“When the Penguins started up in ’67 in Pittsburgh, my family were big hockey fans,” the cartoonist Frank Santoro tells me. “I would go to Toronto and I took Eddie Shack’s hockey camp when I was a little kid. He’d drive us around in his dune buggy at the end of camp, and you’d hold on for dear life as he raced around downtown Toronto.”
Santoro was back in Toronto recently, although not to play hockey. He was running a boot camp of his own, a hands-on workshop dealing in comics and music. Miles Davis’s modal jazz hummed in the background as Santoro mapped out the hidden rhythms of participants’ comics pages. “I’m trying to share this joy of composing,” Santoro told the class, as though the musician’s art and the cartoonist’s were one and the same.
The seminar doubled as a book launch for the artist’s two new projects. Set against the vibrant backdrop of a working-class neighbourhood, the impressionistic Pittsburgh delves into the Vietnam-era courtship and eventual divorce of the artist’s parents, who now work together but no longer speak. In Return to Romance, Santoro co-edits a collection of mid-century romance comics by the little-known Ogden Whitney, an artist whose wooden, histrionic approach to melodrama twists Eisenhower America into bizarre contortions. If these books were music, Return to Romance might be a reissue on the Numero Group label – a crate-digger’s classic – while Santoro likens Pittsburgh’s improvisatory construction to “playing ensemble jazz or something, playing with feeling on the first or second take and not trying to be too technical.”
The “feeling” in Pittsburgh derives from heartache and old resentments – the dull throb of smothered passions – but the artist’s pages themselves are searing. Achieved using brightly coloured markers and pencils, Santoro’s sketchy, cut-and-paste art pops with Fauvist hues, pinks and lilacs and tangerines seldom seen in conventional pictures of gritty Pittsburgh. “I see the colours,” he insists. “When the sun comes out on certain mornings, the colours are very vivid. The red brick, and there’s a particular blue of the houses from the vinyl siding or painted wood, this slate blue, and the sky will be purple.”
It’s an evocative, almost impossible view of the city that’s as idealistic as Santoro’s attempts to reconcile his parents’ aloofness in the present with their tightly knit family bonds in the past. “I made the book in the first place just to symbolically sort of put them back together,” he says. “Their being dead to each other now is a lie that’s killing me,” he writes in the opening pages, going on to detail his father’s traumatic tour in Vietnam, his mother’s family’s history of alcohol abuse and the artist’s own complicated separation from the city of his birth. “It’s a love poem to the city,” he says. “If the romance of my parents isn’t there, there’s my romance with the city – my estrangement from the city, and then my return.”
Romance is also what connects Santoro’s work to Whitney’s – a peculiar, strained kind of romance, that puts each party through the wringer. The artist’s parents struggle to stay together as Vietnam intercedes, but Whitney’s couples face even more intractable, if wackier, problems. A fashion designer besotted with a disgraced boxer attempts to build up the palooka’s confidence through relentless insults: “So the little man wants a chance at a girl’s job, does he?” Elsewhere, a young woman despairs of ever winning the love of her scientist crush because she’s branded “the brainless type,” or a daredevil dynamo is shocked to find the man of her dreams is a simpering fraidy-cat. “Whitney’s work has a lot of dissonance,” Santoro points out. “It’s kind of off-kilter. The men are not so tough and the women are not so cookie-cutter.
“These were great comics that were in the dustbin of history,” he says. “It’s interesting that this work has survived. The audience is prepped for it a little bit more [now].” Anyone familiar with the overblown aesthetic of a John Waters movie, or the exaggerated artifice of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s Technicolor weepies, will certainly find a kindred spirit in Whitney. “I love Sirk,” Santoro says. “Written on the Wind or All That Heaven Allows. Those were ‘B’ movies, the same as the Whitney stuff: those are like ‘B’ comics.”
Like all “B” grade entertainments, Whitney’s comics work with certain generic conventions and formal constraints. These kinds of strictures are what led Santoro to find analogues between music and comics, in his teaching. “The metronome and scales give you a structure,” he says, comparing tempo and melody to traditional page sizes and panel layouts in comics. “Then you can play within the restriction, with feeling. You don’t have to invent these crazy chords and difficult time signatures.
“I’ve found most cartoonists feel like they’re making art that’s outside of the academy, outside of art history, and they don’t ever want to be told what to do. But they’re still bound by the [dimensions of the] books,” he says, frustrated with cartoonists who neglect the fundamentals of their craft.
Eddie Shack must have taught him better. “I always liked the tough hockey instructor,” Santoro says. “If you missed the wrist shot in the upper left corner, you just sat there and did it until you got it. Teaching art doesn’t go that way.”
Pittsburgh (New York Review Comics, 216 pages, $39.95)
Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney, by Ogden Whitney, edited by Dan Nadel and Frank Santoro, introduction by Liana Finck (New York Review Comics, 120 pages, $25.95)
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