Picking up where we left off the other week, here’s the second half of my interview with Storeyville creator and Cold Heat artist Frank Santoro. In this section we talk about why he left comics after completing Storeyville, how he got back into them, and how he’s started to make a name for himself these days as an insightful online critic. Enjoy.
Q: Well then the next question in my mind is what happened? Because I remember Storeyville coming out, and then I don’t think I saw anything else from you until recently with the stuff you’ve been doing for PictureBox. What were you doing in between?
A: Life got in the way. There was nowhere to go. Chris Oliveros was interested. I was in a few issues of Top Shelf back in 1987. I began a project with my friend Bill from Copacetic and it just became too big for both of us. The project that I had in mind got away from the vision that we were starting to form. I spent a couple of years working on that material and it’s pretty great. I showed it to Chris Oliveros in ’97 or ’98 at San Diego and we talked about maybe being in Drawn and Quarterly Presents but … it was a combination of things. The girlfriend that I had at the time, Katie, we broke up and I moved to New York in 1999.
There was just no money. I wasn’t going to make any money.
Q: Not make money off of comics?
A: (laughs) Right. I spent all of my energy getting Storeyville out there and not knowing what was going to come next. The only thing that came next were great reviews and “Hey, send us what you’re working on next time,” but I was broke. My illustration jobs weren’t paying the bills I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself.
It was really difficult. I just didn’t know where to turn. I literally had an interview at Disney because I knew somebody and got an interview to try to work in their animation department. The real ticket to getting in there is your life drawing, your gesture drawing. I had that down and showed them, and they were really positive. They were like, “Ok, great, now go through our Animation School.” I just couldn’t deal with that.
I didn’t know where to go. There wasn’t the kind of Internet blogging support network that exists now to get the word out there. You could be in Drawn and Quarterly Presents or something. And even if you had a book you weren’t necessarily making any money off of it.
Actually, I’m glad that I didn’t do anything, I’m glad a half-hearted project didn’t come out. I just stepped away from it. Honestly, it was easier to sell paintings or drawings to collectors I would meet here and there. Dave Cooper is a great example of that. Souther Salazar is a great example of that. He’s incredible, amazing. He makes the most beautiful books you’ve ever seen. But he sells three scraps of paper to a gallery and makes what he’s going to make doing mini-comics for a couple of years. It’s a very frustrating marketplace when you’re the fringe of the fringe.
Q: Especially in the time period you’re talking about.
A: Absolutely. There was no Giant Robot. They had just started actually. APE had just started. I went to the first couple of APEs. Everything was positive, it was cool, but it was just …
I got a call from Mike Richardson in ’96. Mike Richardson at Dark Horse called me. “Loved the story. It was a great book. Let us know what you’re up to.” I felt like this was great, I have an open door whenever. Then, when I knock on their door a year and a half later with whatever I was working on, the industry was falling apart. Heroes World and all this shit with the distributors was going on.
I had a conversation with Gary Groth a couple of years ago, he found a letter from me and a sample from 1998. He had never opened it until 2004. Those guys were busy worrying about whether their companies were going to survive more so than putting out new work.
I was pretty cognizant of what was happening. I wasn’t naive.
Q: So what were you doing to sustain yourself? You mentioned selling paintings.
A: I did that for a couple of years and then I moved to New York and worked with a lot of very high-end galleries and then I started assisting contemporary artists like Dorothea Rockburn, an abstract painter that was well known in the late 1960s, early 1970s. She’s older now but she was great. I learned a lot from her.
I got a job with a painter friend Francesco Clemente and I worked for him from 2002 to last year. That was great because it was the arts education, painting education that I wanted to have that I didn’t get to have. It’s really difficult to teach painting. It’s more like an apprenticeship thing. You have to learn it. He’s connected to these old traditions like portrait painting. It was a) a good paying job and b) I met a lot of art collectors and I sold a lot of art right out of my studio.
I just got by for the last seven years, and I got by really well actually. I got to travel a lot. What I’m doing now is, I’m not making any money off of Storeyville but I’m just living off of the money that I squirreled away over the last few years. I cut down on my expenses [so I can] finish the projects I want to finish.
