Frank Santoro’s latest from PictureBox, Pompeii, is a story about the life of Marcus, an apprentice to the famous portrait artist Flavius, during the last days of the city of Pompeii. The history of the doomed city is not so much the focus of the story as it is an effective setting for the real story of the life of a struggling artist in a modern city, away from home and family, and frustrated with his current situation.
Marcus has moved to Pompeii to study under Flavius, a renowned artist. Flavius uses Marcus to assist him with both his paintings and keeping his affair with the Princess a secret from his wife Alba. Marcus is not comfortable with this, but he does it anyway, afraid to lose his job and his standing with Flavius, his best shot at establishing a career as an artist. Meanwhile tensions with Marcus’s girlfriend Lucia are beginning to run high as Lucia is beginning to miss life in their hometown of Paestum, but Marcus is determined not to give up on his dream of being an artist in Pompeii.
One of the strengths of Pompeii is Santoro’s decision to focus on Marcus and his relationships with Flavius and Lucia. I’d imagine the temptation with having something set in the last days of Pompeii would be to take the route of high action melodrama, Mount Vesuvius raining fire on the city and its terrified people, but Santoro’s version is much more subdued and personal, which in turn makes the ticking time bomb of impending tragedy even more meaningful. A lot of time is spent getting into the lives of this cast of characters, and the knowledge of the near future of them and their town allows each event and interaction to carry a certain undertone of sadness.
Santoro’s art suits both the setting and tone of the story. His choice to present the book in sepia toned pencils and ink washes is an easy way to evoke an “ancient” quality to the art, but what’s most apparent is Santoro’s lines. The large pages were drawn at a one to one ratio, so what we have on the page is a very untreated look at Santoro’s penciling. With Pompeii the act of drawing is always at the forefront. The one to one scale means that none of the pencils were altered during the printing process, allowing us to get a look at the thick lines and delicate washes Santoro uses to represent these characters in this specific period. Because Santoro declines to give us colors, his pencils and washes give focus to the interplay of subject and lighting, creating a very real space through the minimal suggestion of his cartooning skills while still grounding us in the reality that what we are looking at is a picture. It’s the same goal that Flavius and Marcus try to achieve with their portraiture: the idea of evoking a three dimensional reality on a two dimensional space. However instead of using lush color paints on a canvas, Santoro achieves this through a pencil and ink comic book.
There exists a certain temptation to take a quick look through Pompeii and think that the art is unfinished. Some figures appear less detailed in some places than others. Other pages will have faint text notes still visible, never entirely erased, unclear as to whether they are to be integrated in our reading. However, this “unfinished” quality creates more of an unpolished, raw effect that does more to serve the tone of the story than it does to detract from it. Pompeii is a book about romance and life as a struggling artist, but it is also about composition and drawing. Santoro is an accomplished professional, and as such I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to these sorts of artistic choices.
With regards to the “unfinished” quality of certain figures or panels, they may look rushed, but they never appear sloppy as the composition and figure work are still present and carefully considered. Consider the scene when Mount Vesuvius finally begins to erupt: Marcus urges Flavius to stay outside to draw the blacked out sun and the fiery mountain so that he can be “the first to paint the gods in action.” Perhaps what Santoro means to suggest with the rougher looking moments is the feeling of urgency in moments of artistic inspiration, the urge to document an experience as it happens in front of you with immediacy because there’s no way to tell when the moment will pass.
Pompeii is a very deliberately paced and structured book both in plot as well as in composition. Santoro structures his pages in such a way that the panels feel large and open, giving his art some breathing room. Many two-page sequences are laid out symmetrically, which allows the reader’s eye to visually read the sequence of the art across the page break and have it make as much sense visually as if it were being read page by page. It’s a subtle idea, but it creates a very pleasant, deliberate effect on the pacing of the story. To extend that idea further, the steady pacing of the panel composition works to underscore the unshakable path toward the inevitable destruction of Pompeii.
Santoro skillfully integrates his artistic techniques into the story to reflect the themes he presents in Pompeii. Much like his two page panel layouts, the story can be enjoyed in whichever way resonates most with you when you read it. It is about romance, love, infidelity, following your dreams, running from your problems, and the way we choose to understand our world. It’s a story that speaks very human truths, a testament to the fragility and preciousness of life and how we see it in any era.