126pp, 2-color, $22.99 US
The comic book biography is alive and well in 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, a new graphic novel from Wilfred Santiago. Santiago worked for Milestone Media early in his career and is also the author of the graphic novel, In My Darkest Hour.
21 is the comic book biography of legendary Major League Baseball player, Roberto Clemente, a native of Puerto Rico. The graphic novel takes its title from the uniform number Clemente wore as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom he played his entire 18-year career. Clemente was also a tireless advocate for the poor and was involved in humanitarian work in Puerto Rico and Latin America.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1934, Robert Clemente Walker would grow up to become the dominant baseball player of the 1960s. Roberto Clemente joined the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League in 1954. He led them to World Series victories in 1960 (over the American League powerhouse, the New York Yankees) and 1971, when he also won the World Series Most Valuable Player award.
As a Latin American and person of color, Clemente faced prejudice throughout his career, but ultimately, the haters had to back down. Clemente’s intensity on the field won over the public and his athletic brilliance and aesthetic grace captured the imagination of baseball fans (and continues to do so). Tragically, Clemente died on December 31, 1972 when his plane went down in the Caribbean Sea. Ever the humanitarian, Clemente was on a relief mission to Nicaragua, which had been devastated by an earthquake.
In March of 1973, Clemente became the first Latin elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. That year, the Pirates also retired Clemente’s number, 21. Major League Baseball also gives the “Roberto Clemente Award” annually to the player who best exemplifies Clemente’s spirit as a humanitarian.
In 21, Wilfred Santiago, who was also born in Puerto Rico, uses the language of comic books to tell the story of Clemente’s life as something like the arc of the hero’s journey or as a heroic epic. In Chapter I, Santiago’s uses a graphical storytelling language that emphasizes simple shapes to create compositions. Circles, spheres, and straight lines dominate as Santiago creates characters as well as sets and background objects. This gives the first chapter a look similar to a children’s storybook, which in turns presents Clemente’s early life as a universal tale. His youth is a story like that of other children, but it also portends greater things.
In Chapter II, Santiago allows draftsmanship to take over the art as he chronicles Clemente’s journey to the United States and to his life as a professional baseball player. Clemente has left the idyllic youth of Puerto Rico behind for the “real” world where race defines a person’s status in society. Here, bigotry and prejudice even determine how people judge another’s accomplishments. Skin color even dictates if, where, and how a person of color can use public facilities. Here, the hero faces obstacles and enemies, overcoming one and winning over the others.
In Chapter III, 21’s shortest chapter, Santiago turns to graphic design and the use of graphics more so than traditional comic book page design. In this way, he creates a Clemente that is more than just a Major League Baseball player and who is larger than mere baseball superstar. The superstar is ultimately mortal, but by that for which he stood, the sports star rises and is eternal. In this final chapter, the story is as much symbolic and mythical as it is literal and real.
21 captures what made Clemente unique. However, Santiago uses the medium of the comic book in a unique way to tell the story of man who represents the best of us.