"Bill’s store in Wilkinsburg was life-changing for me then,” said Frank Santoro, a Pittsburgh-based comics author/artist. “Here’s this guy, CMU-educated, genius bookworm, comic book nerd, who opens the comic book store in Wilkinsburg and he was the community there. The best education I ever got in my life was at a comic book store in Wilkinsburg in 1985 through 1994 until it closed.”
“I had been reading comics before - things I had found in the public library, things that some people had recommended to me, graphic novels kind of stuff” said Juan José Fernández, a comics maker in Pittsburgh. “But I never thought of comics as a medium and a mode for expression for myself until I discovered what Bill was doing.”
Santoro and Fernández are talking about Bill Boichel and his Copacetic Comics (now in Polish Hill). Bill and the store have been described as the hub of a support system, an ecosystem if you will (of which Santoro and Fernandez are also a part), for both aspiring and established comics makers.
Santoro is one of those who have benefited from his relationship with Boichel over the years. “Bill is my model,” he said. “He published my first comic when I was 16 along with two other friends who hung out at the comic book store. he wasn’t exploitative - he was very generous and helpful and so I realized as I got older how lucky I was.”
Santoro’s latest book is Pittsburgh, a non-linear memoir that he describes as being about “the erasure of family and an elegiac song, like a poem, to that loss.”
“It’s more of a most fully realized ethno-graphic study of this particular neighborhood but in a non-fiction graphic presentation,” he continued. “I’m specific about landmarks in Swissvale, specific about landmarks in the East End in Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River and into Braddock and Rankin.”
“I’m thrilled to be able to be a working cartoonist in this way for my students and the comics community in general, in Pittsburgh, and at large,” said Santoro. His correspondence course for comic book makers allows him to pass on his knowledge of the craft.
“The course grew out of doing workshops in person and being at a lot of comic book conventions and panel discussions,” he reported. “Comics are such a difficult skill set to teach and even to talk about. But there are these things that you can do - modular approaches to inventing narrative visually without writing text and that skill set is not taught in schools because they don’t know how to do it.”
Santoro has also set up a comics residency in his neighborhood in a house that was funded through an Indiegogo campaign. “It’s like an airbnb. You get a room, there’s a kitchen, and you’ve got a roommate but one of those roommates is a great cartoonist. We talk about cartooning all the time, you get to see how a cartoonist actually lives, and you just kind of hang out.”
“What you’ll see at Bill’s shop is a lot of standard-format sized comics,” said Fernández, who in addition to being a comics maker is also an educator, Administrative Coordinator at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and a former volunteer at the late, lamented Toonseum. “But you’ll also find books that are made by people more like me. I’m just interested in making the art of the comic where it’s that dance between image and word and that really interesting space between how you unify stuff together.”
He described his work as playful, full of experimentation, and wide-ranging in terms of its forms. “Poetry is a big thing that I’m interested in,” he explained. “What kinds of poetics can you work with in images and words? I love to make books, big and small.”
Both Fernández and Santoro have been involved in presenting the Pittsburgh Comics Salon, a meeting for the region’s comics-making community. The workshop is held the first Wednesday of every month in Lili’s Café which is in the same building as Copacetic Comics.
At the workshop, said Fernández, “through diligence, doing warm-up exercises, you’re training your brain and your hand to communicate through pictures in a way that’s really vital to the culture that we live in but we don’t practice nearly enough.
“We get people who have never made a comic but are really interested,” he continued, “we get people who make comics professionally, we get people who used to draw and want to get back into it. Through it all, we’re just trying to help people cultivate their own personal practice and take it in whatever direction they need to.”
Frank Santoro, courtesy of the artist
"Pittsburgh", Frank Santoro's latest book, courtesy of the artist
Juan José Fernéndez, photo by Njaimeh Njie