Drawing São Paulo: The graphic fiction of Fábio Moon and Gabiel Bá
Big cities have a lot of layers--different buildings, different neighborhoods, different jobs, different people. All those differences create multiple story possibilities, as you are constantly in contact with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. You can really experience the complexity of human existence and see how everyone is different.
(Fábio Moon, qtd. in Shook 44)
So called graphic fiction is intrinsically urban in nature, both in terms of the circumstances of its production and distribution and in its themes (see Smylie for basic information on the development of the graphic novel). This is because the graphic novel, like comic book art in general, relies heavily on the social and economic conditions of the city for its origins and popularity, and the narratives of graphic fiction exploit in particular the contradictions, discontinuities, and daunting complexities of negotiating survival and transcendence in the urban context. Or, to put it differently, the latter features of the urban context find in graphic novel a particularly fertile medium of expression and interpretation. In this sense, graphic fiction is yet one more option for the staggering task of the analysis through art of always unresolved and confusing--and often barely perceived--issues of contemporary urban life.
Derived from the far older tradition of comic book art, if there is anything particularly distinctive about graphic fiction as opposed to comic book art in general, it is a fundamental self-image as regards the seriousness of its artistic enterprise and the complex interaction between the drawn image and the narrated story line. Whereas comic book art may often rely on image alone (but cannot rely on text alone) or be grounded in the four or five-panel strip, graphic fiction aims, like film, for a sustained narrative via inseparable image and discourse, with a complexity of image that may, in fact, be committed to capturing subtleties of lighting and sound, which are also characteristic of film. The contrast is illustrative between the relatively simple line drawings of, say, Gary Trudeau's enormously influential subtleties of image --the main thrust of the strip lies in its political and ideological commitments and the sophisticated humor with which the latter are pursued-- and the enormously sophisticated and integrated deployment of image and text, narrative focus and point of view, ambiguity and interpretive layering found in Will Eisner's graphic novels of immigrant Jewish life in New York City, (1) Robert Crumb's quirky adventures, or Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus (1986).(2)
The distinction between
comic book art in general and graphic fiction is tenuous at best: when
Trudeau's or Berkeley Breathed's isolated strips yield to a sustained
narrative, especially when the former frequently employ narrative
provide some measure of continuity from one strip to another?(3) It is
not just recurring characters, principal and supporting, but plot
motifs, and concrete signs (such as Opus's closet of repressed memories
traumas in Breathed's eponymous strip). To be sure, all categories of
production are to a large extent arbitrary in nature: one recalls the
in the face of negative criticism about the structural nature of his
1990 Nobel Prize winning Spanish author Camilo José Cela, that a
"novel" is any text under whose title the author places in
parentheses the designation (novel). Indeed, although Spanish has the
phrase novela gráfica (it
remains to be seen how extensively it is actually used and recognized),
the term romance grafico exists in
Portuguese, and is not used with much frequency, and texts that look
English-language designated graphic novels are lumped in that language
the heading quadrinhos, which
literally means "small pictures" and refers first and foremost to the
panels of the comic strip and, by extension, to the cartoon strip
isolated or interconnected manifestations of the strip (for strip,
uses tira or tirinha [de
Cirne; Silva; Literatura). Cartoon
art is extensive in
Of the practitioners of this growing field of urban art, the twin-brother team (b. 1976) of Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá have emerged as among the most creative. Their experience is now extensive and they have achieved one of the abiding goals of the Latin American writer, to be published in English.(5) De: Tales; Stories from Urban Brazil was published by Dark Horse Books in 2006: quite a milestone for Latin American graphic art, since the most famous graphic artist in Spanish, Quino (Salvador Joaquín Lavado), creator of Mafalda (1966-73), which has been translated into dozens of languages, has yet to be available in English.(6) Winners of many prizes for their extensive production (their web site, www2.uol.com.br/10paezinhos, lists twenty individual works and collaborations with others and the inclusion in nine anthologies of graphic fiction), the brothers have worked as a single team, both doing both writing and illustrating, and each has worked separately, although, as is common with cartoon art, little of their work is available in formal library collections: OCLC's FirstSearch WorldCat contains only ten international entries for Fábio Moon and ten for Gabriel Bá; several of these entries represent their work together. As of this writing, late 2007, De:Tales has yet to be completely cataloged by any participating library.
