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Strange Tales

Strange Tales Spotlight: Frank Santoro

The Cold Heat cartoonist uses Strange Tales II to sail the spaceways with The Silver Surfer

By Sean T. Collins

Frank Santoro may be the perfect STRANGE TALES II contributor.

In the alternative comics realm, he's known for cryptic, poetic romance comics like Chimera and Incanto, and for his earthy Depression-era graphic novel Storeyville. But he's also been at the forefront of a movement to inject respect for the storytelling and artistic chops of the mainstream into the underground.

Santoro is an editor of "Comics Comics" magazine, the PictureBox Inc. publication that intelligently addresses both worlds. Moreover, he's blended them himself with his lushly drawn teenage-ninja comic Cold Heat, co-written with Ben Jones. And perhaps most interestingly, he's known for bringing long boxes full of hand-picked super hero and action comic books to sell at alternative-comics conventions like MoCCA, SPX, and BCGF. If you're the sort of person who's interested in both David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp graphic novel and his rare issues of X-FACTOR, Frank's the man to talk to.

Unsurprisingly, Santoro took the STRANGE TALES II ball and ran with it, serving up a Silver Surfer story that he says truly challenged him to test the limits of his talent. Read on for the story of how this longtime alternative-comics fixture and life-long Marvel fan explored the brave new world of the House of Ideas.


Marvel.com: Tell us a bit about the story you're doing for STRANGE TALES II and the character you're working with.

Frank Santoro: I drew a story about the Silver Surfer. They gave me four pages, and four pages isn't a lot, so I was trying to think of what characters are immediately resonant in the minds of Marvel readers. I also looked at the original STRANGE TALES series to see what people had done, and no one had done a Surfer-although after I handed it in I found out that Kevin Huizenga and Farel Dalrymple both did the Surfer for STRANGE TALES II, so that's kind of funny. But I was also thinking, "What would work for me? What's gonna gel best with my style?" I remember thinking, "Oh, I'm gonna do Thor!" I didn't even realize that that series with a young Thor [THOR: THE MIGHTY AVENGER] was coming out, so I was like, "I'm gonna do a teenage Thor! Teenage Thor, teenage Loki!"

STRANGE TALES II preview art by Frank Santoro
There was some old Tales of Asgard story that had them as teenagers, and I thought "That'll be awesome! I'll do that!" But then I thought it'd end up looking too much like [alt-fantasy cartoonist] C.F.'s Powr Mastrs series with all the armor. I thought "That'll be way too hard to pull off." [Laughs] Plus, with the movie, there was gonna be all this material coming out, and I didn't wanna compete with that.

But space? Okay! Silver Surfer! Surfer's movie was a few years ago now, so he's off the radar a little bit, but people outside of comics still know him and love him. I've also been working with an airbrush recently because I started doing an animation project with [STRANGE TALES contributor] Dash Shaw where we're using one, so I thought that'd be perfect; I can do an airbrush super hero comic. I pitched that to [editor] Jody LeHeup, and he agreed, and that was cool. So I submitted my four page script with breakdowns, he seemed pretty excited about it, and I just went forward.

Marvel.com: The Surfer is a really good character for you, because you've done ruminative comics that are sort of studies of motion and emotion, but you've also done action comics. The Surfer combines those two approaches perhaps more than any other character.

Frank Santoro: Definitely. It plays into my fascination with romance comics and this sort of romantic, universal idea. The other thing I was really interested in doing, and I don't know if I pulled it off or not-I don't know about you, but whenever I look at a Surfer comic, it never really looks like he's surfing through space. There's always this splash page or big panel where he's got an arm forward; he's surfing in a way that you would never really surf. If you ever look at people surfing, they're barely moving their bodies. They're sort of just lilting with it, you know? They might duck down, but they're not posed with their arm forward and their leg back. Usually there'll be this one big panel in the spread, but there's no real sense of motion. I never get the feeling that he's soaring through space. Maybe for that one panel, but it's too over the top. I was trying to have a more quiet approach to it, and I hope I pulled it off. Hopefully people will agree. My intent was to show that motion, to show how he could move across the spreads. And I only had four pages, so it was like, "Do I have two two-page spreads? Do I have one spread with a right side and a left side?" I bookended my story-you'll see what it is-so that it's a Moebius strip, honestly. It just goes in and out. With four pages, you really have to pare it down, so hopefully it worked.

