In January 1995, age 22 and living in San Francisco, a tweed-suit-wearing antique-jazz afficionado named Frank Santoro began a self-assigned year away from both drawing zines and his paying gigs as an illustrator. The Swissvale native and art-school dropout had a project to complete. By year's end, he'd done it: Storeyville, his striking graphic novella, was on its way to cult status, with no less than artist and comics tastemaker Chris Ware as head cheerleader.
It was a great ride, but one Santoro might have boarded too soon. In those days before Borders had a manga section (and before the widespread use of the Internet), the market for edgy, self-marketed long-form comics was tiny. Storeyville earned Santoro admirers, but lost him money; he resumed his illustration career. Later, he moved to New York, where he'd spend five globe-trotting years as assistant to renowned Italian painter Francesco Clemente.
But a funny thing happened: Santoro started drawing comics again. And last year, Brooklyn-based PictureBox Inc. -- which had already published Santoro's more recent long-form comics Chimera and Incanto -- agreed to put Storeyville between hard covers. The book, just published in its original, oversized format, with a laudatory introduction by Ware, has a rare second shot at commercial success in a world that just might have caught up with it.
Santoro, now 36, attends an interview at the Squirrel Hill Café (his choice of venue) wearing a sweatshirt and a battered Pirates cap over dark, tousled hair. Earlier this year, he moved from New York back to Swissvale to work on his next book, Cold Heat. He calls it "an action-adventure comic in art-comic trappings" -- a conscious effort to bridge the gap between mainstream superhero comics and the alt-comics world.
If Cold Heat is also 180 degrees from the humble grandeur of Storeyville, that's intentional, too. Storeyville, Santoro has said, is "about me finding my voice." That's a metaphor: The 40-page narrative is set about 100 years ago, when a young hobo named Will tramps from Pittsburgh to Montreal to track down his missing mentor, an older, African-American hobo called Reverend Rudy.
One of the book's notable aspects is its earnest, straightforward tone, so different from the satire and cynicism that pervaded alt comics in the mid-'90s. Another is the artwork: a stark, muted pallette of grays, browns and yellows, and a deceptively raw, wonderfully expressive sketchlike style which in one long passage renders human figures almost abstractly -- all without slowing the passionate if simple narrative.
"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," writes Ware in the introduction to the new edition. (In 1995, when Storeyville appeared, the future graphic novelist of Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth fame was a pen pal of Santoro's.)
Santoro's formative influences included his years at Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and his friendship with Bill Boichel. Boichel, owner of Squirrel Hill's Copacetic Comics, then ran Wilkinsburg comics emporium BEM, where the teen-age Santoro hung. Boichel also published Santoro's first comic book. "Bill was our ringleader, egging us on," says Santoro, recalling that fledgling alt-comics scene. Other influences include the Pittsburgh landscape -- a version of which dominates early sequences of Storeyville -- and Santoro's godfather, a man named Denny. If Will stands in for Santoro, Rudy is based largely on Denny, a beloved (and now deceased) mentor whose memory can still make Santoro's eyes tear up.
In the early '90s, Santoro and his then-girlfriend, Katie Glicksberg, put out Sirk, a zine informed by noir-ish pulp. Those were also the days when, in reaction to the hegemony of grunge culture, Santoro was dressing like vintage Louis Armstrong and listening to old jazz records. The latter fascination led him to research the old-time rail-tramp culture that informs Storeyville. Meanwhile, the book's inventive use of its strict grid layout was influenced by artists as diverse as iconic action-comic cartoonist Roy Crane and contemporary master Ben Katchor.
Even as he focuses on his current work, and savors Storeyville's second life, Santoro recalls the book's coming-of-age story a little nostalgically. "I don't know if I could tell it now," he says. "So I'm glad I did it then."