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The greatest comics of all time don’t appear on bestseller charts or canon lists or big-box bookstore shelves. They are the property of the back issue bins and thrift store crates and convention hawkers of America, living like the medium itself in the unseen crags and pockets of publishing history…
Chimera, by Frank Santoro. Cover-dated Summer 2005. Published by Picturebox Inc.
How acquired: The best way you can get a comic — across the table from the person who made it. Specifically, Frank brought a few copies of Chimera along to his similarly classical art/Greek myths-themed painting show New Values in Los Angeles a few winters back. “These are already starting to look a little different,” he said as he handed one over to me. Even five years and change on, the newsprint broadsheets the comic is printed on were turning brown and brittle, its searing yellow and pink tones bleeding through the pages onto one another. This is a comic whose individual panels and single drawings are constantly in the process of losing their identities as separate from what surrounds them, a whole whose parts are engaged in losing themselves. Which, as we’ll see, is perfect.
Best single drawing:
One day, as stated above, they’ll all be one, but for now we’ll go with something that doesn’t look like anything else you might some across in a comic book.
The history lesson: Frank Santoro left comics in the mid-1990s after putting out a few innovative, deeply felt small-run releases, chief among them the cult classic Storeyville. Sequential art’s loss was fine art’s gain, and Santoro began assisting Francesco Clemente, one of the most visually exciting and conceptually important artists to have carved out a space for himself as a figurative painter in the post-Pop wilderness. A decade later, Picturebox publisher Dan Nadel — at the time just another hard-alt comix bushwhacker far from the center of the Comics Journal mainline he occupies today — tracked Santoro down and helped him back into his medium of origin.
Chimera, then, is something of a comeback comic, one of the art form’s many prodigal sons returning and showcasing the knowledge he picked up on his walkabout in the fine-arts world; a comic not painted but more painterly than any of the questionable gouache-drawn offerings your local shop’s longboxes have on offer. “I realized working for (Clemente) that I really wasn’t a painter,” Frank told me shortly after I bought this comic from him. “He would always say to me, why don’t you bring the comics into the painting instead of the painting into the comics — like I see these painted comics and I don’t like them — but the construction and the drawing, these things translate really well, and the process I figured out for doing comics was very similar.” And so, Chimera: a comic by a highly accomplished fine artist who refuses to deny either side of his heritage, putting his foot down squarely in the realm of mass-produced, printed comics while still creating something whose every page looks more than deserving of gallery walls.
Why it’s the greatest comic of all time: The word “chimera”, Santoro tells us in the ending notes of his comic, means something like “the dream beyond the dream”. It’s an elusive phrase, close to meaningless — until you’ve read and internalized the comic itself. The page seen above opens the book on an ambitious, almost confrontational note. There’s none of the fine, detail-rich black linework or gridded layout science that comics conventionally trade in; instead we get color on color, grainy primitivist shapes that look as much stamped down as drawn, a visual statement that revels in its identity as ink pressed onto paper, making no attempt at evoking any kind of real world. This is the vein the comic continues in for its first half: drawn images are fully acknowledged as the symbols for things that they are, never even toyed with as things that might fool readers into believing they really are what they hint at. It’s imagery whose primary function, as in painting, is visual depth and impact rather than the more comics-native communication of objective story material.
These pictures are to be looked at as much as read, summoned to life with clean, minimal lines and bathed in the radiant glow of pink and yellow spot colors. The vividness of the comic is astounding, but just as impressive is the consideration at play in Santoro’s compositional sense, which takes the typical comic-book subject of the human figure in motion on with as much boldness and gusto as it does the Elysian landscapes and Symbolist juxtapositions of the more unconventional panels. Santoro manipulates heavy pictorial concepts throughout Chimera — the visual relationship between printed imagery and real life, classical Greek allusions, full-on pornography — but no matter what the pictures are of, they’re colored with the same vivid clearness and composed with the same surety, main information in the center of the panel, everything else (if there is anything else) blossoming out from there. It takes no small amount of confidence to make images like the ones that fill up Chimera: lines that do nothing more than indicate the shapes of forms, solid, unwavering blocks of color, compositions that state their business in the simplest way possible.
And yet as beautiful as the simplest, most straightforward images in Chimera are — as remarkable as they are for that very simplicity — in the comic’s second half they begin to complexify. Two-panel layouts give way to a loose eight-panel grid, the vague, abstracted color space of the setting turns solid and becomes a more recognizable patchwork of beach and city, and ancient, unspoiled natural landscapes disappear, leaving subways, buildings, crowded streets. The comic’s two main characters remain constant, however, providing the through-line between the painterly fantasy world of the first half and the familiar slice-of-life comic of the second. As the couple we’ve watched spend the whole comic together enters a movie theater only to see a reprise of the unfixed fantasy they shared pages ago on the screen, the meaning of “the dream beyond the dream” comes into focus. This comic, like all comics, is part fantasy, part reality, beginning in the place we turn to the medium to go — a free zone of pure escapism — and slowly bringing us back into the real world as it ends.
What’s most special about Chimera is how real and immediate it makes that fantasy world feel, both with its visuals and its subject matter. The bold, uniquely fine-art oriented choices Santoro makes with his pictures turn his book into a true adventure, a break not just with the norm of reality but of the comics form itself. The sense of a new frontier that so many comics strive for is seamlessly achieved here just because these pages don’t look like anything else: part classical painting, part modern art, part plain old picture-after-picture comic books. It’s a simple alchemy, but no less unique for that. And the subjects of the pictures, the context they build up — endless fantasy landscapes where land meets water, passionate romance, explicit sex — all share a common sense of the exhilarating. Santoro nails the feel of true romance with Chimera by eschewing plot for pleasure, showing us image after beautiful image untethered from any overarching master story, reminding us how sensual a form comics can be by filling our eyes with pink and yellow, brushing our fingers up against brittle, porous newsprint.
Cover price: As with most art comics, one guess is as good as another. I got mine for five bucks.