Unpacking 'Pompeii': an interview with Frank Santoro

His work might have a rushed, "dashed-off" look to it at times, but don't kid yourself: Frank Santoro puts a lot of time and consideration into his comics. In fact, it's safe to say he puts more thought into the overall structure and design of his pages than a lot of his contemporaries, as anyone who has read his "Layout Workbook" series of posts on TCJ.com can attest.

Santoro's latest comic, the stand-alone graphic novel Pompeii, deals quite overtly with issues of art and craft, as it follows the story of aspiring ancient Roman artist Marcus who's slaving away as an assistant to the more established painter Flavius (who has his own problems). Marcus is at something of a crossroads, frustrated by his slow progress under Flavius' tutelage, but unwilling to move back home or reconsider his options, despite the pleadings of his girlfriend, Lucia. As you might expect given the book's title, things come to a head quite violently with the eruption of a nearby volcano.

Overall Pompeii is a fast-paced but moving, almost tender at times, work, that begins almost as a sex farce but quickly turns into a more considered and elegiac consideration of careers, youth, love and the purpose of art and artistry in our lives.

I talked with Santoro recently about his new book and its conception.

Chris Mautner: How long have you been interested in the history of Pompeii? How did you first learn about it? At what point did you decide to create a comic about it?

Frank Santoro: I had a book about Pompeii with the X-rated drawings in them, when I was like 11. One of those art books that sneaks in sex. Later I understood that my father's father's family was from Naples. When I finally got to go to Naples and Pompeii in 2003, I started thinking about making a story about the area. My newspaper tabloid comic Chimera was my first stab at the idea.

What was your experience in Naples like? How did that trip feed you as an artist and storyteller?

The archaeological museum in Naples is the greatest door to the ancient world. Really life-changing. As an American, it's hard to comprehend the vastness of Roman culture. The scale of it all really impressed me. And the way that gigantic scale could be felt in small painted frescoes was a big revelation to me. It also felt a lot like comics somehow. The epic scale or the epic ideas that can exist in physically small artworks like comics.

What sort of research did you do for Pompeii? How much did you rely upon historical fact in portraying the characters, dress, homes, speech, etc.?

I made drawings when I was there and I would draw a lot from old frescoes or statues. However, I kept a damper on being obsessive about details. I often feel that period pieces suffer from attempting to make everything correct. I went more for an accurate feeling. And specifically looked at how art from the era depicted people. I also did research how names were used. For example, there were only about a dozen different first names. A person was known more for his last name and a sort of nickname. If you called someone their first name that meant you knew them well. I researched carefully the way the eruption was supposed to have unfolded. I watched old In Search Of ... documentaries about Pompeii, you know ...

The main character, Marcus, has to suffer a lot under the tutelage of the painter Flavius. Knowing that you apprenticed/worked with or for several notable artists, I was wondering if those sequences were autobiographical in some fashion.

I was inspired by working for Francesco Clemente. He sort of represents the archetypal portrait painter or society painter. The old master. So I just took the caricature of the old master and added to it. I play his character for laughs because in a way Flavius is the most tragic figure in the story. He's in debt to his patrons and at odds with his loved ones. The mirror of that is Marcus's struggle to balance working for Flavius and Marcus's own difficulties with his loved ones.

You chose a very specific brownish umber color to use throughout the book. Why? What made you select this color and decide to not use any others?

I'm interested in the way old drawings look and I wanted to use a Mediterranean palette. The color is very rich, I think. it's warm so it holds the light. It can go light and dark on the scale. It's a very malleable color. Plus, the story is about drawing. An earth tone seemed appropriate for the subject matter and the era.

Can you talk a little bit about your process working on Pompeii? Did you script the book out first or did the story develop as you drew?

I work on the two pages of each spread at once, meaning I draw the left and right side of the book together as one drawing. I don't write a script with words only. The story begins at full size. I just keep adding to the first draft. And I draw the pages the same size they are printed. I drew it in pencil - some thick, some thin -- and I used some ink washes and markers in some cases.

In Pompeii your style changes frequently depending on the scenario. Sometimes you use a use a thin, delicate line, other times what seems to be a rough wash, and other times you seem to be deliberately making the reader aware of the structure of the drawing — showing the rough structure beneath the character. What were your reasons for doing this?

I want to show how the book is made so that it looks warm and inviting to read. If a drawing has lots of detail it slows the reader down. I want you to read Pompeii fast and so I make my layouts and my drawings work in tandem to hurtle you through the sequencing. Some scenes are delicate and some are rough or crude because I am reflecting or attempting to reflect the feeling of the scene in the drawing. That means the way figures are drawn and the arrangement of the figures and how that can RHYME across a scene. What looks spontaneous may actually be painstakingly planned and vice versa.

Can you give me an example of a sequence that was “painstakingly planned”?

The final scene when they are trapped. That's a scene that I stripped down to the simplest of sequences and simplest of drawings. I wanted to reduce their world down to a few lines -- so that when Marcus draws on the wall there is a sort of fight between the drawings of Marcus and Lucia and the drawings Marcus makes on the wall. So that was all planned carefully and then executed in a way that is purposely naive and improvised looking. Many of the drawings that look like first take are really third takes meant to look like first take. I need the lines and the action to be lively and not stiff because the scene demands it.

At its heart, Pompeii seems like a romance, a tragic love story between Marcus and Lucia. Was that intentional from the start or did that develop over time as you worked on the story?

Yes. I wanted to do a romance story. I like the idea of romance as a genre and as a framing device for a story. Pompeii made for an epic backdrop and that  gave me another genre to work off of -- which was helpful because I think romances feel epic even when they happen in our mundane daily lives. However that is harder to express, so setting a romance in Pompeii allowed me the room to play around with the feelings those tragic feelings which surround many romances.

The finale of the story seems to take an ambivalent view re: the power of art in that it serves to soothe and distract, but ultimately can’t prevent bad things from occurring. Does that make any sense? Does that reflect in any way your own view of the book or your personal view of purpose of art in general?

I get what you mean - however I see the power of art as a LANGUAGE. The visual communication and understanding - of what is impossible to say, or portray with words is the power of the image and of comics particularly, I think. It's like a parable, y'know? The purpose of art is to communicate and I'm trying to show a tension between an art made for hire and an art made to express two lovers' bond with each other. I mean, this book is ultimately about me trying to make sense the purpose of my own art -- and with this book I really tried to move people emotionally with my art -- to communicate something that I need to get out and share. That's a big risk, sort of like making a portrait of a beloved. The sitter might love it or hate it or worse be indifferent to it!

Tell me about the Comics Workbook magazine you’re going to have available at Comic Arts Brooklyn this weekend. What made you decide to create a print version of your Tumblr?

Comics Workbook is a zine about comics put together by Andrew White and designed by Zach Mason, two graduates of my correspondence course. We wanted to make something for shows. It's a simple magazine sized fanzine focused on younger makers and put together by younger makers. Fanzines are so much a part of comics history so I just wanted to be have something on that shelf or in that box in the future marked "print publications about obscure art-comics from early 21st century" haha! It'll be like the end of Clowes's Dan Pussey's saga when the girls from the future find comics from Pussey's collection all bagged and boarded and labeled.

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