For purposes of this discussion, I will be drawing the strips written originally in English in De-tales; Stories from Urban Brazil (2007), none of which is contained in the collections in Portuguese I have been able to consult.
I have consulted three of the Moon-Bá collaborations in Portuguese available in bookstores in São Paulo: O girasol e a lua (2000); Meu coração, não sei porque (2001); Mesa para dois (2006).(7) Although there is a general urban focus to these three volumes, one cannot say that they are really urban in nature. O girasol e a lua deals with amorous relationships and their sadistic undercurrent, in which for not knowing how properly to love, Kamarov loses the object of his affections to an avatar of Jack the Ripper. The story is a complex (and often confusing) one, involving porous spaces, the darkness of the realm of the moon (a lua), and the assumed surname of one of the artists. Indeed, the authors' self-presentation at the end of the volume includes an image of Moon with a head in the shape of the moon; Bá (perhaps his chosen surname refers to the Egyptian hieroglyph that represents the human soul) is given the image of the talisman that saves the main character from death in the story; the cover of the book, however, has a man with the head of a sunflower holding the book on whose cover appears the image of the moon: this book is Kamarov's own first-person account. The story is urban in the sense that it takes place in a large city that seems to be New York (one can make out the silhouettes of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building on one panel [19; see also 66]), although the police cars in another announce POLÍCIA (54); yet another panel has a hot dog vendor (48) and another police shields that say Police Department, while the police uniforms say Polícia (55). This linguistic indeterminacy would indicate that no specific urban reality is pertinent here, and at best there is the general implication that sadistic sexual desire is urban in nature, which one has no reason to assume is necessarily the case, despite whatever urban-anchored dimension that accompanies the Jack the Ripper figure might be.
Meu coração, não sei porque (also transcribed on the first numbered page of the narrative as porquê) is also about romantic love, but this time a love that triumphs. The use of children, who move in and out of adulthood, might give an initial impression of children's literature, but the extensive and sophisticated deployment of the technique of narrative reversals projects the latter as objective correlatives for the difficulties of love in asserting its proper force in the lives of individuals, all of which makes for a very adult story, even if the postmodern reader might wish to take exception to the notion of eternal romantic love in its most elementarily heterosexist configurations.
Just as the difficulty of
love is the dimension of the first two volumes, the most recent text I
been able to consult,
All three of these volumes are of considerable artistic value and are indicative of the originality of conception, if not in narrative language, in graphic representation, including complex juxtapositions of circumstances and events. Of particular interest are lengthy dialogues broken up into chained balloons that crisscross each other and the illusion created of rapidly successive interchanges by exchanging the position of the textual balloons of two character's: A's is above B's head, and vice-versa, with the balloon's tail indicating which enunciation belongs to which character.(8)
There is, however, a substantial increase in narrative sophistication between the foregoing texts contained in English translation in De-tales. Moreover, all twelve are unquestionably urban in nature, in the sense that the material related has a direct and highly meaningful connection with the lived urban experience. I would now like to analyze in detail a selection of the strips from De-tales.
