When discussing the setting of his 1995 book Storeyville, Frank Santoro once paraphrased Sherwood Anderson’s advice about situating a narrative, “that the postage stamp of the land where you’re from is more valuable than anything else.” Santoro’s hometown of Pittsburgh, he went on to explain, had been essential as the familiar and reliable locus for every story he’d told up to that point—his own Yoknapatawpha or Winesburg, Ohio. But since then—first with Chimera and Incanto, and now especially with the first issue of Pompeii—he’s discovered a new landscape through which to tell his stories: the page itself.
A quick survey of Santoro’s comics reveals his abiding interest is in page structure, the way various illustrative elements, in different panels and on facing pages, correspond to one another horizontally, vertically, and diagonally (it’s akin to Giacometti’s drawing technique, which was a way to conceptualize drawing in space, a quality that describes his sculptures as well). Santoro knits panels together, and in moving the eye in such specific ways, he draws the reader purposefully through the book. But Pompeii is unique among Santoro’s comics in that the story’s themes work in tandem with its page structures; that is, mirrored page designs and inverted figurative elements are similarly expressed in the narrative’s exploration of doubling and reflection.
It’s there in the opening spread of Pompeii, where one page inverts the other. On the left, the crescent-moon hull of a ship cradles the sky above and is buoyed up from below by the ocean, which is indicated by a series of troughs and peaks. On the right page, the void of the sky becomes the rising bulk of Mount Vesuvius, while below it lies the vast emptiness of the Bay of Naples, which sits across the spread from the solid mass of the ship. In the bottom third is an aqueduct, whose supporting arches are the convex repetitions to the waves’ concave undulations.
And if we close the book and examine the cover, we see that it’s there, too, in a Venn diagram, which connotes both similarity and difference. What’s more, the area of overlap between the two circles creates an almond shape—an eye—with a third circle inside it that forms the pupil. For above all, Pompeii is a book about seeing—or not seeing, as the case may be.
The story follows Marcus, a young expat from Paestum who works as an assistant in Pompeii to Flavius, a seemingly well-regarded painter. Flavius is also a womanizer, and much of the action concerns a madcap rush to hide one woman—the princess, a potentially significant patron and new lover—from another—Alba, Flavius’s regular model and lover. The feat is carried off through a series of exchanges: Flavius and Marcus trade out the portrait of the princess for a landscape painting, thus erasing her presence from the studio; meanwhile, the princess hides in another room behind a portrait of Alba, becoming, in a sense, the very person who must, Flavius explains, never know she’s there.
But even before he shuttles the princess out of the room, Flavius smooths the way for her disappearance. The sequence—one of the book’s best—begins with a close-up of the tip of Flavius’s paintbrush coloring in the pupil of the princess’s eye (remember the cover?). With his gaze on the portrait, Flavius asks Marcus, “What do you think? … Are the eyes correct?” On the next page, the first panel in a stack of three shows the princess in three-quarter profile, looking away from the reader and from Flavius and Marcus (shown from the shoulders up, she resembles a statue); the direction of her gaze is evident from the next panel, in which Flavius requests that she look at him, while Marcus scrutinizes the painting. In the bottom panel, Flavius and Marcus look directly out at the reader; Flavius says, “That’s her, no?” to which Marcus responds, “Yes, Maestro. Beautiful.” But who is meant by “her”: the flesh-and-blood woman or the painted one? Santoro seems intentionally to obfuscate the direction of their gazes so that the object of their admiration is unclear. The question then becomes, Which is the representation—the woman on the canvas or the woman who, at the top of the facing page, appears in the same three-quarter view as before, but now with eyes closed, unseeing and soon to be unseen?
Marcus is also subject to Flavius’s machinations. After the women depart, Flavius takes his apprentice to task, demanding that he do a better job of keeping his competing interests separate. As their conversation becomes heated, Marcus’s head begins to sink below the level of the panel border, disappearing as it does so, until only his eyes and nose are visible—his humiliation made literal on the page. Finally, in a pair of horizontal panels at the bottom of facing pages, Santoro reduces the view of Marcus to a tight close-up of his eyes (in the same way he earlier reduced the princess to a pair of statuesque busts). “I’m just telling you how I feel,” Marcus offers in the first of these panels, explaining his reluctance to participate in Flavius’s deception. Flavius counters angrily; Marcus’s feelings are the least of his concerns—he needs Marcus to work the levers offstage, not to be an actor in the drama (theatrical curtains abound in Flavius’s studio).
The inversion from the opening recurs again at story’s end. Here, the reclining form of the princess (one supposes it is a view of the painting, but it could just as easily be an image in Marcus’s mind—of the portrait or the sitter) is transposed on the opposite page by the towering peak of Mount Vesuvius. But the bottom panels on both pages are nearly identical: Marcus at his worktable, with the dormant volcano filling the window. The mirrored scene is ominous because any change from one panel to the other has yet to occur—and the reader knows that it will, and that the change will be utterly devastating. But that inevitable explosion may also find its double in Flavius and Marcus’s inability to hold down a different mountain.
Santoro’s drawings are wonderful; his reduction of figures to tone and line and shape recall illusionistic Roman frescoes and the drawings of Giacometti and Émile Bernard, but endowed with comic-strip dynamism. But if Pompeii were just a series of clever sight lines and intriguing artwork, it would not be as satisfying. It isn’t necessary to see a book’s undergirding to appreciate what it does, but here, the story’s physical structure is married to its themes, and to be aware of one is to be more appreciative of the other.