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March 24, 2008 at 12:15 pm ET
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An Interview with Wilfred Santiago, author of “21”, a graphic novel about Roberto Clemente

B&C talks with Wilfred Santiago

When PNC Bank bought the naming rights to the new baseball stadium in Pittsburgh in 1998, the joke around town was that the initials stood for “Pathetically Not Clemente.” The anger behind that statement wasn’t so much about the corporate naming rights craze, but rather, that the new park wouldn’t stand in memorial to the former right fielder. In Pittsburgh, no athlete is more revered than Roberto Clemente, which in a town where Bill Cowher’s dental work leads the local news is saying something.

One of the few places where Pittsburgh’s fervor for Clemente is matched is in the literary community. David Maraniss’s biography spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and write Michael Chabon has said repeatedly that Clemente made him a fan of the Pirates long before he lived in Pittsburgh. In fact, Clemente’s tragic death is a motif that has appeared frequently in his works.

The latest contribution to the list of books about Roberto Clemente puts a new spin on the genre. “21,” by Puerto Rican native and current Chicago-based illustrator Wilfred Santiago puts Clemente’s biography into the form of a graphic novel. In anticipation of the book’s release in October 2008, Mr. Santiago was kind enough to answer ten of my questions via e-mail. A preview of the book can be found here.

Growing up, how big a part of your life was baseball?

The thing is baseball was always there. This was before video games, cable tv, mobiles etc. There was a lot of time to kill. So sports were something you just did, everyone played, girls and boys together, with whatever ball and space available. The game is adapted to these things. You know like, “first base is the avocado tree, second base the brick, etc..

By the time I was a teen, I could finally play baseball on my Atari, no need for the real thing. There was also cable tv, and the island has become less rural.

After I hit puberty and pitchers started throwing curveballs, I realized I was better suited to writing about sports than playing them. Was there a moment like that for you with art?

Baseball is a team game, but you can watch it individually, analyze it, study it. With creating art, as an observer of a subject, you can experience similar things. It’s a very objective and introspective activity. For two seconds I considered becoming a baseball player, I was like 12. My mother was friends with a baseball player called Carmelo Martinez, and for a time I went to some Winter League games and stuff, so the bug bit me. But I was already in my teens, and soon I realized it was a little late to begin something like that. Music and art had become a bigger interest too. I’m not much of team player is what I’m saying. I probably would have used steroids anyways.

What got you into comic books? Who would you say are some of your influences in the genre?

I started collecting comics along with baseball cards when I was 18 or something. Drawing was already something I did. The cards thing didn’t last too long, but the comics did. I drew pin-ups for friends, later on sold the artwork to individuals, comic book stores…

By the time I moved to NY I decided to do comics professionally. It was all an accidental arrival. They say the most influential time in an individual’s life personality is the first 7 years. It’s probably true for an artist.

For a while, specially for “21” I have been focusing on what influenced me before I got into comics. Golden Age cartoons, tons of movies, and magazines, music, sporadic readings of Mexican Batman & Spiderman comics, etc. As a kid in the early 70’s in Puerto Rico, there was a mix of Spanish/Latin and American culture, with the American part getting bigger as I got older, and it’s interesting to see the effect this has on my work..the way the stories are told. Another thing is, as a storyteller doing a Graphic Novel inspired by the life of Roberto Clemente, to be familiar with the two cultures becomes pretty handy.

I’ve never been to Puerto Rico, but from what I’ve read and heard, Roberto Clemente is still an incredibly beloved figure there. Can you kind of describe what the feelings for him are like even today in the country?

I haven’t been to Puerto Rico in a long time, but as a child, you always heard about him. The island is mostly Catholic and strongly religious, and Clemente carried his way atuned to what’s considered Catholic values. This resonates with the population and dying the way he did elevated him to a martyr status. After his death, through the decades, Clemente the baseball player became secondary to his character.

Every year there was also a tele-marathon, to raise money to build a sports city, one of Clemente’s dreams. So you always heard about him. Once Roberto died people focused more on his personality than as a player. That’s my view.

When did you first start to think that Clemente’s life was something that could be translated into a graphic novel?

I was interested in doing a biography and I had various subjects for consideration. Clemente was the most appealing of all the persons I had in mind, and also I felt I was in an unique position to tell his story in a Graphic Novel.

Can you kind of describe the process of writing the novel? Where did you go for your research materials, and how did you translate that into something that worked as a graphic novel?

Anything can be a Graphic Novel. Once I chose Clemente as the subject, I read all biographies written about him, videos, old mags articles, and countless hours on the internet. Researching baseball reference and other things beyond baseball too. Since this is a biography, the story has all been written. The only thing that differs is in the way the story is told and the context of the story, which I dig and of course, the visual aspect. Clemente’s story is not rare, “poor boy grows up to play in the major leagues”. A lot of Latinos in the Majors have similar stories. What made Clemente was his persona at that time in history. That’s the context. Baseball too was part of his persona, that’s something he would have done if he had chose to do something else for a living other than baseball.

What’s your favorite anecdote from the whole creative process with the book?

Going through thousands of baseball pictures and seeing the changes through the decades, from logos, to the length and tightness of uniforms, uh, body shapes… old parks, cars, Also learning about all the legends that played in the island was exciting– players like Mays and Satchel Paige…

One of the great things about baseball is that it’s history and tradition really lend themselves to the creative process. Are there any books, or movies, or pieces of art about the game that you really like?

Well, there’s that “Baseball Bugs” cartoon.

What do you hope people take away from your novel?

“21” is the classic underdog story, a little different from the usual biography or Graphic Novel. Exploring Clemente’s character, as well as the physics and spirit behind baseball and its historical significance in a graphic novel frame was very satisfactory. I hope readers feel this way too.

21 is schedule for October 2008, available in major bookstores, and comics shop. Or you can pre-order it cheap through Amazon.

Are you a baseball fan these days? Ever made it to a game in Pittsburgh to see the Clemente statue?

No, but I’m planning to. I watch the play-offs and the World Series from time to time. Depends which teams. Living in Chicago for the past decade, you have to understand ever since the Sox won the Series in 2005, things have not been going well with Chicago teams. And don’t get me started with the Cubs. You get too involved with these things, the wrong team wins, next thing you know, you are too depressed to draw. And after the Bears Super Bowl debacle…haven’t recuperated yet.

I do have some issues with the institution of organized baseball, professional sports in general. Too many things turn me off. So I don’t enjoy watching baseball as much as I liked playing it as a child.

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