Marvel.com: A "Moebius" strip--no pun intended?

Frank Santoro: Pun intended. [Laughs]

So conveying the coolness of how the Surfer moves was your primary goal, then?

Frank Santoro: Well, I find it interesting: I think maybe because I grew up on comics in the 80's, I still have a slight division between mainstream and alternative. At first, I was like, "How do I feel about doing a Marvel character?" Not that I have a problem ultimately working for [Marvel] or anything like that, but just, "Which of these characters do I relate to and still feel for?" When I started thinking about it and drawing it, I was really surprised how much I felt connected to that character from my youth. I just had this connection to him. It was strange. You can sort of understand why people get so into them and just want to do their turn at Spider-Man

The Silver Surfer by John Buscema
or Thor. You grow up with these characters and you wanna do your riff on them, but it's kind of overwhelming, and if you botch it...

I remember I saw [artist] Steve Rude once at a convention. He was drawing Reed Richards, he drew Reed's face, and then he was like, "Oh, that's not Reed-that doesn't look like Reed at all! This is what Reed looks like!" Then he drew him again, and it was a very specific Reed Richards face. That's my whole thing with Marvel stuff: When people go off model, it doesn't convey the character to me. I don't read the character as that person.

With Surfer, to me, it's [Jack] Kirby/[John] Buscema/Moebius, and I tried really hard to stay in those models. I found that really rewarding, honestly. Especially when you're drawing The Silver Surfer, you can't draw him with a black line around him, because he's glowing. If you draw him with a black line around him, then you're gonna have to have this weird blowout color around his edges-how do you do that? Trying to define the character was really interesting to me just in terms of line and color and form and composition. That was a challenge.

That's where the airbrush came in. It was all done in airbrush-no digital stuff. [STRANGE TALES contributor] Jim Rugg helped me out a lot, pushing me to make it more professional, honestly, pushing me to polish it up. I'd go back and try different things, inserting panels, pasting them on, scanning that page; purely as an artistic challenge, I really tried to take a big swing. I think something came of it. I haven't been showing it to my friends on the computer, even, because I want them to see it as a comic.

Marvel.com: How different did doing this strip feel from working on your own books?

Frank Santoro: Definitely the character is a different thing. But in North America, that's the biggest stage. There's no bigger stage than working for Marvel, in my opinion. DC, maybe, take your pick, but I'm a Marvel guy, I was always a Marvel guy. For me, it was a big thrill, and I took it very seriously. I actually asked Jody, "Do I have to do something funny? Can it be serious?" I thought of this as my try-out for Marvel. I didn't take this as a chance to do a funny mini comic kinda thing. This was my shot! Was I ever gonna get another one? I'm gonna try to knock it out of the park! That was my thinking.

Marvel.com: You mentioned you were a Marvel guy growing up. What were some of your favorites?

Frank Santoro: I had every single Spider-Man! I had AMAZING FANTASY #15 all the way up through...I think when I was a kid it was AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #211. The first issue I bought at the stands was #179? #180? Then I really got into the Surfer, honestly. I read all those

Buscema books. I was a huge Spider-Man guy, but I didn't wanna do Spider-Man because it's like trying to do Batman-it's almost too much. But yeah, I have a direct connection to the characters. That's what was really surprising, and I don't know if I was able to convey it. I can really get into this character, and that's something that's hard to pin down for people who don't. It's not about growing up, it's not that it's from your childhood, it's that many of these characters are as real to me as the Great God Pan or any mythic characters from antiquity were at the time. They're our myths, they're our stories. And to try your hand at that...I don't wanna say it's an honor, but-ah, I am gonna say it. It is an honor! But it's also a challenge.

