21: The Story of Roberto Clemente

21-coverBiographical comics strike me as one of the most difficult genres in the world of graphic novels. How do you sum up a life, particularly one that is well-known and researched, in 200-ish pages, using a format that can consume pages at a time with a single picture? You can pare down your story to key moments, ones that reflect the subject, how they lived their life, the choices they made, and the impact they had on the world around them. Inevitably something gets left out, but depending on the story you tell and the way you tell it, your omissions may make for a stronger tale. But then again….

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente revolves around the September 30, 1972 game, when Clemente made his 3000th hit. We bounce back to his childhood, growing up in Puerto Rico and playing baseball with a homemade bat and bottle caps. We see his family tragedies, his time in the Puerto Rico Baseball League, and his struggle with Jim Crow segregation. Santiago intermittently returns to the 1972 game, but also explores Puerto Rican history and the debate over its independence, as well as Clemente’s humanitarian work. Throughout the biography, Santiago weaves in the story of the three magi kings, visually tying it in with the plane crash that ended Clemente’s life in December, 1972. His 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates are portrayed in scattered episodes, with focus on their 1960 World Series run against the Yankees.

The art is done in bold strokes and sepia tones. Santiago fills the page with warm tones, using a style reminiscent of charcoal and mixed with off-whites, bright oranges, and brown-blacks (as a Giants fan, I have to say the color scheme reminded me more of San Francisco’s than Pittsburgh’s). Many of the side characters are drawn as caricatures, particularly the crowds attending the games, while Clemente, his teammates, and family members are drawn more realistically. Anyone familiar with the iconic pictures of Clemente will see the similarities between those and Santiago’s art. This style beautifully portrays the intense games and Clemente’s epic playing style.

Santiago’s art is the star of the book. The writing is fractured, leaping to different points in Clemente’s life with little reference for the reader. The story shifts quickly and the panels on the page are inconsistent in their flow – I often felt disoriented by the narrative. The book suffers from its lack of focus – is it about Clemente’s amazing career? The racism that he and other players overcame? Or Puerto Rico’s history? It’s about all of these things, and yet doesn’t cover any of them satisfactorily.

As someone who follows baseball but has limited knowledge of its history, I was eager to read about this important player. I came away knowing little more about Clemente and his career. Perhaps those with a stronger background in baseball history would find more to enjoy about this biography, but I’m not sure that they’d glean anything new about Clemente or baseball in the 1950s and 60s. I was inspired to research more about his life and career, particularly his impact on the game and humanitarian efforts; for such a fascinating person, 21 gives you a limited glimpse of his life. It’s the depictions of Clemente’s games that create the most powerful moments in the book, and those don’t make up a large part of the story.

This book is listed on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for 2012, but it’s hard to see the teen appeal in this biography. Baseball fanatics may pick it up, but might be disappointed with the minimal amount of games featured in the story. When they are the focus of the story, they’re gorgeous, relying on a classic, old-school style and color scheme. As a biography, though, there are large gaps in information about Clemente and his career. The narrative style is confusing and may leave veteran graphic novel-readers rereading pages at a time. While the book is a visual treat, the story leaves a lot to be desired. For those interested in learning more about Clemente, Santiago provides a list of online and print references.

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente
by Wilfred Santiago
ISBN: 9781560978923
Fantagraphics Books, 2011