What becomes a legend most? Make no mistake, Roberto Clemente was a legend. Many baseball players are admired, but few are as beloved as Clemente. Besides being a dominant athlete for nearly two decades, he was devoted to social justice and humanitarian causes, and stood as an inspirational figure for both the black and Latino communities. Now author and illustrator Wilfred Santiago has elected to tell the story of the “Great One” as a full-length graphic novel, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, out now from Fantagraphics Books.

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It’s a smart move. The comics medium seems uniquely suited for America’s pastime. Baseball is a game of frozen moments, flickering instants that can turn a game either way; the bat swinging a hair too late to catch a sinker, the outstretched hand that touches the bag just before the infielder’s foot. James Sturm’s seminal graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing demonstrated how the comics panel can capture those moments. But Santiago is using a far larger toolset than Sturm. He is capable of great delicacy of atmosphere, as evidenced by the two-page spread below, using a combination of ink washes and photo-montage to capture Clemente’s initial impressions of Pittsburgh, where he would spend his career with the Pirates:

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Santiago balances the realism and research with expressionistic techniques developed in his earlier fiction works Pink and In My Darkest Hour. He’s a cartoonist first, populating his meticulously rendered scenery with deft, sparse caricatures. The figure drawing, especially in the baseball scenes, is loose and exuberant, conveying an athlete’s joy in motion. When Clemente leaps for a fly ball, his feet scissor over his head; when he throws with his trademark accuracy, his fingertips literally sprout eyeballs.

Collaged magazine advertisements take voice and speak; the disembodied head of Bob Hope exhorts Clemente to learn English. When the Pirates lose, we see the fans in the stands, their broken hearts leaping out of their chests.

Santiago’s whimsical approach extends to his writing as well. Tracing a life that stretched from a childhood amid a loving extended family in Puerto Rico, through a wrenching move to the mainland in the early days of integrated baseball, and from the tumult of the Civil Rights era to the triumph and tragedy of Clemente’s final years, 21 has room in its pages for gentle domestic comedy, political history, fish-out-of-water antics, social commentary, magic realism, even Santiago’s personal reminiscences of watching Clemente play. The baseball sequences are kinetic, but Santiago knows when to slow down for a tender moment. Early in the book, there’s a retelling of the Gospel story of the Magi, as lyrical and lovely as an old song.

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente is a great-looking book, handsomely designed and rendered entirely in washes of black and orange—the Pirates’ team colors. I was disappointed with the size, just 6 by 8 inches—such dynamic artwork cries out for larger reproduction. More than anything, though, 21 is a book of huge ambition and formal daring. The storytelling is kaleidoscopic, leaping from Clemente’s final game in 1972 to his childhood to his 1960s heyday and back again, with time out for portraits of both the steel city and the Caribbean island that he loved so much. But for all his overt displays of (admittedly dazzling) technique, Santiago never loses track of his story. Though it’s not an ideal starting point for readers unfamiliar with Clemente’s life and significance—the treatment is far too idiosyncratic and personal for that, though newcomers will find the extensive bibliography useful—it hangs on strong narrative threads.

If 21 has a flaw, it is precisely that its subject seems to have none. By most accounts Roberto Clemente really was that nice of a guy—humble and likable, devoted to his family, his homeland and his team. But Santiago’s portrayal verges on hagiography. And like the biography of a saint, the constant emphasis on the subject’s virtues has the paradoxical effect of diminishing his achievements. The indignity of racial segregation loses some of its sting when we see how Clemente bears it with unfailing patience; the depth of his religious faith seems less impressive without evidence of doubt.

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente is a mammoth achievement nonetheless, and Clemente himself is one of those rare Great Men who was also a genuinely good man. Acknowledging his failings and struggles does not diminish him—if anything, it gives him his due by showing what he had to overcome. Lacking that element, the portrait that emerges in 21 is strangely muted. Clemente’s face, as rendered in Santiago’s lively line, is wonderfully expressive. But it remains, ultimately, a mask.

See more samples from 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, and read a 10-page preview at 21comix.com.

Jack Feerick (b. 2/24/1967, Norwood MA: bats/throws: L/R: 6 foot 4, 235) retired with a lifetime record of 23 wins and 17 losses and an ERA of 5.85, albeit mostly against second-graders. He lives and writes in New York state and is critic-at-large for Popdose.com.