The Hero Makers of Brazil
The most beloved superheroes on the pages of Marvel and DC comics are often drawn by a talented cadre of artists in São Paulo
Comic book fans know their superheroes hail from a universe that extends from Gotham City to distant galaxies. They may not know, however, that many of the artists who create the visuals for characters like Spider-Man and Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the X-Men, hail from Brazil.
The country has a long love of comics, starting with Disney and other cartoons being translated and published there as early as the 1930s, and evolving into homegrown creations such as the still beloved Turma da Mônica (Monica’s Gang), which took off in 1959. At the same time, more risqué indie artists fed a growing demand for erotica, graphic novels and horror comics.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that major U.S. publishers looked to Brazil for talent. Early pioneers such as Marc Campos drew Justice League for DC Comics, while Roger Cruz penciled X-Men for Marvel Comics. Technology ramped up the creative exchange even more. “The advent of the Internet and our deep relationships with Brazil-based talent gave us the chance to not only discover new visual storytellers, but also to have them collaborate with writers, inkers and colorists worldwide,” says DC Comics publisher and chief creative officer Jim Lee.
Not surprisingly, the megalopolis of São Paulo, population 12 million, has become the epicenter of comic art in the Southern Hemisphere. Many of its buildings and walls are resplendent with street art, there’s a strong ad and design community and it hosts the annual Comic Con Experience (CCXP), one of the largest pop culture festivals in the world.
“São Paulo benefits from this ecosystem and the artists benefit from São Paulo,” says Ivan Costa, whose Chiaroscuro Studios represents some 60 Brazilian comic book artists, most of whom work for DC Comics and Marvel Comics. “These artistic trends feed of each other.”
Here, we meet some of the people, both big-league and indie, at the heart of the São Paulo comic scene.
The King of Comics
Ivan reis, one of the most sought-after comic book artists in the superhero universe (his name literally translates as Ivan Kings), is surprisingly low-tech.
He built himself a studio occupying the entire third floor of his home in suburban São Paulo, equipped it with digital drawing tablets and piled it high with comic books and superhero figurines that he designed for the Brazilian market.
But on a recent morning, he is seated at his dining room table with a 2B pencil and his latest sketch for DC Comics—a villain whose name we can’t reveal, but who’ll be battling Superman in the near future—taped to a slab of wood. “I always end up working here. It’s closer to the coffee pot,” he jokes.
Reis, 42, has had an exclusive contract with DC Comics since 2004, drawing some of their most emblematic heroes, including Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and even collaborating on the Aquaman film to recreate the same look.
In 2017, when DC Comics lured writer Brian Michael Bendis away from Marvel in a major comic book coup, Bendis requested Reis work with him on revamping the Superman series, making him more of a contemporary hero.
“The world isn’t black and white, good and evil anymore,” Reis says as he sips his umpteenth cup of coffee. “It was hard to fit Superman into this gray world.” The new series aims to make the character more human—a refugee from war on his home planet who struggles to control his rage and desire for revenge. Reis, known as a penciller in the trade, says drawing the new Superman means using more shadows and nuance. “You need to see the frustration in his face.”
Growing up in a middle-class family in São Paulo, Reis always knew he wanted to be a comics artist. At the age of 14, he pitched his portfolio to comics publishers until he got his first assignment, illustrating a Dracula series. At 16, he landed a dream job working for Mauricio de Sousa, the creator of Brazil’s most-beloved children’s cartoon, Turma da Mônica.
Three years later, he started penciling for American publishers, and with his detailed and complex drawings that emphasize the human form, quickly made it to the majors: Marvel and DC Comics.
At first, hiring artists thousands of miles away was a gamble. “Back then we didn’t have Internet,” Reis says. He would send initial sketches by fax and once he got the green light, send the final art by mail. His detailed primary pencil sketches then went to an inker, colorist and letterer, usually in New York City. “God, a lot of work got lost in the mail!”
The advent of the Internet changed everything, Reis says. “Comics are democratic. Nobody cares where you’re from as long as you can produce quality and deliver it on time.”
For Marcelo d’salete, comic books don’t necessarily need righteous heroes and diabolical villains—they need strong characters and a compelling conflict. “In Brazil, we have plenty of that.”
So do his award-winning comics, which look and feel more like graphic novels and depict the experiences of Afro-Brazilians from slavery to the present. Some of his first books portray the gritty underbelly of contemporary São Paulo told from the perspective of poor, black Brazilians forced to live on the margins of society. “I was always interested in telling stories that talk about reality from my context,” D’Salete says.
D’Salete, 39, grew up in a poor São Paulo suburb. His characters, developed in haunting black-and-white ink drawings, reflect that world: They work in unsavory nightclubs or try to scrape by as parking attendants. Danger lurks in the form of corrupt cops and drunken bar customers. The city seen through the eyes of D’Salete is more shadow than light. “São Paulo definitely has a big impact on my comics,” he says. “They’re very urban stories about marginalized characters. The ideas come from stories people tell me, my own research and my daily observations.”
He and his older brother used to draw on a green chalkboard in the back of their house, looking to superhero comics for inspiration. He studied design and art at college and worked as everything from an electrician to an office intern before honing his artistic talents as a textbook illustrator.
Now, D’Salete juggles his comics career with his day job as an art teacher at Escola de Aplição at the University of São Paulo, one of the city’s best. Last year he won the so-called Oscar of the comic book world—a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for Cumbe, translated as Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom, set in Brazil’s brutal colonial period.
