Friday, December 30, 2011

GN Review -- 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente / Wilfredo Santiago

I will admit, graphic biographies haven't really been my thing.  I look at them and, at first, roll my eyes, thinking, "Do I have to read another account of someone's life again?"  Usually my apprehensions are laid to rest once I get started, but it usually takes a while before I can relax and just let the narrative take me in.  Happily, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente broke this cycle and pulled me in from the get-go.

I must congratulate Fantagraphics on publishing this work by Wilfred Santiago.  It was a book that held my interest, didn't demand a lion's share of my cognitive faculties, and actually made me care about the protagonist.  It probably helps that I used to love baseball as a teen, but I credit both the publisher and the artist who made this work for creating something absorbing and engaging.

Baseball enthusiasts undoubtedly know the details of Clemente's life, about his childhood in Puerto Rico with his impoverished but loving family, his young career as one of baseball's rising stars, and his struggles for respect and dignity throughout.  This volume presents these and other various facets of his life in an accessible, affectionate and ultimately life-affirming package, reflecting on the career and personal life of a man who was as well renown for his politeness and charm as much as his athletic grace and ability.

Throughout the narrative, Clemente demonstrates himself as more than a great athlete and baseball player.  He has unbridled energy and passion, and a desire to help others that goes far beyond his work as a future Hall-of-Famer. He wants to reach out to kids, to help people in need of aid, and uses much of his power, fame, and wealth to do so.  It says a great deal about him that the abrupt end to his life came due to his desire to fly aid into Puerto Rico during a disaster, and even though we see it coming, it doesn't make the actual event any less sad to read.

Art-wise, I think this is a very memorable book.  Santiago eschews the realistic approach for extreme angles and cartoony shapes that allow for a maximum of expressiveness.  It evokes the nostalgia for the era of Clemente's time, and makes interesting what would otherwise be some difficult locations to make visually appealing.

Minor nitpick: I occasionally would be confused by time shifts that are unannounced through the narrative.  This mostly occurred at the beginning of the work, and was overcome with more familiarity, but it did distract slightly from the work at times.  This is forgivable though, as the writing and art kept me interested and reading anyway.

Overall, I'd say this is a worthy addition to any graphic novel collection.  Baseball lovers should enjoy it, as should fans of the biography or anyone looking for an engrossing story with interesting art.  Highly recommended.

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