Frank Santoro’s bold and striking exploration of his parents’ breakup takes him back through the generations, as he explores the history of his family and the Pittsburgh neighbourhood he grew up in

Frank Santanoro's mother in Pittsburgh

Flick through the pages of Pittsburgh, Frank Santoro’s autobiographical graphic novel, and you could be forgiven for thinking it unsophisticated. After all, it’s been created with a garish collection of marker pens and patched together with tape. Start reading, however, and you’ll be forced to make a giant U-turn. This is no childish folly, it’s a deep dive into the author’s family history, as he attempts to make sense of his parents’ relationship. Married and divorced young but now, slightly bizarrely, working in the same hospital but never speaking, Santoro digs deep into his personal life to deliver a thoughtful, thought-provoking book.

Stepping back through time, he delves into relationships and personalities, uncovering the attitudes of his parents’ parents, unravelling their upbringings, gathering thoughts on their attitudes to life and the barriers that were thrown in their way (not least of which was the generation-damaging war in Vietnam).

Pittsburgh by Frank Santoro

While his art varies throughout the book, it’s consistently unrefined. This isn’t the book of a man who has honed the illustration to perfection. Instead it’s as messy and chaotic as the world it’s illustrating. It’s a fitting monument to the unfortunate state of his family’s life, which has been pulled apart by circumstances beyond its control, and damaged from the inside by the family members trying to shape it into something it can never be.

The net result is a charming book, about one man’s journey to decipher the uncrackable code of his broken family. By turning it into a book, Santoro gets to expel some personal demons, while we get to view a little slice of America. The book might not help you fix your own broken homes and dreams, but it offers a shoulder of solidarity, a feeling that life can go on, and that perhaps the things that go on behind the closed doors of other people’s lives aren’t always what you think they are.

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