“Cartoonist” is one name for a maker of comics, but the origin of the word is surprising. In medieval Italy “cartone” was stiff paper used for rough preparatory drawings for frescoes or paintings. Loose, dynamic sketches, by which a classical artist works out tableaux with emotion and dramatic tension—that perfectly describes Frank Santoro’s style in his latest graphic novel, POMPEII. And the style is a fitting one, since the book’s protagonists are themselves early Italian painters who would have employed “cartoons” for their work.
POMPEII takes place in AD 79 in the city of the same name, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of classical history knows how this story will turn out. Flavius, a “mid-career artist,” is looking for his breakthrough. Marcus, a young apprentice to Flavius, is mostly driven by the desire not to return to his provincial hometown of Paestum, where career options are limited. Lucia, Marcus’s girlfriend, loves him but can’t wait to start a family. Unknown to his wife, Alba, Flavius is having an affair with an unnamed Princess, whose portrait he is painting, though it’s not clear whether Flavius’s attraction to the Princess is genuine: her father has access to moneyed patrons in Rome.
Frank Santoro is (or should be) best known for his astonishing STOREYVILLE, an impressionistic/expressionistic Bildungsroman first published in 1995. Distribution was limited, “art comics” had not yet really caught on in the United States, and as a result too few readers experienced what was truly a revolution in the comics form. I can say without exaggeration that STOREYVILLE changed how I thought about the potential of comics. (No less a personage than Chris Ware had the exact same sentiments about the book, captured in his Introduction to the Picturebox reissue of STOREYVILLE: “I consider reading STOREYVILLE for the first time one of the touchstones of my life as a cartoonist, and the book itself one of the landmarks of comics’ development.”)
In POMPEII, Santoro revisits many themes from STOREYVILLE, but twenty years later and from the perspective of a mature cartoonist—indeed, it’s tempting to read Flavius and Marcus as dual self-portraits of the artist, young and old. The interests in POMPEII are both formal and emotional. Formally, the book is a masterpiece of comics storytelling: while the sepia-toned pencil and wash drawings are loose and open (like “cartoons” for a fresco), the compositions balance confidence and experimentation; demonstrate a crisp intellectual engagement with the challenges of graphic narrative; and make use of classical principles such as symmetry and the golden mean. (It is worth noting that Santoro spends a good bit of his time teaching comics.) But it is emotion that truly animates POMPEII, as Santoro explores timeless ideas: love, sex, art, and business; youthful innocence and jaded experience; seeing and blindness; romance and responsibility; the ambition of the artist versus the problems and squabbles of everyday life; the fleeting and the eternal; nature and artifice; life and death.
A decade or two before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Latin writer Seneca reminded his readers of an ancient Greek aphorism: life is short, but great art is eternal, and great artists require a lifetime to master their art. “Ars longa, vita brevis.” With wisdom, beauty, and a gentle sadness, Santoro’s POMPEII captures those sentiments perfectly: Marcus and Lucia will be frozen forever in their youthful love and happiness, on the page and in our minds, while Santoro himself clearly remains committed to pushing the art of cartooning forward.-Mark D. Nevins[Note: a version of this review appears, in German, in the Swiss comics journal STRAPAZIN.]
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