I know about a thing you should buy, or borrow (don’t steal). It’s a graphic novel. It’s titled 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente and it was authored by Wilfred Santiago. Maybe those details aren’t enough to convince you to spend money and/or time in order to track down this item. I don’t blame you. You’d probably like to know a bit more about the book, and whether it’s good or not. It just so happens I have bought the book and I have read it, and I can tell you those things.
I mentioned that this is a graphic novel. That means it has a ton of drawings and word bubbles and the like; a lot like a comic book except it’s not a comic book, it’s a graphic novel. I get the feeling that these distinctions a very important to some people, less to others. It may be helpful to establish the kind of graphic novel consumer I am, so you’ll know where I’m coming from when I start making observations and judgements. I am a nearly nonexistent graphic novel consumer. This may be the only graphic novel I have ever read. In that way, I’m not bringing a lot of expertise to the table. However, I do like baseball a lot, and this graphic novel covers the life of a very notable figure in the sport. Also, I did study poetry and literature at a four-year university at one point, so there’s that (except it means nothing). I bring all this up because I feel that, aside from all the close reading I once did some years ago for college credit, I probably represent the standard blog reader demographic when it comes to considering this book. I’m not old enough to remember Roberto Clemente the baseball player in flesh and blood, I’m not particularly familiar with the world of graphic novels, and I like baseball and reading about baseball. If that sounds somewhat like you, great! If not, you’ve read this far already, so why not see this thing through?
21 follows Roberto Clemente’s life and times from young child in Puerto Rico, to rising star of the Pittsburgh Pirates, until his untimely and tragic death in 1972. The novel does an expert job of weaving the narrative in and out of different periods of time, using flashbacks and foreshadowing to create anticipation and perspective. Shifts in story allow more tangential details of Clemente’s life more room to be fully realized, such as his relationships with his mother and siblings, as well as the many steps taken in pursuit of his eventual wife Vera. Page-to-page, the reader is able to examine not only Clemente the baseball player, but also Clemente the child, Clemente the friend, and Clemente the man. 21 provides an all-encompassing portrait of Roberto Clemente as fulfilling as any traditional biographical article or story, but utilizes narrative devices and stunning artwork to provide a more engaging and arresting experience. As I said earlier, I’m nowhere near an authority on the graphic novel form, but as an amateur reader, I was extremely impressed with the artwork and design of the book. With his drawings, Santiago allows ample room for the mysticism of Clemente’s hero, while also giving expression to very stark and haunting realism. Many small design details, from the use of color and symbols in the text, to design elements in formatting and narrative movement, give the reader a cinematic experience while turning the pages of 21, with the images presented in sepia and hues of grey to mark the era, flashes of Pirates yellow and orange highlighting the story throughout.
Clemente’s accomplishments on the field speak for themselves: Exactly 3,000 hits, 240 home runs, a career OBP of .359 and OPS+ of 130; A sterling reputation as a defender aiding him to 83.8 bWAR and 91.3 fWAR; 15 All-Star selections and two World Series titles; One World Series MVP, a first ballot Hall of Fame selection and the retired number of 21. Wilfred Santiago’s graphic novel captures the talent of Clemente the baseball player while also showcasing and illuminating the many simple and human qualities of the man that forged him into an honest and authentic hero. 21’s complex yet accessible narrative and profound artwork make it a swift and affecting experience, one that I plan to enjoy on multiple future readings. If you’re a fan of baseball and things that are really well done, you could do a whole lot worse than to check out the novel for yourself. Go ahead and click around on the internet for a while longer and see if you can’t be better convinced. Wikipedia and some rows of statistics have nothing on this.