One's attention is immediately drawn to the fact that, of the twelve strips in De-tales, two are entitled "Reflections" and are basically duplicates of each other, with the exception that some of the graphic details are distributed differently or focused differently between them and the second version contains an additional detail in terms of the exchange between two men in the restroom of a bar. "Reflections" is built on the procedure of doubling a character such that we see him contemplating himself as someone else and engaging in conversation with himself over the ambivalent situation of whether he will engage seriously with a woman whom he met accidentally, causing her to spill her drink.(9)
Self-contemplation, including talking with oneself either silently or openly, is likely a feature of universal human psychology. But it was the Romantic notion of the Doppelgänger (double, in German) that established as a literary technique, characteristically in poetry, but also in prose, the procedure of splitting one psychic unit--that is, one human subjectivity--into multiple voices, characters, and identities; this is not precisely the same thing as the mental illness of dual/multiple personalities, although a cultural text may use the latter as one way of configuring the Doppelgänger. Needless to say, from a typological point of view, one could construct many actual and possible variants. Perhaps the most famous example in Latin American literature of such a doubling is Jorge Luis Borges's short text "Borges y yo," which deals with the juxtaposition between the private, interior world of the writer and the public persona of that writer when he has achieved fame (from El hacedor; 1960), which closes with the observation that "No sé cuál de los dos escribe esta página" (808).
Moon and Bá strips are fairly consistent in the representation of the two artists as persons, either singly or in conjunction, in their strips. As correlated with the back cover of the photograph of the two brothers, the character who appears with short dark hair in the strips can be identified with Bá (as he is on page 79); the character with the longer, sometimes blond and unkempt hair is Bá. Not that such identification is all that important, although it does have to do with the way in which some of the strips juxtapose two speaking characters who are kept apart in terms of their represented graphic image, while the strip under discussion clearly splits one of them (the one I have identified as Bá) into two separately speaking individuals.
In this case, the character of the strip, after bumping into the woman, enters the restroom, and we see him making use of the facilities. In accord with such a situation, another man enters and installs himself in front of a neighboring urinal. Public urinals in Brazil, especially in places like bars, are likely to provide virtually no privacy and male-male sociability may involve conversation between patrons, although eye contact may be scrupulously avoided as a way of signaling that we are all men here but not seekers of men: it is one thing to acknowledge the other's presence, but quite another to cruise him, and restroom etiquette is quite formalized in this respect.Yet the reader is able to see what one urinating neighbor is able to see, which is the actual act of urination, penis size and configuration, and the fashion in which a man undertakes the act, including the details of his hygiene.(10) I dwell on these men's room details because the strip is built on the fact that the two men actually stare at each other (55 and 60), whereupon the first one exclaims "You... You're me" (56). The second man goes on to state "No, I was you, but not anymore" (56 and 60). What emerges is that the second man is the first man before be bumps into the girl (this is the actual rather sexist word used in the text) in the bar and then apparently seeks refuge in the bathroom in order to avoid taking up with her in the sort of narrative characteristic of a chance bar encounter, where any pretext can serve to break the ice and inaugurate the narrative scheme that will result in the participants scoring with each other in any of a multiple number of ways.
However, the second man goes on to state that he was the first man until the latter forewent the opportunity presented by the chance encounter and that he, the second man, represents the depression deriving from the self-contemplation of foolishly letting a hot opportunity pass. He concludes by saying "... And you have already changed. You are already other than me. Good luck" (56 and 61), implying that all the first man has to do is to complete his business at the urinal, get back out in the bar, and follow through with the girl who must be waiting for him to come back out. Yet the first man hangs back in the bathroom, wondering what has just happened and whether he has had too much to drink. Meanwhile the first man returns, drink in hand, clearly a bit inebriated, but perhaps not because of the drink but because he made progress with the hot girl. When the first man exclaims "You again?" (57 and 62), the second man says that he must be mistaking him for someone else. This explicit disengagement between the two men, as the second man goes on to show in his comments, is based on the way in which the latter has scored with the girl and that one must take advantage of such opportunities rather than hanging back, a radical degree of which means retreating into the no man's zone of the bathroom.
