Interview: Frank Santoro Pt. 3 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

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In the third part of our interview with the Cold Heat artist, we delve a bit deeper into Frank Santoro’s work as a comics critic, an aspect of the industry he’s been operating in since the launch of Comics Comics with Dan Nadel and T. Hodler, back in 2006. Santoro discusses the pluses and minuses that being a artistic bring that side of his work, and the role that those infamous longboxes play in his attempts to educate the comics reading community.

[Part One][Part Two]

When did you first start bringing longboxes to shows?

Actually, it started because I would just bring stuff to show Dan [Nadel] or, say, Brian Chippendale, who would come to the show, or Jog or somebody. I would bring a stack of stuff to say, “hey, this is the Kevin Nowlan comic I was talking about. Here, I have an extra one.” So, I would have stuff and then people just started wanting to buy stuff off of me. So I would start to bring more, and then I just brought a box, just goofing around, one day.

It’s funny, because it wasn’t really a joke anymore. It was a serious draw to the table. Anybody who’s gone to a comic show has seen those boxes. At a small press show, they’re pretty rare, because no one’s going to sell that table fee trying to sell old crap. But it was just fun for me. It was a conversation piece. I have a limited audience for my work. I appreciate all of the fans I have for Cold Heat and Storeyville, but I’m pretty “avant garde.” I understand that, but I like talking comics to people who don’t necessarily like my work. That was a way of engaging a broader swatch of the community. That was fun. At the Brooklyn festival, I had an opportunity to get my own table, and that worked out pretty well. I was going to team up with Dan at Picturebox, but that didn’t make sense—I was taking up too much space. So I just got my own table. I always more or less just hope to break even, and I always do.

And this is going to just sound like me on my soapbox, but it’s not: some of the problem I have with a lot of independent creators is that you only see them when they’re out to promote a book. You see them everyone on or two or three years, and it’s like “hey, me, me, me, me!” It’s the me show. That’s cool, and it’s like, “I haven’t seen you in three years. How much is your book?” It’s one of those deals.

I like going to all of these shows. There’s some creators you see at all of these shows, whether they have a new book or not. I respect that a lot. I’m not saying you have to go to these shows, I’m just saying it’s about more than just promoting your own book. For me it’s about the form and the love of the form. There are a lot of people who come to these shows and are interested in the form and are just clueless. I’m not saying I’m trying to school them, but I’m trying to offer more than maybe what’s just there. There may be some guy who has better back issues than me who can come in and capitalize on what I’m doing, but I’m really just trying to engage a lot of these people and sell them some good comics.

At the Brooklyn show, I think part of the reason I didn’t realize it was you was just that initial reaction of, ‘oh, weird, some guy selling comics out of longboxes. Whoever this guy is, he seems to have the wrong idea about the show.’

Right.

But since it was a free show, a lot of parents were coming in off the street, curious, with their children in tow. And, of course, the first place an eight- or 10-year-old kid is going to go is to the longboxes right by the door.

Yeah. It’s exciting. And then I got to direct them to cheap Kirby or Ditko monster comics. And then their parents are looking at what they’re buying, and I’m saying, “this is this.” There was a kid who looked like he was 13 or 14, who bought an issue of Kickass, and his mom brought it back and made him trade it, because it was just too gory. It was borderline, but I could see her point.

I guess I would rather be involved with that exchange than some store. It was fun, that kind of stuff. There might be a comic that one of these kids picks up that helps them go in a different direction. I just think that’s fun. At the bigger shows, like the ones across from Madison Square Garden, there’s a lot of cheap stuff there. It’s just a crapshoot in terms of A. what you’re gonna get and B. what you’re gonna pay for it. but I guess I am trying to pull out the good stuff.

It’s fun for me. I really like this stuff. It’s fun to do it. I’m not making a ton of money at it, and I’m not trying to bit off more than I can chew, critically. I’m not trying to promote some idea of comics. That’s how I got into comics, enthusiastic people showing me comics, so I’m just trying to do that, too.

When did you start doing comics criticism?

2006.

So, relatively recently.

Yeah. Comics Comics, the first issue came out in summer of 2006.

And you see going to shows and engaging people with back issues as something of an extension of that?

Yeah, definitely. On the blog and in other venues, I’m really trying to talk about color and framing and phrasing and editing and blocking and narrative movement. The majority of the stuff that I’m promoting is pretty sound in that department. It helps prove my point to show that stuff, rather than just trying to articulate it with my own work. I used to teach figure drawing and comics at Parsons. I’ve been asked to come in and lecture to a lot classes. That’s been a big part of my practice, too.

It’s not my goal to be a teacher, but I think there are a lot of fundamentals in comics that are very difficult to teach. I know that if I could have taken a certain kind of class when I was younger or a young adult, it would have been really helpful to me. It sounds like I’m trying to give back to the community or something corny like that. It’s not that, it’s just my way of—I’m just really trying to what I want to do.

If it’s just about putting books out and having more readers, and selling more copies, I would really just focus on that. The kind of work that I do, that’s not gonna be there for me. I’m okay with that. I’m just trying to promote comics in a different way.It’s getting older and seeing that you have this responsibility. I see a lot of people who are interested in the form, and they’re just really struggling. I like to help out with that.

I don’t come from an art background, like, probably, a large portion of people who consider themselves “critics.” We approach things from a literary standpoint, addressing things like narrative structure. A lot of people really don’t have the vocabulary to the artist merit of the work. That ability is something that you bring to the table.

Yeah, thank you. I can sense that that’s the case in a lot of reviews, in how they don’t focus on the art. I think there’s been an attempt to do that, recently. I’ve been noticing that, people writing about that. it’s tough, though. Things make sense to me or an artist. The way we see how things are constructed is kind of different than how the reader or somebody not versed in that stuff sees it. it’s a fine line. I don’t have more to say than maybe you do, I just might be reading the comic for different reasons.

There’s plenty of comics that I read that the narrative structure or literary merit might be questionable, but I like the way it’s rendering, so I can tolerate that, whereas maybe you can’t. that can be bad, too.

I hope that I’m making sense and it’s fun to read and maybe it’s something of a different take.

[Concluded in Part Three.]

–Brian Heater