by Frank Santoro. PictureBox, publisher. $24.95.
This is what I was going to say about Frank Santoro's Storeyville:
The story is a bit of a sketch, like the start of something that doesn't get anywhere near an end. The book's closing arrives too quickly, just as the story opens out into a sense of possibility that sadly is never realized. Graphically, the close is invigorating, like a sudden, startling intake of breath (I can almost feel my lungs expand when I read it); story- and character-wise, though, Storeyville never arrives. Image-making dominates over narrative development to the point that the book's plot seems thin, evanescent, like a smoke ring in a strong breeze. What we end up with is a strong evocation of place, a tentative sense of character, and a delicious sort of scene-setting enticement without narrative follow-through.
Okay, that's what I was going to say about Storeyville. Until I reread it yet again and realized it would be obtuse to say such a thing -- and a denial of the real pleasure I get from rereading it over and over. The fact that Storeyville doesn't match the expectations whipped up by the phrase graphic novel tells us more about the limitations of that phrase than about the limits of the work itself.
What Storeyville is (and this I think is part of what made it so hard to place when it first appeared in tabloid newspaper form in 1995) is a comic that falls between aesthetic categories: graphic novel versus comic strip; sober historical fiction versus improvisatory comix-brut primitivism; scenic realism versus lively bigfoot cartooning, served up with a frankly slapdash eagerness. Those expecting Storeyville to read like, say, Kings in Disguise are likely to be disappointed by its loose-jointed graphics and slender narrative development; those expecting it to look like Gary Panter's work are likely to be surprised by its relative quietude, narrative understatement, and gently affirmative ending.
Santoro is clearly an artist of roving, shifting, and uncategorizable tastes, and work. There's a woolly organicism to his work that makes him a tough nut for analysis and a poor fit for pigeonholes. The tabloid Storeyville was anomalous, basically homeless, back in 1995, and so it's encouraging to see that Santoro (having spent much of the intervening time painting) has found a home for his cartooning at Dan Nadel's just-as-uncategorizable PictureBox, where the ongoing critical gentrification of the graphic novel has run into a healthy speedbump, thanks to Nadel & Co.'s generous and ambling tastes (for proof, see Nadel and Tim Hodler et al.'s Comics Comics). Santoro's work for PictureBox, solo and collaborative, includes a spate of different publications since 2005: Chimera, Incanto, and the serialized Cold Heat, all preparing the way for Storeyville's deluxe republication last fall.
I have a couple of copies of the tabloid Storeyville:
I don't remember where or how I got them, but I do remember that I got them separately, the first one probably from some comics shop and the second probably from some other comics shop. I remember I bought the second copy because, having read Storeyville, I thought orphaned copies of it ought to be rescued and given away to people who care about comics (wherever it was I bought it, Storeyville was definitely out of place and neglected). I've kept a copy at my office for a few years now, mainly for the purpose of using it to talk to my students about how publication design may influence our response to and interpretation of comics. I've long thought of it as an example of perfect packaging, the evocativeness of newsprint bringing out the juices, so to speak, in the story and art. I suppose my take on Storeyville, over the years, was that the format flattered the story, which felt just weightless enough to belong to a newprint form evoking the fragility of yesterday's comic strips. So, I kept the tabloid in my office but did not reread it.
That's why I was startled last year to hear about the new hardcover edition, which, it turns out, seeks not to bury the memory of the original tabloid version but instead to memorialize it as if it were a precious artifact. Nadel & Co., wisely I think, have scanned Storeyville direct from the tabloid and filled out the book with features (an introduction by Chris Ware, an afterword by Nadel including images from Santoro's early-90s zine Sirk) that seek to place the work in historical context, as if it were some long-lost masterpiece instead of a comic that came out a dozen years ago. How soon comics change; how quickly a mid-90s comic can date, and accrue historical significance.