Q: What got you back into comics then? And how did you hook up with Picturebox?
A: I became aware of The Ganzfeld and I contacted [publisher] Dan [Nadel]. I actually wrote him a letter. We met, he came over to my studio and we went out for a few beers. I knew he liked comics; through The Ganzfeld I could tell he knew what was going on in comics, but we started talking about certain obscure comics that I think we were both surprised that we knew. That was kind of funny and we became really close friends. He was publishing the Ganzfeld and I was working for Clemente. It was fun because I think we both appreciated each others perspective on things. He’d come to art openings and gallery shows with me and my friends and I’d go to comic-cons with him and his friends. We had this great give and take And he knew a lot about contemporary comics and turned me onto Fort Thunder. I hadn’t even really been aware of Fort Thunder because I had been out of it.
I had always thought of doing a comic again but I just wasn’t really interested. Then [Nadel] offered me doing a newsprint edition that he would publish and that was Chimera. I said “Sure I’ll do it, can I do it in three colors?” We got a grant actually to do that. I just gave it a shot and went to SPX just for the hell of it.
I ran into Gary Groth [at SPX]. It was fun for me to be at the show, just the novelty of it. It was almost being like invisible. I was at the PictureBox table and I had Storeyville on the table. He said “Oh, good comic.” I said “Yeah, it’s my comic.” He said ”Really? What happened to you?” I said “Well, this is my new thing” and he bought Chimera. He wouldn’t just take it, he bought it. He was like, “Great to have you back, keep working.”
I can’t tell you how the fact that he knew my work and liked it ten years on — it just brought me back to the immediacy of why I did all that in the first place. That was really great and there were other people there that I knew from back in the day that said hello.
It was fun. Dan had just put out BJ and the Dogs and the Paper Rad books. There was just a lot of nice energy I felt. It was such a relief form the art world bullshit I had grown accustomed to. Even though I like it at times, it was such a nice welcome change. I really appreciated it. I still appreciate it and I’m trying to prop that up a little bit. There is a lot of crossover now that didn’t exist in the old days. SPX 2005 to me was a turning point.
Q: So that encouraged you to get back into comics?
A: Kind of. Just enough. Then I did Incanto cause I still had the energy. It was still unfinished. I wanted to do something else. I did Incanto and Ben and I had friends in Pittsbugh and we became friends. Again, we were batting ideas around and Cold Heat was just one of those ideas that materialized in a really short time. It went from me not even being interested in doing comics per se to four months later I had the script and layouts for Cold Heat No. 1. It happened really fast and kind of on a lark. “Let’s just try it. Let’s do it.” It’s been fun since.
Q: How thought out is Cold Heat? Is it pretty much set and done as far as plot? It has a very loose, organic feel to it.
A: I know what Ben has in mind and I know what I have in mind. These meetings that we have. I didn’t know issue four or issue one. Ben did but I didn’t. I’m drawing in a particular way and then by the time I get the script for four while I’m doing two then everything starts to expand and I see the scope of it. I see what else is happening and I start to bring in these other elements. Again, like Storeyville, it’s learning as I’m going and not really trying to keep a uniformity throughout.
Q: How do the two of you work together on it?
A: It’s a lot of back and forth, scanning in of layouts and emailing them back and forth to each other. For the most part it’s Ben’s script. It’s his writing, his pacing. There will be these swings in the narrative where he’s just leaving two or three pages open for me to fill in because I have this room to go from point A to point B. I just have to choose how to push the narrative along and how I choose to depict that can be up to me as long as I hit these plot points that push it forward.
So he’ll have it scripted, something that the main character does or something in the way she’s walking to work, let’s say. But then on page five she has to show up in her house. And so page four and three there’s no layout, there’s no drawing there’s no nothing it just says “walking through the woods.” So I’ll fill that in. But then when she’s in her house there will be really specific page layouts and back and forth between her and her dad in the way it’s laid out. I might alter that a little bit and that’s when we go back and forth. With the open stuff I send it to him and say “Is this cool” and he signs off on it. It’s pretty loose.