First the doubling of the two characters and then their role reversal between one who is depressed over his timidity and one who may follow through, on the one hand, and one who has scored and one who has hung back and, as a consequence of waiting too long, lost his potential score to another is confirmed by the way in which the second man states that he must get back out on the floor of the bar before the woman moves on to another loser (58 and 62). That the second man in their second exchange accuses the first man of taking too long to urinate, wasting his time talking to others/talking to himself in the bathroom adds another dimension to how ducking into the restroom may be a consequence of not really knowing what to do with a woman when the opportunity arises. This, in turn, is reinforced by the insinuation of how talking to other men in the restroom, including watching them urinate, signals in fact a lack of sexual initiative, a crippling inability to even begin to follow through successively with women. This may not be a sign of (latent) homosexuality, but it is certainly a lapse in competency as regards the game of sexual encounter.(11)
Thus, "Reflections" becomes a very eloquent meditation on the so-called bar scene, which itself is often a metaphor for the difficulty, tenuousness, and potentially disastrous nature of the game of sexual encounter. The seediness of most bar scenes, even those that are ostentatiously upscale, a seediness duplicated and even augmented by the condition of the restrooms (restrooms are rarely cleaned better than the business they are a part of and frequently strikingly less so) may be read as an objective correlative of the precarious nature of human sexual commerce and, indeed the way chance encounters may for some be preferable to meaningful stable relationships. I do not think any moral judgment is intended here (either in the Moon/Bá strip or in my engagement with it), but only a neutral characterization of the realities of one sexual scene: the bar as both an opportunity to score quickly and the occasion of sexual timidity to quickly affirm itself. The material added to the second version involves the second man lecturing the first: "Oh no. I mean, yes I am you... / ...But I didn't freak out about the whole me-before/me-now crap... / ...And I went back to the party and got the girl (62). In other words, as one says colloquially, "get on with the program and stop wasting time."
In this case, self-reflection, self-examination, self-dialogue, rather than providing the opportunity for psychic growth--the idea that the examined life makes us emotionally stronger in dealing with the world--points toward a crippling weakness, at least as far as sexual commerce is concerned. In both versions, the man is alone with himself, contemplating the extent of his lost opportunity. In the first version, he looks almost longingly toward the exit from the bathroom, as though unable to cross back through it; in the second version, his face, a mask of frozen startledness, he continues to engage in the act that displaces his sexual pursuit of the girl, holding (in an onanistic fashion) his penis and urinating. The stark lines of the drawings in both versions, including rapidly shifted perspectives on the iconic space involved, contribute to a really quite harsh assessment of sexual incompetence.
The vast majority of the
twelve narratives in De-tales deal
with the intertwined theme of spiritual alienation and tenuous and
love in the megalopolitan setting. This setting is never explicitly
One of the longest--and most complex--strips in the collection, "Late for Coffee," is a particularly ingenious representation of the fragility of human communication, including sexual relations (presumably a zenith of such communication) in the large urban setting. Of immediate interest is the reference to coffee as the focal point for a (potentially) amorous encounter. While São Paulo is not as much a café society as is Buenos Aires, the Brazilian city nevertheless does do a certain high degree of honor to the Parisian model, where meeting for a coffee, accompanied perhaps by a dessert or a light lunch, is an integral part of the social fabric, and such a meeting between friends, lovers, and even business partners is acceptable and appropriate at any time of the day or night, where in American culture an initial meeting might typically be for afternoon/evening drinks in a lounge catering to those seeking anonymity, a sexually encouraging environment, and the conjugation of elements propitious to such an environment (smoking, decor, lighting, music, a compliant barman, and other similarly disposed patrons), the Parisian-style café is an open and often gleaming public place, where the high prices of the menu allow for the sort of lingering meaningful conversation may require. However, one might know that in postmodern São Paulo, such cafés are often typically located in shopping centers, where a good number of the customers are taking a break from shopping or waiting for a movie program to begin (to be sure, there are also many traditional type cafés that pre-exist the shopping centers). But these clients do not interfere with those for whom the café is a good site for the opening moves in a tryst, even though in Vila Madalena a bar might be far more suggestive..