And I was asked! That's a big deal. I've never submitted anything to Marvel, I've never tried to make a go of being a professional cartoonist in that way, simply because I don't draw that way. I've always been told "You've gotta tighten up, you've gotta do this, you've gotta do that." So after 20 years of being told I can't draw, to be asked by Marvel to do a strip is a big deal.

Marvel.com: What Marvel stuff are you reading these days?

Frank Santoro: I really love the way the new John Romita Jr. stuff looks with Klaus Janson inking. Stuff like that just blows me away. Klaus Janson's still inking for Marvel-that's crazy! And I love the way Romita Jr. draws now. He's somehow stayed current. It's pretty remarkable. I was a big KICK-ASS fan, of course. And that guy David Aja who did that quasi-Mazzucchelli story on Coney Island in DAREDEVIL #600? Jesus God, that guy is amazing!

Marvel.com: Are there any other Marvel characters you'd like to take a crack at someday?

Frank Santoro: Who would I want to do? [In a dramatic voice] Morbius! I'm the hugest Morbius fan. I wanna do a Morbius [limited series]. C'mon, vampires are hot, we gotta bring back Morbius. Do you remember that [first] Morbius story arc in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN? Gil Kane draws it, and Spider-Man drinks a serum to not be Spider-Man anymore, and he grows six arms? He takes off his shirt and he's got two extra arms on each side? It's drawn by Gil Kane and it's gorgeous. When I was a little kid I had that as a treasury edition and loved Morbius. I'd love to do a story with him, I think he'd be a great character.

Marvel.com: What books of yours would you recommend to people who see your stuff in STRANGE TALES II and want to see more?

Spider-Man vs Morbius
Frank Santoro: Definitely check out my Cold Heat series, which you can read online. Some of the issues are still available, and you can track them down. But I think this story is a little closer to my romance comics, which are Chimera and Incanto. The drawings are different, but the sentiment is similar.

Marvel.com: What else are you working on now?

Frank Santoro: Like I said, Dash Shaw is working on an animation project called The Ruined Cast, and I am a hired hand on that. I'm doing backgrounds and some in-betweens and even some of my own scenes. I've never animated before, and I'm super-excited. The stuff I've done already looks pretty great. We've done a three-minute promo trailer for investors, and Dash has gone to the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab, the same program that Tarantino went through; so keep your fingers crossed, I think it's happenin'.

Marvel.com: If there's anything else you wanted to add, the floor is yours.

Frank Santoro: I should probably say something nice about Jody.

Marvel.com: Ha!

Frank Santoro: No, seriously! The dude was really nice. I have to say I was really surprised to get the e-mail from Jody asking me if I wanted to contribute a story. I was overwhelmed, and then I was kinda scared. Back in the old days of the 90's and the early Aughts, I was always kinda mad at people: "Ed Brubaker left the fold! He went from alternative comics and made it big in mainstream comics! Paul Pope left the fold! He went and did his star turn!" I wanted them on my team! It was like breaking into the pros-I've always been a sandlot player. So to be asked to pinch hit in a big game was a great opportunity. I just practiced my swing and practiced my swing. I got to meet Jody at MoCCA; he was really encouraging, a really nice guy, he knew my work-it felt like a good fit. I don't wanna say I was surprised by that, but it just helped to create an atmosphere where I felt I could really take a shot.

You know, again, that character and that opportunity; I could do my own Surfer story, but no one would ever see it. You could paint the Mona Lisa, but if it's hanging in your garage, what's the big deal? To be on this arena-rock stage and actually plug in and go electric-plug in the airbrush and go full-color printing-readers should know that for alternative cartoonists, that's a big deal. We don't get that much of a chance to do full-color books or licensed characters. It made me step up my game. I wouldn't have drawn something like this without it! I felt like I grew a lot as an artist. It was a wonderful opportunity and I'm really grateful for it.

STRANGE TALES II #1 cover by Rafael Grampa
STRANGE TALES II #1 hits stores October 6.


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