“I felt it was important to write about the experience of the black diaspora but also as it directly relates to Brazil,” he says. D’Salete dives even deeper into the topic in Angola Janga, about a fugitive community of escaped slaves in northern Brazil. “Comics present a different way to experience complex topics. Mine offer a vision, a perspective of our realities and histories.”
Germana viana’s superheroes have the kind of powers kids dream of—one can fly, another can bust through cement walls and a third can turn into a water-breathing blue dragon. Their nemesis, however, is a bit less conventional.
“Menstrual cramps. There are days they can’t fight because they have cramps,” Viana says, laughing as she talks about her latest indie comic book series, As Empoderadas, or The Empowered.
The protagonists, who protect São Paulo from a host of supervillains, are three women—a devoted mother of two, a 42-year-old party-girl lawyer, and a young Chinese-Brazilian student—who are endowed with superpowers after being caught in a mysterious solar storm.
“My friends say my comics are a disguise,” Viana says as she slurps a milkshake at Alaska, the same popular ice cream parlor where her fictitious heroines met up for the first time. “Since they’ve got this pop-culture exterior, men and women who wouldn’t normally think about feminism read them and end up reflecting on it.”
Viana, 46, grew up reading the subversive cartoons penned during Brazil’s military dictatorship and ogled superhero magazines at the local newsstand. “In the ’80s, there were so few women in comics,” she says, but at 13 she saw female characters adorning two Marvel comic books at the same time—Elektra and Jean Grey of the X-Men series. “I went crazy. That’s when I realized I had to work with comics or I wouldn’t feel complete.”
It would be several decades before Viana produced her own characters. After studying art at university, she worked as an art professor and graphic designer, and did what’s known in the trade as lettering—filling in the speech bubbles—for translations of Star Wars comics.
It wasn’t until veteran American comics artist George Pérez saw some of her drawings and urged her to strike out on her own that Viana got to work on her first comic book, as both author and illustrator. In 2014 she published Lizzie Bordello e as Piratas do Espaço, a sci-fi comedy featuring a boatful of bawdy women pirates for the Brazilian market.
As Empoderadas, her 11th and newest book, is set in contemporary São Paulo. “One of the things I love about superhero comics is they take you inside a city. Spider-Man does that with New York and I wanted to do the same thing with São Paulo.”
Her heroines, drawn in simple, clean lines, are struck with superpowers on Paulista Avenue, the commercial corridor that runs through the heart of the city, and then head to Alaska, the ice cream parlor around the corner. One thing they don’t do is wear high heels.
“You can’t even walk along a sidewalk in São Paulo with heels, much less fight.”
Going Against the Flow
It’s hard to put Danilo Beyruth in a box. One day he’s penciling the supervillain Carnage for Marvel, the next he’s working on a movie script adopting one of his indie comics, a police thriller set in São Paulo’s Japantown.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. “People think it’s complicated doing all of these things at once, but I feel better having a career as an auteur and at the same time doing more commercial work for a larger audience,” says the bearded, long-haired Beyruth as he tosses a ball to Chita, a Boston terrier running around his living room.
Beyruth, 46, says he’s also just happy to be dedicating himself full-time to comics. “Ever since I was a kid, I liked design, but back then everyone said, ‘Oh, you’ll be an architect or work in advertising.’”
Indeed, Beyruth dropped out of college after just six months of studying industrial design and went to work at one of Brazil’s premier advertising agencies. Fifteen years later, he opened his own illustration studio, again geared toward advertising. “I don’t look at it as time lost,” he says. “The experience—meeting deadlines, the efficiency, the competition, that very capitalist culture—I use it all in my comics.”
In 2006, as illustration was increasingly replaced by computer-generated images in the ad industry, he finally threw himself into his first indie comic book, writing and illustrating Necronauta, a hybrid of horror and sci-fi published for the Brazilian market and drawn in a cinematic style reminiscent of the American superhero comics.
Over the next decade, he produced a dizzying variety of stories, from a bloody Brazilian Western set in the country’s parched backlands to an epic historical tale about Saint George. “I always go against the flow,” he says. “When I started, everyone was doing autobiographies and I thought, My life isn’t that interesting, so let’s escape from that!”
Beyruth says he starts all of his comics with the illustrations, which he draws on a huge digital tablet in his home studio. “I’m capable of drawing all 200 pages and only writing the dialogue at the end.”
Marvel approached him two years ago to work on different characters in the Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy series, and most recently he penciled one of Spider-Man’s archenemies, Carnage.
“Ironically, Marvel has really freed me up to experiment with my style, even though it’s the most commercial work I do,” he says. “Since I don’t have to worry about the script, I have this freedom with my drawing that I don’t have in my personal work.”
Finding Heroes in São Paulo
The city has an array of comic experiences, from shops to conventions
CCXP (Dec. 5-8), the largest comic-con in the Americas, drew 262,000 fans in 2018. This year it promises a cosplay contest and parade, never-before-seen trailers for Hollywood films, and exclusive editions of official merchandise.
Comix Book Shop
With its densely packed inventory, this fantasy emporium feels like a Tokyo comic shop, and boasts collector’s editions of Sailor Moon and Marvel’s Hulk and Doctor Strange as well as manga and graphic novels.
A shop that doubles as a hangout for comic enthusiasts, replete with a mural of Godzilla and King Kong in drag, Loja Monstra hosts drawing workshops as well as launch parties for new publications.
Catering to comics, gaming, book and pop-culture lovers, Geek.etc.br has spaces to compete in role-playing games and a reading club focusing on comics and graphic novels.
Describing itself as a “nerd meeting point,” this shop
is decorated with colorful pop-culture tiles, while its shelves hold an enviable collection of comic books from publishers such as Dark Horse, Marvel and Disney.