Frank Santoro wears a lot of hats in the indie comics community, well known as both an artist, thanks to works like Cold Heat, and as critic, covering the scene via Comics Comics, a review blog he founded with T. Hodler and Picturebox founder, Dan Nadel.
In recent years, Santoro has established yet another, rather unique role in the community, as a pusher of pulp single issues at alternative comics shows. Santoro is the guy standing behind longboxes packed with works that would otherwise likely find no home in amongst the rows of graphic novels and mini-comics.
It’s a third mini-career that has afforded the artist a new perspective in a scene that is often dismissive of mainstream influences, one which lets him balance his sometimes dissonant loves of form and the avant garde.
You’re a Pittsburgh resident?
Yeah, I’m from Pittsburgh, and I live here now.
What brings you back?
I don’t know—I bought a cheap house off my uncle [laughs].
Is there a community out there?
Yeah, definitely. On my radar, it’s Jim Rugg, Ed Piskor, Tom Scioli, Bill Boichel. Bill had a comic store in the 80s and that was a big deal for the “Pittsburgh scene.”
Did you ever have that Springsteen notion of growing up and moving away when you were younger?
Well, definitely, yeah. I didn’t live here for 20 years. I graduated high school and went to California for 10. And I went to New York for 10. Definitely. But the interesting part of Pittsburgh now is that it’s probably the last affordable major city in the country. So it’s a pretty great place to have a home base and a house and a wash and dryer and a car. As I get older, those things get a little more important.
Are comics a form that allow you succeed as a creator outside of an epicenter?
Um, yeah. Comics, sure. On Comics Comics, we were just talking about all of these Midwestern cartoonists. There’s a great scene in New York and San Francisco and LA, for example, but comics are a pretty solitary activity, and unless you have a bullpen situation, which is great, you’re just kind of holed up, doing your thing. I’ve had studios in New York and worked in my apartment in New York—that can be tough. In terms of scenes, I miss the camaraderie of New York, for sure. Just going to get a cup of coffee with my pals and bullshitting comics. Here it’s a little harder, but we get together every once in a while.
Is that how you fell in with the Picturebox crew? Having lived out here?
Yeah, I was living in New York and Dan [Nadel] was doing the Ganzfeld. And my friend Bill Boichel, who did Copacetic, suggested I check out the Ganzfeld, and Dan and I got in contact. Dan had a Picturebox store for a while in Brooklyn. We got that space together. That was like a bullpen atmosphere. It was really great. A lot of fun.
But that’s just really hard to do with New York rents. Once he expanded enough that he couldn’t keep the books in the store and then got the warehouse, you’re just paying for an expensive desk, essentially. He tried to do the store and the store was tough. It’s just smarter to do it the way he’s doing it now, which is online. It’s doing really well.
I know a lot of people who have the bullpen thing, to get back to that, and I really like that idea. I keep a studio in New York in the summers that I sublet. I share that with Aaron Cometbus. He letters Cold Heat. It’s a fun studio atmosphere.
I thought he was back in Berkeley.
He is. I thought he was back there, but I saw him at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest. Apparently him and his buddies are opening up a store in Williamsburg.
You know, I didn’t realize either of you were there—I’ve never met you in person. Isn’t everyone supposed to be instantly recognizable, now that we’re all on the Internet?
Right. It’s funny, I know exactly what you’re talking about. You put all of those same people in a room—it’s different than clicking through someone’s blog than standing in front of a table and trying to absorb what’s going on. There are a few people who I’m friendly with that I met the first time at either MoCCA last summer or the Brooklyn Fest.
A show like that’s almost an embarrassment of riches, in terms of all of the amazing people that are in one room at one time.
Yeah, yeah. It’s the first time, though, that a show for—I don’t want to say “our community” or “that community” or limit it, because I think we’re trying to embrace something. But usually if it was MoCCA or Comic Con, or whomever was setting up, and we’d piggyback on that or get invited, it was just kind of everything getting lost in the shuffle.
I’ve been to events at Desert Island where it’s just a signing and it’s totally my peer group. But then I’m surprised that at, say, the Kramers event, you didn’t see a lot of the New York people that I thought would be there, because it’s New York. That’s just all the different kinds of scenes in New York. You could be a cartoonist and run with a particular crowd and not run into a different crowd, except at these larger festivals. And then you’re sort of scattered about. Everyone has their table.
But the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival was small enough—and I don’t mean in terms of it being curated, because that’s not what happened—it just was a small show, and it sold out fast. I thought that was an interesting take, because it was Williamsburg. There was a diverse enough crowd that it was an interesting cross-section, from my experiences, and that’s New York. So, yeah, you’ve got that embarrassment of riches, for sure, but I still didn’t see a lot of people that I would see at a Comic Con event, and that makes sense, because it was an alternative festival, but there were still some major names there. It was weird. New York’s funny that way. And I like it.
I understand not feeling a part of the community at a Comic Con event, but do you feel like an outsider at a MoCCA or an SPX?
Um, not at SPX and MoCCA—they’re both very inviting. I’m not sure why they sometimes feeel so unruly. I don’t know if it’s the size of the show. After doing it for so many years, you see the change over. There are so many people who do it for one or two years, and then you don’t see them again. They have these elaborate setups—nice backdrop and nice book—but they’re not really engaged in the community. I’m not saying you need to be engaged in the community, but they just kind of come and go.
I’ve got a book to promote, so I’m making the festival circuit.
Yeah. And the work could be good, but it doesn’t make a dent. The thing I’ve noticed at shows like SPX and MoCCA—I’m surprised they haven’t morphed more into art fairs or something. Kids are getting more arty. And I guess that’s what I want to see—people really going for it, rather than rolling out the same old mini-comics every year. That, I guess, is what I want, but a lot of times, that work is a little too…not comics. It’s a fine line, but I think it’s reaching a critical mass. I can speak to the last five years—I’ve got to, more or less, every show. I really enjoy MoCCA and SPX because of the community. But sometimes it just feels like the same old shit. There’s nothing new on the radar.
That’s the problem with people going every year though, right? You see the same stuff.
Yeah, and it’s fun to see everybody, but you’d think there’d be more diversity. I was thinking about this, just before we talked—that might have something to do with all of the different styles that are under the umbrella of alternative comics or art comics. They can be so many different things.
At your mainstream shows, it’s more focused to a particular art style, so there can be more—I don’t want to say “growth,” but you can imagine someone going up to an artist at a mainstream art show and getting advice on how to draw their pages better, but at an alternative show, everyone has such a particular style. You can’t plug right into the industry. You need to build your own voice and be there. In the mainstream stuff, you might be able to get on a book. You might be able to plug into this system and become the hot new penciller on Iron Man, or whatever. That can be exciting, and that doesn’t really exist on the other side.
[Continued in Part Two.]