There are very few comics books where that I can honestly say I remember exactly where I was the first time I read it. That final issue of Watchmen would be one (in a Blimpie’s, on my lunch break). Gilbert Hernandez’s Poison River would be another (in my old apartment, on a lazy Saturday).
I also remember where I was when I read Storeyville for the first time. Not only that, I remember the exact moment I received it in the mail way back in 1995.
Such was the power of this one-time mysterious tome, about a drifter attempting to locate his long-lost friend and mentor. It was a moving, powerful work whose reputation was aided by the fact that no one seemed to know anything about it’s author, the enigmatic “Sirk.”
Turns out that Sirk was one Frank Santoro, a former Pittsburgh resident who dropped off the map following Storeyville’s initial release, only to come back to the indie scene recently with the release of books like Incanto and Cold Heat.
I talked with Santoro recently about the new re-release of Storeyville, now in resplendent hardcover format and glowing Chris Ware introduction, thanks to PictureBox, from his home in Pittsburgh.
Q: Have you always lived in Pittsburgh?
A: No, I’m from Pittsburgh. I graduated high school in 1990 and immediately moved to San Francisco. And then I moved to New York in fall of 1999. I was in New York until the spring.
Q: Give me a little bit of your background because I don’t know too much about your personal history. What got you interested in making comics?
A: I’m from Pittsburgh. [My neighborhood was] in Pittsburgh proper, but it’s where the three rivers come together and there are a ton of steel mills up and down the river.
Where I grew up was a town right along the river which is called Swissvale but which is more widely known as Braddock. The famous Homestead mill strike that HJ Heinz broke in eighteen-whatever, that was right down the river. This whole area where I actually am right now was just a thriving working class community up until the late 1970s and early 1980s. There’s a great book by Eugene Smith documenting the heyday of Pittsburgh.
In any event I grew up here and it went to hell in the ’80s and I got out just in time really. There’s a great arts program here. I went to an arts high school for example. I got a scholarship out of town and never really have been back since except for a few summers here and there.
Q: What brought you back?
A: A confluence of events but mostly my uncle said he’d sell me his house for one dollar and I took him up on it. My girlfriend and I moved back here in the spring. Also I had to take time off. New York and San Francisco for 15 years straight has been great but kind of a grind. Just to have a little bit of a middle class life, to have a car …
Q: Sure. That’s what keeps me in Harrisburg.
A: I totally understand. I made it work. I never necessarily planned on leaving New York. There were just a lot of things that came together and it was too much to pass up.
Q: So how did you get started doing your own comics?
A: There was a great comic book store here when I was growing up called Bem, which was named after Gilbert Hernandez’s story in the first Love and Rockets. That was right around the corner from my neighborhood and the owner of that store Bill Boichel, who runs Copacetic Comics these days, he had a really great taste in comics. What was in his store and what he pushed was mostly Love and Rockets, American Flagg and Nexus. I started going there in ’85.
It was a really interesting time for comics. I had been collecting Spider-Man by the time I started going to Bem I had every Spider-Man from one to 50 but I just started going to comic book stores and there was a great store and there was a bunch of us and Bill actually put out our first comic. It was called No Comics. He sold it at the store, and I think Diamond and Capital carried it. This was during the black and white explosion days.
Q: What year was this around?
A: ’88. It was a fun time to be thinking about comics. It was wide open. It still kind of is, but it just mixed and mashed with my art education. To me it was all one thing. I thnk my teachers at the time might have had a hard time understanding comics and some of the comics I was doing at the time were a little artier but there seemed to be room for that.
But Bill’s influence was really the main influence. He made his own zines and minicomics and just titled them Bem. They’d have different names every time like Hobo Mojo or Geeky Watusi. He’d have all these self-published zines that he’d make on his xerox machine and he’d sell them upstairs. I just thought that was super radical, like a really great art practice. Capitalism at its finest.
When I was going to school, that was the beginning of the zine revolution. When I went out to California, there was a lot of zines out there, particularily Cometbus, a huge influence on me, which was a punk rock zine by a kid named Aaron, who goes by Aaron Cometbus.
There was a lot of small minicomics out at Comic Relief in Berkley. I was going to art school, but I just wasn’t satisified with painting and sculpture and video. It wasn’t really doing it for me. Making zines was this artistic choice that I made. I felt it was a contemporary choice, a modern choice to be an artist in that way. There are a lot of factors in that, and sometimes it can sound really high falutin’ and sometimes it can sound really down to earth. That was the real choice for me. It was a great time to be doing that stuff because there was a network for it. It was pre-internet and mail order. The Spit and a Half catalog, for example, with John Porcellino. That network was in place and even though it was a fringe network it still felt very vital.
Q: How would you characterize those early works that you were doing, the pre-Storyville comics?
A: I would characterize them as experiments. Experiments in color, in design, in page layout, in narrative. Taking iconic elements and graphic elements from noir and old movies and jazz and 20th century Americana and just mixing and matching.