But then there are these really certain exchanges, not just conversations but actions scenes that are really tight and they might look loose and off-handish but they’re very oiled and scripted and structured. It’s really thought out. So there’s this tension between the looseness and the open throttle feel of it and this – you’re being bound by the 24-page installments, the color, the narrative push, just trying to keep it in that box.
Q: What was behind the decision to cancel the pamphlet and turn it into a graphic novel? It’s still on track to come out [in 2008], right?
A: yeah, yeah.
Q: Was it just a financial decision?
A: I think so. I really wanted it to continue. I think we all did. I know Dan did. A lot of the subscribers and fans did and they were pretty bummed out but it’s just the reality of the marketplace. Love and Rockets announced it’s going to a yearly format.
It’s over. I want to write a huge essay about this for Comics Comics or something. It’s over. Doing pamphlet comics for small independent publishers, it used to be that the pamphlet comics were the meat of the direct market and the graphic novels were just the gravy. The collection was extra. And now the collection is the main thing and the issues are an advertisement for the collection because no one buys the individual issues, they buy the collection.
With Cold Heat we were like “We’re not going to publish a collection. We’re just going to do the issues. We’re going to make people buy the sets and make them search for the issues. It’ll be great. It’ll be a statement about how this is the last comic book. This is it.” And the numbers just didn’t … we were just so far in the hole so fast.
And this is two colors. This isn’t a lot of ink. It’s just the reality of printing costs and everything else. Also the reality of everyone saying “I’m just going to wait for the collection.” And the reality of it’s a difficult work. I wanted to do it like that, but it’s over. Unless you’re Marvel or DC or Dark Horse I think publishing pamphlet comics is just always going to be a money-losing or break even situation. The only thing that it can function as is an advertisement for a graphic novel.
Adrian’s book is like that, Shortcomings. Everybody reads Optic Nerve when they come out but then they know there’s going to be a collection and it’s all going to make sense. He writes it for that market. Everyone has for the last 15 years. Love and Rockets have been doing that. They write for the graphic novel. And I don’t think that’s comics.
I was talking about this with a friend of mine recently. It’s not comics, that’s graphic novels. It’s a fine line, but we wanted to do a comic. We wanted to do a blow-out 24 page monthly comic. And really use the form and play up the conventions of the form. I purpously chose that format. We thought about a million things. We did think about doing a graphic novel but it was a choice.
So yeah, it’s a bummer, but it’s over. I don’t know what else to say.
Q: Drawing on that, one of the things I’ve noticed since you’ve started doing comics again is you’ve become something of an online critic as well.
A: Yeah, I don’t know if I’m any good but I’m just trying to be a voice for the artists. Artists historically have not been great with their words. Something I learned along the way is that it really helps to articulate what you’re trying to do. I think my viewpoint is valuable for the artists themselves. There’s a lot of great critics, but not many of them are practitioners. I’m not saying they exclude the other.
When you hear Jaime Hernandez talk about comics he’s purposely not engaging in that language, how he’s being written about. I think there’s a disconnect there. I don’t think he enjoys reading those articles or having those questions asked of him. But I think they’re going to be there no matter what. My online presence is really for me and to help me navigate the opinions and questions that are going to be asked me about my work. It’s really just a way of trying to create a personal language that other people can engage in. That’s all.
Q: I think that sounds reasonable.
A: It’s really not trying to be competitive or anything like that. There’s a million people who write about comics who do great jobs. I really actually enjoy reading them. A lot of it’s living in Pittsburgh too. I used to share an office with Dan at PictureBox and that was what we talked about. I’d be at my desk, he’d be at his desk, he’d be “Aw man, let me tell you about Brian Chippendale, blah blah blah.” And that’s what we would do. We knew what we were talking about, these were our opinions. But then we shared them.
But I don’t get to have those conversations with him these days. Actually the last review I did was something I wrote in my notebook. I’m keeping this notebook of the things I think and feel about certain comics and the way they work. They might be useful.