Given PictureBox's stated mission to bring "artists' visions to print in startling and unexpected ways," and Dan Nadel's professed love of lo-fi newsprint comics, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a new tabloid newsprint version of Storeyville. But, no, Nadel seems determined to treat the story as Santoro's "youthful masterpiece," worthy of archival preservation. The obvious question is, does the work measure up to this treatment?
Narratively, as I've said, Storeyville is sparse. Its plot requires no long, straining paraphrase, and its characters are few and quickly sketched. What stands out is the evocation of setting and its implicit linking to character. Santoro is concerned with landscape and how characters find their way through it, so much of the book has to do with vistas passing before our eyes (dig the endpapers, which look like spot drawings of rustbelt landscapes culled from a sketchbook). In brief, the plot is a picaresque road trip set in and around Pittsburgh (Santoro's hometown) and Montreal at a moment in the early 20th century when horseless carriages and motocycles were uncommon but not unknown. Indeed a confrontation between horse and motor-bike, past and present, is pivotal to the plot (though about this I'll say nothing more). The story's milieu is that of hoboes on the fly: hungry, homeless drifters hanging out in squatters' camps, jumping railroads, dodging attack dogs, going to jail, hiding out, haunting streets and docksides, perhaps for short-term work, and contemplating small crimes and other survival strategies. We readers, like Will the protagonist, are on the tramp, "jumping" from one place to another and finding our way in unfamiliar circumstances.
Will, a hobo, begins the story in a camp outside of Pittsburgh. An encounter with an old buddy, Fisheye Cy, prompts him to light out for Montreal. There, Cy tells him, Will's lost friend Reverend Rudy has been seen. Will, who parted from Rudy in undisclosed circumstances, instantly and impulsively decides that he must seek him out. There is evidently unfinished business between them; later we discover that the two had to part for safety's sake, that is, apparently, to dodge the law. The fact that Rudy is a black man and that Rudy and Will are ostensibly escapees from prison probably has a lot to do with it. Storeyville tells the tale of Will's jump to Montreal, his frustrated searching for his old friend, and his final, unexpected, and bemusing reunion with him. Rudy, it turns out, is working as first mate on a ship bound for Bermuda; Will is naively determined to go with him. Thereby hangs the outcome of the story.
The narrative has a wonderful way of becoming unstrung for long passages and diverting its attention to landscape. As Santoro says (in a revealing interview at the PictureBox website),
Before I began Storeyville I did some sketching to gather material for the backgrounds and suddenly it was like a switch turned on in my brain -- I could "see" any landscape in my head, real or imagined, and somehow make a simple contour line drawing of it that was clear and readable. Especially Pittsburgh, I could just conjure the feeling of it as a place with just a few lines probably because as a city it's such a caricature of an American town. I was living in California when I drew Storeyville [but] the "character" of Pittsburgh asserted itself when I was drawing it.
There are sequences in which one almost becomes lost, along with Will, in the passing scenery. At times we have to search for Will in order to find him amid the landscape. And there are whole sequences in which Will does not appear but we readers seem to trace the route of what he sees and experiences:
As Santoro says (again in that interview), Storeyville plays with the "push and pull," the "tension," between foreground and background (yow, cue here Craig's recent post on Jack Kirby!).
To help evoke the rhythms of Will's traveling, Santoro uses conventional or regular layouts (in Benoît Peeters' sense) throughout, maintaining a ceaseless narrative pulse through the layout's unchanging grid of 15 panels (5 tiers x 3 panels). The tall, tabloid-size pages (too tall for me to scan fully, rats) make for strong verticals, but Santoro is not interested in exploiting height or scale so much as maintaining the pace. On occasion, and particularly at the end, the page opens out into split panels or metapanels, but Santoro keeps the lines of the grid intact, parsing even the grand, climactic image of the receding ship into, implicitly, a measured sequence:
Here he simultaneously confirms and explodes the grid, which helps account for the sense of opening "possibility" that I mentioned earlier. Coming after the regular rhythms of the rest of the book, this ending is exhilarating.