For example, I was making that work and then I found out about the poster artist Frank Kozik and then my friend Mike Lavella, who has a magazine called Gearhead who’s also from Pittsburgh, introduced me to Frank and I started working for him and I worked in his silkscreen shop. He liked my Sirk zines, he thought they were pretty cool. I helped him out in his shop. I pulled prints, I cut rubylith film, whatever.
He talked a lot about how if he was in a gallery he would be this post-modern artist or something but he was just making these posters for rock bands. And that was interesting because here’s this guy who was from the music community but then doing it himself outside the system and he was in the same building as Ron Turner at Last Gasp. And Ron Turner came downstairs one day and I showed him my magazines and he said “These are great, but they’re art, they’re not comics. I can’t sell these through Last Gasp.” I always felt I was a little too arty for the comics people and a little too comic-y for the art people.
Q: Where did the Sirk nickname come from?
A: Sirk was a direct reference to the filmmaker Douglas Sirk whose movies, particularly Written on the Wind and Tarnished Angels and There’s Always Tomorrow, really reflected this particular American vision that I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to truck in those strategies. I really liked the things he was doing. I thought his movies were flawless in terms of the way they were presented: the color, the structure, every shot. It was just so rich. But then there was also this underbelly that he was exposing that was never pierced, so there was this strange tension. There’s a Todd Haynes movie now where that tension is pierced, because he updated it. But because it was the ’50s, there was this tension and that’s what I wanted to try to get out of the magazines, this old imagery and having that tension and turning it up a little bit.
For me those early ’90s, that stuff was in the air. There was a lot of retro, especially in Northern California. This is right around the time when the swing bands were coming into existence. Kozik and movies like Resevoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction touched on that. They’re probably the most mainstream embodiment of that. A lot of people, Mister Fotheringham, Chuck Sperry, all these kids of West Coast poster artists guys that were doing this.
I thought it was interesting work but I kind of also felt that I didn’t want to become one of those guys. I could only do this one type of imagery and that was going to be it for me. I knew that it was going to become kind of kitsch and when groups like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy became big I was like “That’s it, it’s over.” I switched gears purposely in ’94 towards straight comics and using crime comics and things like that as trappings to work out these narrative things I wanted to do.
Q: How did that lead to Storeyville?
A: It led to Storeyville by way of this combination of influences. I saw Cheap Novelities in 1992, Ben Katchor’s collection of strips. He also had a book called Picture Story Magazine that he published himself but had Jerry Moriarty in it and I believe Mark Beyer. He published this himself and he had a story in there, I can’t recall the title right now, but it was about a printer and it was a longer form story and I had never seen any of Katchor’s longer-form stories. I fell in love with that particular story.
In ’92-’93, while I was doing Sirk, there was that big Smithsonian book of Sunday strips and there were some Captain Easy Roy Crane strips in there. I had never seen those before. I searched them out and found some of those NBM collections.
Again, this was pre-Internet. If you found one of those books in San Francisco, you did a dance. You could not believe you found this book. It was not accessable at all. The force with which it hits you, or hit me, is huge. You’re discovering this lost American art. Who is Douglas Sirk? Who is Roy Crane? I didn’t know. It’s really exciting.
You take all these influences and mash them together. I was really into Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn and his loose drawing style. He had a Dick Tracy three-issue movie adaptation that was phenomenal. His work on The Shadow was phenomenal. He drew in this straight-ahead loose style. I thought that was great.
It wasn’t planned really. I was doing this Sirk imagery and I read this great book called Really the Blues by Mezz Mesrow – he was Louis Armstrong’s best friend back in the 1920s. I was really into that world. It was pretty natural. It didn’t seem forced.
Q: Are you saying it was largely improvised while you were doing it?
A: The story completely changed as soon as I started making it. It was going to be a story about these hobos and tramps and more of a crime story. As I was making it I was making changes in the script. My friend John, who I credit as the editor for the story, we went back and forth a lot. He was such a great sounding board to bounce these ideas off of. I trusted his instincts. It was fun to realize what kind of story I could actually tell instead of a regular crime story. Reading Roy Crane, reading Ben Katchor, reading Kyle Baker, I was 22 years old and I was just trying to absorb this stuff and spit it back out.
And Chris Ware. There was a comic-book sized version of Acme Novelty Library when it first came out.
Q: Yeah. I remember I was like “Hey, it’s that guy from Raw magazine.”
A: Right! And it was cool. You thought “This is great” but it didn’t really prepare me for summer of ’94 when the oversize one came out. When that came out it was just “That’s it.” It was this call to arms. You have to up the ante. You have to do something more. Everybody did. Everything I had been doing up to that point felt like a bare minimum effort. I turned around and put it into that. It was a call and response.
It was really exciting. Chris and I were pen pals before that. I sent him the Sirk zines and he liked them and we just went back and forth – little postcards here and there. Then we started talking on the phone a little bit. Chris wasn’t who he is today. He hasn’t changed but ..
Q: His stature is different?
A: His stature is different of course, but he’s the same person. But I was sending postcards to Ben Katchor. I was sending postcards to Kyle Baker. Chris just happened to be somebody who wrote back. That was just how it seemed back then with mail order and things like that.
