Review: Pompeii

Rated 4/5

I studied Classics when I was an undergrad–it’s why you’ll find a copy of Frank Miller’s 300 on my shelf (to say nothing of the DVD collecting dust over on my other shelf). Similarly, you’ll find comics that represent the opposite side of the spectrum; a great example is Eric Shanower’s ambitious Age of Bronze. We won’t talk about Marvel’s attempt at The Iliad.

As a result, I’m often sent comics that have connections to the ancient world. Friends will ask if I liked that issue of Sandman where Augustus pretends to be a peasant (it was an okay interlude), and whatnot. After a period of time I’ve taken it upon myself to seek out these books to have a fair understanding of them before anyone grills me.

I saw Pompeii in the solicitations the other week when BoomTube was doing Snap-Judgements and my curiosity was piqued. Then, on a rainy, crumby afternoon, I picked it up. I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s a simple tale of an expat from Paestum living and working in Pompeii in the days leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. He’s a painter’s assistant who has to navigate emotional turbulence with his love, Lucia, all while covering for his boss’ affair with a northern princess. Then a volcano happens.

I was really happy to pick this up when I did, especially to learn a little bit more about Frank Santoro’s method in the process. Each page, each panel, each line has its own weight–both in sketch and emphasis. It isn’t inked out to bring cohesion to the pages. I find a raw power in that lack of uniformity. Passion is palpable, fading sadness has a deeper significance. While the first three quarters of the book rolls along, it’s the time of Vesuvius’ eruption where Santoro really shows off his craft. Each panel walks you through Marcus’ emotional struggle and subsequent acceptance death in his lover’s arms.

There are moments in Pompeii where I’m reminded of a storyboard, or even an actor’s stage script. Rather than seeing the color red on a paint palette, there’s a blob with the word “red.” Speech bubbles are sometimes qualified with the words “soft voice” with an arrow pointing to the text. Rather than a comic book onomatopoeia, one panel simply has “swirling sound of a brush on stone.” I found they helped to animate the characters, and illuminate the process behind the art. Added to this is the fact that Santoro’s work is 1:1 with the final print–the scale you see is the scale he made. In effect, it’s a raw sketchbook of bound-together 8 1/2 x 11″ pieces of paper.

Above all, I liked Pompeii for its ability to inspire me. This was a labor of love. It wasn’t intended to be a sweeping Roman drama–just an intimate look into the lives of common people around a huge historical event. Reading it made me want to pick up paper and pencil and create a story myself. Just a reminder, October 5th will be another 24 Hour Comics Day!

Pompeii (Picturebox, 2013); ISBN: 978-1-939799-10-4; by Frank Santoro is now available for $19.95. Support your local comic book shop and pick it up!

Unrelated Post-Review Thoughts:

So Marcus and Lucia die in the eruption (spoiler alert) and the comic ends with a haze of smoke and ash only to conclude with the two bodies seemingly on a stage–Vesuvius in the background and a pulled-back curtain framing the scene. It’s an interesting move for Santoro to give it a theatrical distance from the history. I would have wanted to see the bodies as in situ plaster casts at the modern-day archaeological dig. Had he styled their final embrace after an actual couple, it’d have been a fun way to connect his fictional tale to reality.

Perhaps it’s a morbid parallel, but I am reminded of a mini comic by Josh Frankel depicting a day in the life of a trilobite. The little ‘bug’ avoids predators, scurries around, and meets his demise when a dirt avalanche buries the ocean floor. The last panel shows the fossilized trilobite with a $25 price tag. Thinking about that story, and the inevitable end of Pompeii, it gave me a morbid chuckle at the end.

Mike Balderrama

When Mike was on vacation with his family in the summer of 2002, he walked into a North Dakota comic book shop to avoid his parents and picked up Steampunk #12—what would be the final cliffhanger issue of Chris Bachalo and Joe Kelly’s failed series. Enamored with the artwork, the quirky story, and confusing-but-archetypal love-story-through-time concept, he visited all the comic book shops in Connecticut to collect the back issues. Thanks to the fledgling and shady comic-sellers online, he managed to get all 12 issues, the prologue comic and preview comic, as well as the two trades that collected all the issues. While Mike isn’t sure why he felt the need to tell you this, he does want you to know that he loves making comics, talking about comics, reading comics, and complaining about how he wishes he could write comics. He’s a Classicist and has a big thing for myth and storytelling, plus he does museum stuff. He once worked at RISD and got a contact high off of a lot of awesome creative people.