A legendary lost comic from the dawn of the art form’s commercial resurgence in the early ’90s, Frank Santoro’s Storeyville recalls the oversize pages of the Sunday papers from the early twentieth century, the era in which its story of railroad-hopping lost men is set. On first glance, the book’s imposing size and low page count recall precious documents pressed between boards for preservation’s sake. That may be because the original was self-published in 1995 by Santoro and then-collaborator Katie Glicksberg on delicate, tabloid-size newsprint and mostly given away for free. The cover to that edition has been reproduced inside this one as the title page. In stark contrast to the pristine lines of the new edition, the image of the old cover appears to rest atop pages of battered newsprint. Comparisons such as this mark how much things have changed with independent comic books in the twelve years since Santoro and Glicksberg scrambled after any audience they could.
Like many comics from the past century, from Superman to Love and Rockets, Storeyville divides its attention almost equally between studies of the human form and sketches of the fantastic world its characters inhabit. A young man named Will takes a cue from an old friend and sets out to find the Reverend, a lost companion and surrogate father. This means cutting back and forth on the rails from Pittsburgh to Chicago and up into Canada before finally reaching Montreal. As Will travels, the countryside slides across his mind, in the grand gestures and grotesque actions of its citizens and also in the landscape’s stillness, the way a row of houses juts up from the proud shoulders of a half-broken hillside. Santoro’s lively sketches are pressed into duty as finished pages. They recall the pencil drawings of George Grosz and other German Expressionists, only with greater narrative purpose. The rough quality of his inked lines, overlapping and running alongside earlier pencil marks rather than merely enhancing them, produces a sense of movement that mirrors Will’s itinerancy, while the book’s spare palette—Santoro limits his colors to ochers and grays—suggests harsh light and unblinking judgment. In Montreal, Santoro allows Will to find the Reverend but then, in the book’s elegant last third, recasts the young man’s search as a grace note in which the older man needed to be sought.
In his affectionate introduction, cartoonist Chris Ware writes about reading Storeyville back in 1995, noting how its sincerity and sweep thrilled and inspired him even as he was becoming the central figure of the contemporary graphic-novel moment. It’s a gesture come full circle. Through the success of artists like Ware, books like Storeyville have a shot at finding a second, broader audience. In fact, it’s hard to look at Santoro’s lost, isolated souls in search of meaning, broken by commerce, and not see cartoonists in every face and figure.