Q: More accessible?
A: More accessible but less terse than with email [today]. I’m not trying to romanticize or be nostalgic but writing letters to Aaron Cometbus … I never met him until 1999, even though we were pen pals for ten years. His influence on me artistically was enormous. And then we became studio mates in 2000 when he moved to New York and we shared a studio for seven years.
It’s just like those kind of friendships back then [involved] a whole different understanding of each others work. There were so few people doing this. There seemed like there was enough, but for a lot of kids now, comics art history begins with Chester Brown in 1988 or so. They don’t remember when there was nothing. There was Love and Rockets and Lloyd Llewellen. There was no Eightball.
Q: Kids today.
A: (laughs) Right. But I appreciate that. I think there was something that grew out of that fandom.
Q: What was behind the decision to publish it on newsprint? It seemed like a really unique design choice.
A: In San Francisco at the time Matt Stromberg had published this paper called San Fransicko. There was a thing called Filth and Chuck Sperry put it out. He worked at Comic Relief. The cheapest way you could do something was at this mission where they had a cheap newsprint printer. There were these other advertisment things where you could have one or two colors with it. I thought that had to be the cheapest way.
And I was working for Kozik and he was having a book of his published by Last Gasp, and he was bitching about the perfect binding of it and how it was going to rip apart and fall apart in a year or so. He pulled off this Raw one-shot by Gary Panter that has a cardboard cover with a Jimbo story printed on red ink on newsprint stapled inside and had a tape binding. It was this one-shot that came out in ’85 or something. He said “Just do something like this. Print a book on newsprint, make one of these covers, make one of these every night. How many do you need to make? What’s the big deal?” I thought that was a great idea.
It was also an economic decision. The zines were too expensive to make. I wanted it to be bigger. I wanted to make something that I could sell and have a bunch of because people always sold out of their mini-comics and it was just better to make a new one than to reprint an old one.
And again, my friend Bill had some old Sunday Steve Canyon strips and I saw some Captain Easy reproduced. I just kept thinking, “How do you use this big open page?”
I was really into Alex Toth. I had read in interviews where he had talked about certain stories demand certain approaches and if you fix the frame like a movie screen the viewer forgets that he’s reading a comic. It felt like if you did that on a larger page and you had these ways where you could go across three or four panels and do these weird diagonals you could move the viewer around a little more, keep the panels fixed, not use gutters. … It was just really organic. Nothing planned.
Q: I remember Storeyville being one of those “big moments” in the small press scene. It almost had a sense of mystery about it because you were using the Sirk name. I’m kind of curious as to what your memory of the initial reaction towards the book was.
A: When I first started making the Sirk zines and going to comic conventions, I was 20 years old and didn’t want to get rejected, so I pretended that I was this guy that worked for Sirk Productions and there were these people that made this zine. And there would never be any credits or anything. It was just the publisher. I’d go in and ask do you want to buy this and they’d say oh great, it’s that Sirk thing. But if they asked me I’d say I didn’t make it. I couldn’t deal with trying to separate myself and sell it and make it.
That was the real answer. That was the real reason I was doing it, but then it became this other thing. Bill was doing this zine called Bem. I was doing the Sirk zines before Acme Novelty came around so when Chris was doing it and there was no name on it, it just seemed like it was part of what was in the air. You were submerging yourself into this other kind of identity.
When Storeyville came along I didn’t want it to be about me. I didn’t want it to be “This is my ego.” The story was just too tender and real and personal for me that I didn’t want to announce “Frank Santoro” or whatever. I needed it to be about the story. That let me have a different way of engaging the readers because I was a publisher. And I was.
I wanted the work to be on its own merit. I didn’t want to be rejected by this personal thing. I wanted it to be an anonymous thing out there.
Q: It did seem like it came out of nowhere to an extent. Certainly if you weren’t following the zine scene suddenly there was this book that people in the know were talking about. I remember most of the early reviews being strongly positive. Do you remember people having a strong reaction to the book when it came out?
A: Yeah, in positive and in negative ways. I remember I got a great review by Factsheet Five and David Lasky wrote a review for The Comics Journal which was great. Getting reviewed in the Journal was huge. I remember my friends back home joking “Now we know you suck because the Journal likes you.” It was fun.
I was really happy with the reaction. The reactions I was most happy with were noncomics readers. We had so many copies, even though we were selling them at stores and through distributors, we started leaving them around. We’d give a bunch out. There were a lot of great movie theaters in San Francisco at the time. I’d leave them in the movie palaces like the Castro and the Roxy in the Mission. I’d leave them there or at particular bookstores like City Lights. There’s this certain kind of arts community, everyday person in San Francisco and I’d see them reading it. I’d go to the movie, leave them out, wait for the movie to come on and I’d see half the audience looking at my comic while waiting for the movie to start. It was thrilling. I was just improvising. It was like pirate radio. How do you get it out there? I was also 22. I had a lot of youthful energy and idealism.