Of course the things readers will probably notice first (in those early moments when we're making the transition from gazing to reading, but also subliminally throughout our reading) are Santoro's narrow color palette and loose, sketchy renderings. Regarding color, Santoro's been an experimenter for years, using both photocopying and offset to create two or three-color zines and comics with artfully limited palettes. He brings a painter's sensibility to offset, and this new edition of Storeyville lovingly captures the offset colors of the tabloid original. The color separations for the original were created by Santoro's then-collaborator Katie Glicksberg (perhaps this Katie Glicksberg, who is a photographer with her own interest in landscape?), and the two of them reportedly experimented with various color schemes before finally arriving at Storeyville's rustbelt-in-autumn palette of yellows and browns. That's yellows, plural, a profusion of them: goldenrod, buff, mustard, gold, amber; and ditto for the browns: tan, ochre, umber, sepia. The yellow and browns approach each other, when they aren't fighting. Add to this multiple gray washes and Santoro's varied line and you've got (putting it mildly) a distinct look. For Santoro, it's a matter of setting emotional and symbolic overtones and, more basically, swaying the reader's eye:
I think much can be learned from limiting the color palette in comics. Same in painting. It opens alot of doors. When you limit the palette you can see formal and symbolic relationships easier. Good, harmonious color patterns move the eye around the page and let the reader connect on yet another level beyond the actual drawing or the story itself.
In fact Storeyville's colors often impart coherence to otherwise-sketchy renderings. Color takes, makes, form. The book ends up being a dialogue between drawing and coloring, a testimony to the Santoro/Glicksberg partnership.
Drawing-wise, Santoro's aesthetic tilts toward the Panter-esque school of rough, expressive mark-making: exploded contours, rough, sketchy rendering, a muscular expressionism. Settings are often conjured with fidelity to small details, but, on the other hand, anatomy is sometimes wildly out of canon. Hands are sometimes bigger than heads. Limbs, bodies, encounters, become wild lashings of line; expressions devolve into vivid chickenscratch. There are some wonderful, breathless moments of physical action:
Also, Santoro keeps changing what he's drawing with: pencil, pen (sometimes chunky markers), wash. Some panels are unavoidably a mess. So what? The images are gutsy. What's more, they're narrative. Behind the rough-hewn surfaces the panels are deliberate, selective, and well-composed with an eye toward storytelling and raw emotive payoff.
On the other hand, Storeyville's color scheme coats everything with a sense of nostalgia, an overwhelming sense of historical memory experienced as such, AS memory. Santoro willfully aesthetisizes, distancing the book from a more literal inscription of "history" (that is, perceived historicity). This is what sets Santoro's approach to historical narrative apart from the more literal (though still effective) approach of Vance & Burr's Kings in Disguise, or, for that matter, of James Sturm's excellent America. Storeyville dives more obviously into the symbolic, expressionistic, and mythic-nostalgic.
This is why the original newsprint edition of Storeyville, with its evocation of newspapers past, was actually a better match for the material. The new hardcover version, while gamely preserving the memory of the original, in effect distances us further from the evocative rootsiness of the story, recasting the comic in objet d'art mode, downplaying its roughness and playing up its beauty.
That said, the hardcover Storeyville remains a hypnotic and essential volume. Its story has a lingering power in memory that belies its simplicity of plot. What I find most interesting about it is the fact that I was initially tempted to dismiss it, due to its lack of narrative extension and its abrupt, dangling conclusion. Why? My prejudices are showing: Storeyville lacks the narrative density and resonating complexity of a "true" graphic novel; it doesn't take long to read, and the pleasures it offers are mostly not expressible in terms of plot, that is, reducible to paraphrase. But, again, so what? Storeyville is comics. It is narrative drawing of a high order. It is, finally, yes, a powerful visual story, more complex, insinuating, and haunting than I at first allowed. It's, essentially, an intimate short story on a grandstanding scale.
So I retract what I was going to say. I loved being schooled by stuff like this.