Q: I like your writing for two reasons. One, as you said, you’re coming at it from a different perspective, being someone who does actually make comics. Second of all, you talk about stuff that tends to get overlooked. Speak of the Devil, you took a look at it, that … I might have to wait for the Comics Journal review in order to get that kind of perspective because most of the Internet writing that book tends to be really short and unfavorable.
A: Generally I was writing these things in the hope that they would be in print. So a lot of times there were space restrictions or only coming out every year or whatever. Dan and Tim just said “Whatever you write, post it.” The Speak of the Devil thing for example, I read a review where the guy just didn’t get it. … I think it’s a great comic. I would hate to see it die on the vine because no one gets it. So I thought “I’ll try my hand at it.”
There was a great response to it. I wasn’t trying to think about bringing this other stuff up but as I was writing it I was thinking “Who is Jack Kirby? He’s fucking Beto!” Cmon, who else really is there? I started getting excited. I wanted to make that statement even if it sounds preposterous to some people.
Q: It is exciting when you’re writing comes together like that.
A: (laughing) I know what I’m talking about dammit!
I went to TCAF this year, which is fantastic if you’ve never been. I’m not trying to plug it, I’m just trying to say it’s a great con. Seth was there and I got a chance to talk to him. The guy is very knowledgeable about comics and very articulate about what he likes and why he likes it and if he doesn’t like something, he says so. He’s fine with agreeing to disagree.
I really appreciated how rapid-fire he was. He was on. And I felt like I learned so much just from talking to him I thought it was my duty as a practicioner and as my own obsessive collecting impulses, how I file things away in my brain, I felt it’s sort of my duty to not only to try to be as articulate as Seth but to write about it and to share that.
And the response has been great. I did them off the cuff at first – and I still try to do that – but I was surprised that people that people said they enjoyed my posts. I haven’t even really thought about it like “Oh, people are reading them.” That’s been very rewarding.
Q: I want to talk a little bit about your art style because it’s a very unique style. Well, first of all I want to talk about your choice of color. You use a very limited color pallete and I was curious how that developed and why you chose that.
A: Initially it just comes from how when I did the zines there were these Xerox machines where you could pull out the cartridge of black ink and replace it with a blue cartridge. It was just a regular Xerox machine but you could change the cartridges and it would be all blue or all red. There was red, green, blue and brown. That was what was available.
I was also interested in these old crime magazines and men’s magazines of the 1950s. they were black and white halftone and would generally have one or two soft colors. And they were great, these beautiful pop art objects. There weren’t many color mini-comics at the time. It was self limiting at the time because of what was available but from my painting background generally you have every color you want. And sometimes it can be overkill and sometimes it’s just a little too much to always have this naturalistic approach. What I liked about a lot of Toth comics, for example, where the power and sybolism of the color.
The way I learned how to paint – I don’t think many people are aware of this but older paintings in the museum that you see with a woman with a beautiful dress on and the dress is perfectly blue and it’s perfectly painted, every highlight and everything. That entire painting was painted in black and white and it’s called waving and you glaze the color over the dress and pull out the hightlights. In school you’re just trying to paint it with blue and why doesn’t it look right? There’s always this basis of the black and white and the color up top.
So much of comics is like that. A lot of old 50s printing is like that. It worked so well and was so immediately successful with the Sirk zines that I chose to do it for Storeyville, but then again for economic reasons you can only have two or three colors. Full colors or four colors would just be too expensive.
And again with Cold Heat, it was an economic decision. At first we had a budget for three colors, then we had one for two. I remembered form the old days of working on the Xerox machines that I could overprint the two color I could make a third darker color and that’s my black one if you will. It’s an economic decision but it’s also a self-limiting decision to make the color choices more symbolic. It’s very calcuated.
Q: The other thing I wanted to ask about was your line work. You have a really loose, fluid style. What I find interesting, if I can use the right term, is the openness of it. In Storeyville you’re very focused on specific details like a person or a building, but they’ll be against a very open landscape. You’re very particular in what you choose to detail and I was curious why.