The title of this story has
also another important resonance for the
There is a certain fantasy
quality about "Too Late for Coffee" that is in delightful contrast
with the hard-edge material nature of life in the city, where the
struggle for survival allows little room for flights of fancy. Yet in
strip the entire story is premised proleptically on a tardy scheduled
that was never programmed in the first place. The initial panels show
protagonist standing on the corner of Avenida Angélica and
in the upper-middle class section of Higienópolis in the larger
of Consolação in central
There ensues the expected stages of negotiating a dialogue--as much physical as verbal--between them, as she invites him to share a taxi with her, despite his protestations that he does not even know her name. As the protagonist grapples with how to make sense of this encounter, we see the lettering on her skimpy top, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), the famous Heideggerian existentialist injunction about the necessary contextualization of being within a time frame, of existence as a historical proposition. This is certainly the case with regards to "Late for Coffee." Although time in the chronological sense is here inverted, such that one is late even before an encounter has (could possible have been) programmed, it is within the time frame set up by the woman's appearance that the sudden being of the two individuals, as far as their existing for each other in a reciprocal relationship, occurs. They do not exist for each other outside this chance encounter and the inverted chronology the woman sets in motion, a fact reflected in the detail that neither knows the other person's name: in human societies, one's name is the fundamental anchor of being, the mode by which one is most named by the world.
In strips of a more romantic persuasion, the anomalies of the encounter here would work themselves out in favor of a positive relationship derived from the quirkiness of what, in retrospect might be viewed as the woman's effective come-on toward a highly presentable man standing alone on an upscale street corner, checking his watch as though he had been stood up by someone else. In another fanciful twist, the taxi driver leaves them on a corner featuring both a café and a bar, and a conversation between them ensues as to whether it is too late in the day for a coffee or too early for a beer (37). Of course, in a Parisian-style café, either is available, but the disjunction is necessary here to represent the continued negotiation still necessary between the two. The protagonist suggests compromising by going across the street to an ice-cream parlor, and in response to the woman's question "What flavor," answers "ice cream comes in many flavors... / ...just like life"(38) As they walk the neighborhood, eating their respective cones, the process of negotiating their relationship moves into high gear, revolving around what each is looking for. This exchange, with longer panels involving the segmented and interlocking dialogue balloons that is a Moon-Bá trademark also allows for a suggestion of the panorama of the city: it is sustained in the garden city, the appropriate context for what may become a fulsome amorous idyll, rather than the hard-scrabble cacophony that is the São Paulo the majority of its inhabitants experience.
Being in terms of the engagement with the other comes to a head when the woman is willing, after all, to confess that "I'm not myself anymore. / Not without you" (42)
When a black cat crosses their path, it provides the opportunity for further reflections that end, without an element of sappy sentimentality, on how the intertwined roots of trees are as though they were holding hands (45). All of this provides the authors with the opportunity to pursue the controlling setting of an idyll in the making that would appear now to be a given fact, as the lovers kiss against the backdrop of the neighborhood (with a majestic tree prominently displayed). The movement of the graphic focus from the cityscape in general (which we briefly see as when the two first sit side-by-side in the taxi) to privileged neighborhood streets, lined with lush vegetation in a way that is not immediately typical of the most living spaces in São Paulo (which may, however, have the backdrop of distant green-laden hills), enhances the fantasy quality of the story. It is, therefore, not surprising that the idyll cannot last, cannot be definitively forged. The physical reality of the city reemerges with the street sign announcing Rua Purpurina, in the equally upscale area to the west of Consolação, Vila Madalena. A bird perches on the street sign, and the expression on the separate faces of the would-be lovers sees it as more of a bad omen than the black cat. The woman announces she must leave, that is "You're late./ You lost your chance to fall in love with me" (51). When he asks what it is that she feels within her heart, she says "A memory" (51) and walks on.
