As we grieve the loss of restaurants and ballgames, I recommend a book: Frank Santoro’s graphic memoir, Pittsburgh. An initial print run of 4,000 has sold out, but you can still buy the book at CopaceticComics.
Santoro is a 47-year-old author and cartoonist who grew up in a neighborhood of Pittsburgh called Swissvale, boomeranged to California and back, and is now home in Western Pennsylvania. He started the project, which I discovered at a reading at my beloved neighborhood bookstore, the inestimable White Whale, as a 16-page newspaper comic for the Pittsburgh Biennial at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2011.
That grew into an illustrated book-length tale of Santoro’s Rust Belt boyhood, exile and return, that the New York Times called a “a lush, innovative and important monument to loss”.
The hardback is a loving journey through a classic 1970s and 1980s childhood – Santoro’s dad was a Vietnam vet – colored by the memories of an even older America of unionized factories stabilizing neighborhoods, enclaves of European immigrants, middle-class prosperity, and small towns before interstate highways and shopping malls.
It’s very much a memoir, and you travel with Santoro now, looking back, and as a young man, in love with his dog named Pretzel and hockey, sorting out his family story, and wandering around a neighborhood anchored by his grandfather’s convenience store, land of newspapers and pop, and the Legion, Dago Club, and Triangle Bar+Grill.
That world lives in Santoro’s sketches of row houses, bridges and rivers. Pittsburgh is a work of art, a thing of beauty worth keeping around to gaze at.
“Pittsburgh is fairly gray, of course,” Santoro told the Pittsburgh Tribune, “but when the sun shines you see other colors. There’s a scene with my mom where there’s lot of reds, because it’s a very emotional scene. I try to view the landscape with the same emotion. I try to have an evocative color that plays in harmony with the emotional scenes that are playing out on the page.”
I called Santoro, who’s finishing up some contracted work and brainstorming new projects on a typewriter, to get his thoughts about the grief we’re all experiencing, and asked him whether he relates that loss to the one described in the book.
The two are not completely analogous, he said, but he understood the question. “A criticism of the book is there’s no apparent resolution,” he said. “I don’t wrap it up in a bow. And this world we’re in, well, there will not be a resolution.” Things will be different, and we have to adapt, he said.
I love that sensitivity to reality, I told him. As we hope to convey in Moundsville, the past matters, and grieving loss is important, but reality and truth matter, too, and it’s more important than ever to face what’s actually happening instead of escaping into fantasy and nostalgia. And, as Pittsburgh shows, as we muddle through, it helps to have artists who can help us face truth and reality with off-beat beauty.
The book has that jazzy feel, and cites lyrics and tunes, from Frank Sinatra to Motown. Santoro has a mild form of Synesthesia, a condition where you associate colors and music. “Most comics have a chord structure that has to resolve at the end of every page” because they ran serially in newspapers and magazines, he explained. “My comics have modes,” he added, launching into a sophisticated disquisition on literary and musical theory.
What he was saying, I suggested (and he agreed), might boil down to a line his grandmother sings in the book, from the classic Jimmie Rodgers song, “Frankie and Johnny”:
This story has no moral, This story has no end
John W. Miller