Roberto Clemente is famous as a baseball player, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame for his accomplishments as a Pittsburgh Pirate from 1955 to 1972. He’s also famed for his tragic death, disappearing in a plane loaded down with relief supplies, en route to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.
Of course, there’s much more to Clemente’s life story. Cartoonist Wilfred Santiago’s new book 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente aims to touch on Clemente the baseball player and Clemente the tragedy, but its prime goal is to show readers Clemente the man. Raised in poverty in Puerto Rico, coming into professional baseball during segregation, always dedicating himself to causes he believed in, Clemente stands as a real-life superhero for millions of people around the world.
Santiago took time to answer some of our questions about 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente – including the challenges of capturing the many facets of Clemente, divorcing the narrative from Clemente’s mystique and the truly inspiring qualities of the man.
Newsarama: Wilfred, what drew you to Roberto Clemente as a subject?
Wilfred Santiago: Money. There are like four million Puerto Ricans on the island, and if a quarter of them buy a copy, we will sell like a million copies! Also, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente is about the game of life, specifically Roberto Clemente’s life. And there are many elements of his life that were intriguing that I wanted to explore in a graphic novel. Most people set goals for themselves, whether it's to be an astronaut or gardening; you have a purpose driven life, unless you want to be a loser. And then there's the issue of how to meet those goals. Clemente's life was fast, full of curves and ambition, tragedy but also full of optimism. Not only did he get to his objectives on the mark, but he went beyond them. To him, there was always another mountain top. I liked that.Nrama: Are you a baseball fan? I am, and I really enjoyed your approach to drawing the moments of the game. People describe Clemente as poetry in motion, and you really captured that visually. How did you approach those baseball sequences?
Santiago: I like the sport, and in 21, part of Roberto's baseball career spans a period, mid sixties, early seventies, that is visually interesting in baseball and I couldn't wait to get into it. A baseball sequence is all about interpretation; there are cold, unchangeable facts. If the batter hits a home run to left field in the second inning, etc., then those are unchangeable facts about that scene.
So it’s about the reading of the particulars. I mean, if you are saying sad things while laughing maniacally, it’s different than if you are saying them while sobbing and in tears. Therefore, it’s all about what role that particular game sequence plays in the story as a whole. It’s not a book about baseball, even though there’s baseball in it.
Nrama: Clemente went through a lot more than many people realize: his impoverished upbringing in Puerto Rico, dealing with segregation when he came to America as a baseball player, and his own personal issues and charity work - and you manage to touch on everything in 21. How did you approach his life story, as far as choosing what aspects to give the most page space to?
Santiago: True, his whole life really was touched with moments of great tragedy. But there were many more moments of hope, excitement and success. After all, he only died once at 38. For all the obstacles and difficulties, and his early departure, he has a very impressive resume in baseball and in life. All the boxes are checked. As a baseball player, he was known as “The Great One.”
He received many awards and was at the time the 11th player in baseball history to hit 3,000. He was a successful businessman, philanthropist, he was happily married with kids, fans adored him, and the list goes on and on.
Stories like Clemente’s are usually centered on the moment of their demise and understandably so, I guess. Clemente as a martyr with a hero’s death, that one particular event dominates his bio. Why not the opposite? His life as a hero, which to many he was. 21 is about a young man’s journey into excellence, his legacy, about living large while taking charge of responsibilities. The book ends with the last image of the plane heading towards the stars, the same stars in the beginning of the book. His life came full circle; his death was just circumstantial.
Nrama: Was it difficult to divorce the Clemente mystique from the reality?
Santiago: Not really. I focused on the facts. Like most larger than life figures, as generations go by their stories take on a life of their own and their relevance and meaning morph in the minds of those who come across those stories. And a character like Clemente can be open to interpretation because although he was famous, he was unknown. I recently had a signing in Pittsburgh, where Clemente played and lived and it was interesting to hear from people who had actually seen him play, who lived near him, and younger generations who are familiar with Clemente because their fathers are fans who came to a comic book store for the first time to get 21 and share it with them, others who brought their kids so they too know the story of Clemente. It’s the kind of thing that never occurred to me while I worked on this graphic novel. Clemente is still pretty much alive in Pittsburgh.
Nrama: The political circumstances of Puerto Rico and Latin America obviously influenced a great deal of Clemente’s life. With recent disasters like last year's earthquake in Haiti, it seems like Clemente’s message remains very important. Did any of the current issues facing Latin America inform your approach to Clemente’s experiences?
Santiago: After the earthquake in Japan, which happened a month before the graphic novel came out, I couldn’t help but think about Clemente for all the obvious reasons, for those who read 21. What it means to have people like him in those moments.
Latin American history is American history and vice versa, especially Puerto Rico's, which became a colony of the United States in 1898. Although with more subtleties, many Latinos face similar realities in the mainland today as when Clemente was alive. That’s why it is important to know his story for those who carry on his spirit today.
Nrama: Once the research was done, how long does it take you to create a 200-page graphic novel?Santiago: It takes longer than you wished for, but that is not as important as getting it right. 21 was first solicited as a 148-page book. As I approached the end, it was clear to my editor and I that additional pages were needed to have the book's pacing right, turning to 200 pages. Well, you just added one more year of work. Once it felt right, it was ready to be sent to the publisher, Fantagraphics. In total, it took about six years to finish 21. But there are many other elements that influence the amount of time it takes to work on a graphic novel. Money, it takes money to make a graphic novel. Computer breakdowns, nervous meltdown, injuries, you could get shanked on your way to work, you know, “technical difficulties.”
Nrama: In addition to the creative layouts and linework, I enjoyed your use of color in the book. Yellow word balloons for English-language dialogue, black and white with tones, the matted yellows in his baseball days. How much effort goes into developing those graphic elements in your comics?
Santiago: Some ideas you have from the get-go. Others come to you as you work through the project. Then there are times when it is a problem to be solved. For example, telling a story that takes part in Spanish to English readers without losing people in translation, using basics, word balloons, panels, line work, colors, without disturbances like footnotes or brackets or explanations. It was one of those things that kept me awake thinking about it.
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente is now available from Fantagraphics.