also you speak of how Shaw effectively uses color and I was wondering what is the key to using color effectively in comics?
Santoro: Well, Dash “gets it”. Specifically, he gets that it’s not all black containment lines. And he gets that he can do this color comic RIGHT NOW. The whole history of alt-comix is dominated by black and white art because of the economics. And Dash realized he could bypass all that right now, 2008, and crank it out, week after week. That’s comics. Remember? Comics used to be honest to God periodicals not novels that came out every two years. (Think about two years going by when you were 14. You grew so much in so many ways, and I remember changing my mind about my favorite artist every few months with every new comic that came out month after month. I couldn’t imagine my favorite artist’s book not coming out for two years!)
Dash isn’t lazy. And I mean that in the art department. He makes intricate gem-like compositions within his panels that lock with the overall design of the page. The last few years of Alt-comix have been dominated by this Chris Ware-like glacial pace. And I mean people imitating Chris or desperately trying to and usually failing. And Dash just obiterates that approach. I can roll through his comics. It’s an incredibly pleasing reading and viewing experience. AND because it’s on a scroll on the computer it FEELS right. Like he squared up the form, this new webcomic form and thought, okay, how can I make this work? And he nailed it! it’s the most successful web-comic I’ve read SIMPLY BASED ON THE FORMAT. Then add to that it’s formally inventive, it’s funny, it’s engaging. I like the characters. It’s a lively, breath of fresh after all the mopey quasi auto-bio stuff of the recent “Ware-era”. Dash is in the zone right now, thats for sure. It may not be your taste, but you gotta respect the guy’s growth. He’s really on. And it’s a real comic in so much that it comes out REGULARLY. That really impresses me, honestly, he’s very focused.
O’Shea: Looking back at 1995’s Storeyville, in what ways have you evolved as a storyteller since then?
Santoro: I guess I’m trying to figure that out, haha. I have such different concerns now. I stopped making comics for almost ten years. Long story. I basically became a landscape oil painter in the traditional sense. And my day job was assisting a portrait painter who never painted from photographs. So my processes changed. A lot. When I started making comics again it was incredibly difficult to scale down to comics. But that was the lesson Storeyville taught me.
Cold Heat, though, is so much larger in scope. I’m interested in creating space in my narratives and by that I mean building space in a very clear architectural sense. But I hide it within the framework of the story so that it is invisible. It’s like a church in a way. One is aware that the stones are arranged artfully, but there is generally a very basic, simple formal plan that all churches follow. They all look alike they just have different ornamentaion, right? Christian churches, I mean. And comics are similar if you can imagine that the page, the two page spread stays the same. You can arrange the panels anyway you want but you still gotta move the reader through the story. Well, I’m interested in creating very deliberate lines of sight within the narratives. It looks simple and almost rigid, but it allows me to inject my spare lines and forms into a very solid space, a very real “area”, like a nave in a church corner – there is “space” in between architectural elements that pushes and pulls one’s eye around.
O’Shea: What are you most enjoying about your work in comics and/or criticism at present?
Santoro: Collaborating. Collaborating as an artist. –with Ben Jones on the main Cold Heat series, with Jon Vermilyea, and everyone who’s done a Cold Heat Special. As a critic –with Tim Hodler and Dan Nadel and everyone who engages me on the blog and in person. It’s all about community, man. “Auteurism” has a place but right now, for me, I’m really enjoying the bullpen atmosphere of the Cold Heat Specials and the ComicsComics blog. It FEELS more like comics than the recent Chris Ware / Dan Clowes “singular” vision or “auteur” paradigm of the last decade or so. That stuff is so OLD, y’know? Comics used to be bright and fun, dark and grim, not just meandering Beckett-like bleakness all the time.
O’Shea: I heard you did a “famous” lecture at MoCCA last summer. What was that all about?
Santoro: Comics, how they are composed, is like an architecture, right? Well, I’ve become obsessed with the structure of comics of how one reads comics and how comics spreads are composed. I’ve also come under the spell of Pythagorean Theory and how it applies to image making and Architecture. That all might sound really pretentious but it’s really the most un-pretentious approach to creating images ever. Basically, it’s all the perspective tricks that we all learned in 6th grade art class but way more complex than three point perspective. Pythagorean Theory and The Golden Section are the building blocks of Renaissance perspective. In oil painting all of these compositional techniques have been used for centuries. There are “harmonic points” on a canvas that can be used like one would use harmony in music. These points can be measured. In comics, these ideas are often used WITHIN the borders of each panel but the overall design of the page is often muddy and bottlenecked and this undercuts the power of the image inside the panel borders. The whole structure of the spread should be “in key” with the images. And, for the page or the whole two page spread (all comics are read as two page spreads when they are in a book) to “sing”, to really be clear, the structure has to be “open”, and have a symmetry that is dynamic as opposed to static. Again, it’s like Fractals. I’m writing a book on it for Picturebox. People go nuts, in a good way, when I show them how simple it is to do. It’s like comics are just figuring out certain approaches that Painting and Architecture have understood for centuries. It’s fun stuff, and I wished someone would have hepped me to it years ago. But, honestly, people just look right past it. Who needs to learn perspective when a digital camera and a illustrator program will do it all for you?