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Persistent Stereotypes, Latent Prejudices: Black Characters in Brazilian Comics

Página da história em quadrinhos "Encruzilhada". Artista: Marcelo D'Salete. Imagem utilizada com permissão.

Page from the comic strip “Encruzilhada” ["Crossroads"]. Artist: Marcelo D'Salete. Image used with permission. Description of the page: A black character is detained for interrogation by a supermarket's security guards who think he is a car thief. This is a true story and the Ford referred to in the text actually belonged to the character being unfairly detained. Text from speech bubbles: (1) What were you doing there? Were you behind that Ford? (2) You must have at least three previous offences. (3) Do you think I was going to steal the car? (4) Are you crazy? Let go of me! I need to go back!   

Black characters in Brazilian comics have been treated with stereotypes and prejudices throughout the years, a historical survey by Professor Nobuyoshi Chinen of the Comic Observatory [pt] at the School of Communication and Arts at the University of São Paulo (USP) [pt] has found.

“The representation is not yet ideal”, the researcher stated in an interview [pt] for USP's news channel. His doctoral thesis [pt], entitled “The role of the black man and the black man on paper: representation and representativity of African descendants in Brazilian comics”, examined not only the presence of black characters but also their visual representation in comics, making way for an analysis of stereotypes and prejudices.

In this interview for Global Voices in Portuguese, Professor Nobu, as he signs his emails, talks a little about his research, the question of regional diversity in Brazil and in Brazilian comic books, and the relationship between virtual representations and social aspirations.

Global Voices (GV): Have you observed a greater coordination among black authors capable of influencing the black presence in the world of comics? Should we really expect that more black authors will change the current (im)balance in representation?

Nobuyoshi Chinen (NC): Curiosamente, no decorrer da minha pesquisa tive dificuldade em encontrar ou identificar autores negros de quadrinhos. Alguns personagens menos famosos, de autores também pouco conhecidos, não consegui obter muitas informações. Pode até ser que vários dos artistas que citei sejam pretos ou pardos, usando a terminologia do IBGE [Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística], mas não encontrei dados referentes a isso.

Dos que sei que são negros e estão engajados em valorizar os personagens afro-brasileiros ou denunciar o racismo, destaco os trabalhos de Mauricio Pestana e de Marcelo D’Salete. Ambos com trabalhos muito interessantes, não sei se a ponto de exercer essa influência que você cita, mas que tem tido boa repercussão. Obviamente, o fato de um autor ser negro e se identificar com temas sensíveis como a questão das cotas, o preconceito, a desigualdade faz com que ele retrate esses temas com mais propriedade ao abordá-los em suas HQs, o que não significa que alguém que não seja afrodescendente não seja capaz de fazê-lo com talento, sensibilidade e respeito.

Curiously, throughout the course of my research I had difficulty finding or identifying black comic authors. Some less famous characters, from authors who are also little known, I didn't manage to get hold of much information. It may even be that some of the artists which I cited are black or mixed-race, using the terminology of the IBGE [Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics], but I didn't find any data regarding this.

Of those who I know are black and who are engaged in valuing Afro-Brazilian characters or condemning racism, I would highlight the work of Mauricio Pestana [pt] and Marcelo D’Salete [pt]. Both have very interesting work, I don't know whether to the extent of exerting the influence which you mention, but which has had positive repercussions. Obviously, the fact that an author is black and identifies with sensitive topics such as the issue of quotas, prejudice and inequality means that he portrays these topics more authoritatively when tackling them in his comics, although this doesn't mean that somebody who is not an African descendant would not be capable of doing the same with talent, sensitivity and respect.

GV: Has the increase in participation from other corners of the country, including authors from different regions and with different visions of the world, contributed to increasing the diversity [broadly-speaking] of national comics? 

NC: Eu penso que, na verdade, estamos é perdendo essa diversidade geográfica. Os temas estão ficando mais universais e mais focados na realidade urbana. A regionalidade que existia, por exemplo, nas histórias em quadrinhos de terror, gênero bastante comum até os anos 1990, foi se diluindo. As referências a superstições ou seres sobrenaturais que enriqueciam o folclore local abriu espaço para outro tipo de narrativa. O que ocorre atualmente é uma diversidade temática maior. Antes havia quadrinhos de terror, de aventura, de ficção científica, entre vários outros. Hoje, a esses somam-se os quadrinhos femininos e feministas, quadrinhos gay, quadrinhos autobiográficos etc. Eles trazem uma visão particularizada do mundo, mas não os valores de uma região, mas de um segmento da sociedade.

