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February 4, 2011 at 1:10 am ET
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Review: 21 The Story of Roberto Clemente

There is perhaps no better medium to capture the life of Roberto Clemente than graphic novel. After all his skill set when it came to playing the game of baseball was almost superhuman, highlighted by  a throwing arm that would surely make the son of Jor-El jealous.As such, it is no surprise then that illustrator/author Wilfred Santiago’s 21 — The Story of Roberto Clemente is a must read for anyone awed by the beauty of the sport.

Beginning with Clemente’s childhood in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Santiago balances the key points in his subject’s baseball career (his arrival in Pittsburgh, the 1960 World Series, his 3,000th hit) with more touching, sometimes tragic personal moments (the death of his siblings, his experiences with racism, political unrest in Puerto Rico). It’s easy to see how in the hands of a lesser talent, distilling such a rich and complicated life in more pictures than words could be problematic. However, in the case of 21, Santiago makes it work to his advantage. Instead of getting bogged down in the details, the muted tones mixes with pangs of bright color reflect the graceful power with which Clemente not only played baseball, but also carried himself in all walks of life.

The details of the novel reflect the dedication and passion of the author to the work. It’s obvious that a lot of great care went into researching the book. Bob Prince’s sport jacket while calling Game 7 of the 1960 World Series is spot on for example, as is Santiago’s depiction of the Crawford Grill, a popular hangout for Pittsburgh blacks. In the graphic novel form, it can be tempting to let the pictures carry the day and become sloppy with the story specifics. Fortunately, it’s a trap to which the author never falls victim.

That said, it might be hard to use this book as a beginning text to learning about Roberto Clemente’s life. A working knowledge of his general biography is probably advisable, as it makes some of the references in the pictures, as well as the more specific plot points easier to follow. But there are plenty of books and profiles that lay out Clemente’s story. That, one suspects, was not the point in 21.

Most biographies strive to humanize the subject, to give the readers a better sense of what made that person real. 21 seeks to do just the opposite. This graphic novel seeks to give a proper sense of wonder and the fantastic to a player whose tragic ending is often a stark reminder or our own mortality. At that it succeeds terrifically.

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