A: It’s very conscious. The pencil backgrounds in Storeyville and the inked foregrounds and things like that. A lot of it stems from when I did a lot of printmaking as a student. Etchings and lithography. It’s hard to say this without sounding pretentious but my vocabulary is broader I think than most people’s coming into comics. I’m looking at James McNeil Whistler and things like that. That comes from being in school but also from being a curious student.
With printmaking you have to make certain choices. With etchings you have to use a sharp point. If you’re using lithography you’re using a crayon. I would always think about what Matisse or Picasso in their more graphic moments because there’s plenty of beautiful Matisse prints and plenty of beautiful Picasso prints that are very comic booky in that there’s contour line drawings and there’s a sequential narrative cause they’re going from print to print and they’re making these little changes. There’s the famous Picasso print were it actually is broken up into panels.
I just was conscious of that stuff even during Storeyville. I just wanted to bring this to the table. You see these arty [cartoonists] like Carol Swain but you can tell where all of their influences came from. They were almost always comic book influences. I didn’t want my line to be comic book. My line is the line I developed in school which is drawing from the model and drawing landscapes from life and making marks on an etching plate the way you would make them trying to imitate Rembrandt. I can’t do Rembrandt but I could give it a shot. That’s all I was going for.
I was just going for this broader vocabulary. Using all of our history to pull on to make the best comic book panel I can, so if one panel is different from another panel even on the same page, that’s OK with me. I don’t need to even it all out with the same line work, panel after panel. I have never understood that and I never will. I’m fine with people having a particular style. I think that’s very suitable for artists from Otomo to Tezuka to Jaime Herandez. I’m fine with that. I think they can all use those marks.
When I stopped doing comics in ’95 and went back to painting, it was very hard to unlearn a lot of the things I had developed as a comic book shorthand. Now going back to comics it’s very hard to unlearn all of the portrait painting landscape drawing tricks for comics because it takes too long. I can’t put the same work that I’d put into a drawing of a landscape. One landscape panel in a comic I have to make it shorthand. It’s faster. I cut it down and take these tones and draw looser and faster when I want to speed you up and mix the panel sizes. And when I want to slow you down I put more detail in.
I can only talk about Storeyville really. With that people would literally ask me “Did you make a layout first because it looks like you’re just sketching it.” I’d look at them incrediuosly. In art school or an art gallery you’d never ask that. It’s ridiculous. But in comics those rules are so steadfast. There’s so many more interesting approaches. Even Bill Sienkiewicz has a more interesting approach than most alternative comics artists. He varies his approach. You might not like what he draws, but he definitely has this different vocabulary that he’s drawing on.
Q: So if you had a wish for the comics industry, would it be that people would just look at other things besides comics, draw on other influences than what comes out every Wednesday?
A: It’s funny you mention that because I was thinking of this in terms of Beto. I can appreciate Beto for Beto and I don’t give a shit if Beto reads or looks at Picasso prints. Because he’s just so good at what he’s doing. My wish would just be that … I think it’s from people telling me I shouldn’t do that I should do something else. I’m still kind of get this weird feeling from ten years ago that people really getting upset over certain elements of Storeyville and telling me I should have done something a different way.
Even David Lasky, someone I really respect told me, “ I wish you had drawn the whole thing in this one style in this particular panel on page 37.” I thought “That’s the most insane thing to say to somebody. I would never say that to you!” My wish would be just say “Hey cool, not my cup of tea but whatever.” That’s what I bristle at. There’s so much of this telling people what to do as opposed to letting everybody do their thing.
That’s an old feeling. I don’t experience it that much these days.
Q: So what are you working on now other than Cold Heat?
A: I’m contemplating doing more documentary-style, realistic crime novel. Along the lines of David Mazzuchelli’s City of Glass. Trying to purposely be more detail oriented. Be loose but be closer to a particular mark for a particular tone for a particular story. Just as an exercise for myself. I want to try my hand at something else.