BY MARC VELASQUEZ
Author: Wilfred Santiago
2011, Fantagraphics Books
Filed under: Graphic Novel, Nonfiction, Biography
My father loved baseball. When I was young, he told me stories of his favorite players as if they were superheroes. He held none in higher esteem than Roberto Clemente. As a result, I believed Roberto Clemente had superpowers. I believed he floated through the outfield and flew between the base paths. I believed the ball exploded off of his bat and that he had a cannon for an arm.
In the years since, I have read as much about Clemente as possible. And while each article or book reinforced my belief that Clemente was both an incredible ballplayer and incredible human being, none of them seemed to satisfy the childhood fascination I had for him. I should have known, given the superhero aspects of the image in my head, that I needed a comic book. With his graphic novel, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, Wilfred Santiago delivered exactly what I’ve been waiting for.
Take, for instance, one of the book’s first pages:
The way his feet barely touch the ground, the way the ball blasts from his arm, the eyes on his fingers, this finally is the Roberto Clemente I imagined as a child.
21 will tell you the same stories as any other good Clemente biography. It covers his underprivileged childhood and caring family in Puerto Rico. It shows his natural prowess for the game of baseball, how he was the player scouts have in mind when they say a guy has “five tools.”
The book shows the anomalies of Clemente’s life, too, anomalies that added to his superhuman mystique. It shows how fans hated him for the seemingly cocky answers he gave in press conferences, yet consistently voted him their favorite Pirate. The narrative is bookended by the story of Clemente’s 3000th hit, baseball’s magic number, which came on a double in the final at-bat of Clemente’s career. It shows how he was a hero off the field as well, an ever-caring humanitarian who died when his plane crashed while taking relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Yet, if you know nothing about Roberto Clemente, I wouldn’t recommend picking up this book by itself. While the art does a fantastic job of telling most of the story, too much is subtly implied. I wonder, had I not known of Clemente’s somewhat tumultuous relationship with the media and fans, whether this book alone would’ve satisfied me. Perhaps long-time readers of graphic novels can infer the full story just from the artwork, but for traditional book readers looking for the whole Clemente story, I’d suggest reading 21 along with David Maraniss’s biography, Clemente.
This book’s contribution to the Clemente oeuvre is clearly in the artwork, and not just the superhero aspect of it. The brownish-green hue captures the agrarian nature of Clemente’s Puerto Rican childhood. Black and gold do the same for industrial Pittsburgh. And throughout the whole book is a sepia background, as if the pages are soaked in nostalgia.
I guarantee this book will be on my shelf for a long time, and that occasionally I will pick it up just to get lost in the artwork. Then one day, when I have children who are of reading age, I will put it on their bookshelf, hoping they will eventually ask me about it so that I can tell them stories about a superhero named Roberto.
Similar reads: Clemente, by David Marniss; The Team That Changed Baseball, by Bruce Markusen. For other excellent nonfiction graphic novels, check out Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.