I think that, in truth, we are losing that geographical diversity. Topics are becoming more universal and more focused upon the urban reality. The regionality which used to exist, for example, in horror comics, a genre which was quite common until the 1990s, has gradually been diluted. References to superstitions or supernatural beings which enriched local folklore have made way for another type of narrative. What is taking place at the moment is a greater thematic diversity. In the past there were terror comics, adventure comics, science fiction comics, amongst others. Today, we can add to this list female and feminist comics, gay comics, autobiographical comics, etc. They bring to the table a particular vision of the world, not the values of a region but rather of a section of society.

GV: We are living in a time of identity affirmation. Is there a visible change online? And if so, could this change extend beyond the virtual world and take hold in the streets as well? 

NC: Não sou especialista em comunicação online e considero-me um usuário apenas mediano das redes sociais, [mas] a impressão que tenho é justamente o contrário da sua pergunta: o virtual apenas reflete o que o mundo real está ansiando.

A afirmação das identidades foi um dos motivos pelos quais a maneira de representar os negros nos quadrinhos passou por uma significativa mudança. Os afrodescendentes e a sociedade como um todo já não toleravam mais o estereótipo antigo que acabou sendo substituído por uma maneira menos preconceituosa. É claro que os meios de comunicação (digitais ou não) ajudam a propagar esse modelo mais contemporâneo, num processo que se autoalimenta, mas se o público não for receptivo ou não houver uma predisposição para a mudança, o mundo virtual não tem a capacidade de alterar o mundo de verdade.

I'm not a specialist in online communication and I consider myself no more than a moderate user of social networks, [but] the impression which I have is precisely the opposite of your question: the virtual barely reflects what the real world hankers for.

The affirmation of identities was one of the reasons prompting a significant change in the way black people are represented in comics. African descendants and society as a whole no longer tolerated the old stereotype which ended up being substituted by a less prejudiced manner of representation. It is clear that the media (digital or otherwise) help to promote this more contemporary model, in a process which feeds off itself, but if the public wasn't receptive or predisposed to change, the virtual world would not be able to alter the real world.

Página da história em quadrinhos "Encruzilhada". Artista: Marcelo D'Salete. Imagem utilizada com permissão.

Page from the comic “Encruzilhada” ["Crossroads"]. Artist: Marcelo D'Salete. Image used with permission. Description of the page: A black character is detained by a supermarket's security guards who think he is a car thief. This is a true story and the Ford referred to in the text actually belonged to the character being unfairly detained. Text from speech bubbles: (1) The guy doesn't want to talk, but Noca is sure he took the car last month. (2) Idiot! You arrested the wrong guy. Take him away. 

GV: How does this change affect the future of Brazilian comics, if it affects it at all? What did your research show in this regard?

NC: O aumento de temas amplia o leque de possibilidades tanto para autores quanto para leitores. Na minha percepção, nunca se publicou tantos títulos de autores nacionais como nos últimos anos e parte desse fenômeno se deve à essa variedade de visões. Ressalto, porém, que a maioria das obras autorais é lançada para venda em livrarias, em versões mais bem produzidas e mais caras do que os gibis de banca, o que torna tais publicações praticamente inacessíveis ao grande público.

No caso específico do meu trabalho, há um fator adicional que é a lei 10.639/3 que torna obrigatório o ensino da cultura afro-brasileira em escolas de ensino fundamental ao médio. Há, portanto, um incentivo institucional para autores que se interessem pelo tema, uma vez que os quadrinhos são excelentes instrumentos de apoio didático. Alguns dos trabalhos que analisei, como o excelente AfroHQ de Amaro Braga, Danielle Jaimes e Roberta Cirne, foram publicados com o objetivo explícito de atender à demanda da lei 10.639/3. Os casos que citei apontam alguns caminhos, mas afirmar que irão afetar, de alguma forma, o futuro dos quadrinhos brasileiros seria precipitado ou otimista demais.

The increase in topics extends the range of possibilities for both authors and readers. The way I see it, more titles by national authors have been published in the last few years than ever before and part of this phenomenon owes to this variety of worldviews. I would emphasise, however, that the majority of these works are released for sale in bookshops, in better-produced and more expensive versions than the comic strips from the newsstand, which makes such publications practically inaccessible to the wider public.

In the specific case of my work, there is an additional factor which is that Law 10.639/3 made the teaching of Afro-Brazilian culture compulsory in secondary schools. There is, therefore, an institutional incentive for authors who are interested in this topic, since comics are an excellent means of teaching support. Some of the works which I analysed, such as the excellent AfroHQ [AfroComic] by Amaro Braga, Danielle Jaimes and Roberta Cirne, were published with the explicit aim of fulfilling the demands of the Law 10.639/3. The cases which I have cited point to some ways forward, but to state that they will affect the future of Brazilian comics in some way would be hasty or over-optimistic.

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