In the final panel of the
strip, the protagonist is seen, his back to the audience, facing the
panorama of the complex built environment of the cityscape:
lines, light posts, intersections, the extended descending slope of the
Where in the opening panel, we see him from the front in a
neighborhood space, he is now cast, so to speak, upon the ocean of the
"Late for Coffee" is proleptic in the sense that the finale of the
story is announced from the outset, and the narrative works towards its
confirmation. In a more romantic narrative, putting the world back
such a way that, whatever the initial reverses may have been (and here,
been noted, there is the literal reverse of cause-and-effect
triumphs in the end, with the entire setting devolving into a pathetic
that supports the amorous denouement. But there is nothing romantic
way in which Moon and Bá view life in
(1). According to Smylie (505), Eisner is to be credited with inventing the term graphic novel to characterize his widely acclaimed A Contract with God (1978) (see also Eisner's various discussions of this narrative form).
Graphic novels are typically bound in longer and more durable formats than familiar comic magazines, using the same materials and methods as printed books, and are generally sold in bookstores and specialty comic book shops rather than at newsstands.
This statement regards the sales venue of the graphic novel that is part of what makes it particularly urban, since bookstores and specialty comic book shops are essentially found only in urban settings.
(4). Such as those pioneered by Classics Illustrated as early as the 1940s; much equivalent production is available in Spanish and Portuguese. A notable example signed by Moon and Bá is their elegant version of Machado de Assis's famous short story, O alienista (1881). The Moon-Bá version appears in a series titled Grandes Clássicos em Graphic Novel; note the use of the English term rather than the reasonable Portuguese cognate romance gráfico, although the latter term is used for an entry on the graphic novel in the (quite inferior) Wikipedia in Portuguese entry.
(6). I note, however, that a modest about of work by
(7). Also of considerable importance in the Moon-Bá oeuvre are their illustrations for Shane L. Amaya's four volumes Roland--Days of Wrath (1999), based loosely on the French epic La Chanson de Roland (mid-twelfth century) and winner of the 1999 Xeric Foundation Grant. Moon-Bá have also collaborated with Amaya in the episodes of the anthology Gunned Down (2005), Brazilian versions of stories of the Old American West. PUB: Terra Major.
(8). My colleague Isis Costa McElroy has pointed out to me that the intersecting discourses of the characters in these strips, with the abundant use of ellipses signifying reticence in full articulation and expectation for the other to complete the though, are typical of online chat. It would be entirely reasonable for Moon-Bá to have an interest in such a typically contemporary urban phenomenon.
(9). There is a problem with the English translation here: ". . .until you bumped into that girl on your way to the bathroom... ... / ... and dropped her drink" (56 and 61) the unspaced ellipses are in the text, and the forward slash indicates the transition from one speech balloon to another. One assumes that the underlying Portuguese is equivalent either to "and made her drop her drink" or (knocked her drink out of her hand).
(11). One must note at this point that the sexual politics represnted in this and other Moon-Bá strips reflects a considerable degree of sexism that one must assume characterizes the social milieu being portrayed.
(12). Although in the strip "qu'est-ce que c'est," which takes place in Paris and deals with violence on the subway, the combined narrative voice of the two protagonists states "We live in a much more violent city, in Brazil... / ...but no matter how violent it may get, it's home. It's where we belong" (74). This utterance does provide a singular, anchoring identity for the urban space of the strips: it is identity specific because it is one's own. But such a solipsistic determination does not substitute for any sort of specific characterization of a uniquely remarkable space.
Amaya, Shane L. et al. Roland: Days of Wrath. Santa Barbara: Terra Major, 1999.
Borges, Jorge Luis. "Borges y yo." Obras completas. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974. 808.
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Will. Comics and Sequential Art.
Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling.
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Moon, Fábio, and Gabriel
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