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The Ninth Art

Researches, archives, a book and a thesis show that comic books still maintain their importance

Gone is the time when mothers were right to shout: “Laddie, stop reading comics and get studying!”. Today, the two activities go hand in hand and are found at the university. “Comic books are too important to be left as hostages to the circumstances. Unfortunately, for a long time they were regarded as second or third class material by influential portions of society”, explains Waldomiro Vergueiro, a professor of the Communications and Arts School (ECA) and the coordinator of USP’s Comic Book Research Nucleus. Believing in the value of the “ninth art”, Nogueira, with support from FAPESP, carried out the General Directory of Comic Books in Brazil project, which makes available on the Internet ( a catalog of all the titles of comic books published in the country. “The project aims at the preservation of the national comic strip memory.”

This lack of interest for the “little magazines” calls for an explanation, because how can one despise a medium that, in the 1960’s, came to sell an amazing 240 million copies a year, in a country where the population did not exceed 55 million? “Of the four largest businessmen of the Brazilian press in the 20th century, three began in the magazine segment as publishers of comic books: Roberto Marinho, Adolfo Aizen and Victor Civita (Abril was born, in 1950, with a comic book, O raio vermelho [The red ray], and, afterwards, carried off the market with Donald Duck). Today’s mega-conglomerate publishing house Record, of Alfredo Machado, began as Brazil’s first distributor of comic books. These businessmen set up their publishing empires for the lucrative comic book business, the sales of which gave a push to their businesses”, explains Gonçalo Junior, the author of  A guerra dos gibis [The war of the comic books] (Companhia das Letras, 448 pages, R$ 52), a history of the impact of the comic books’ arrival in Brazil.

And what a rumpus. In 30 years, they were a fulcrum for the national press and they mobilized, in favor and against, the biggest figures of the time, including Presidents Getúlio Vargas, Juscelino Kubitschek, Jânio Quadros, João Goulart and Castello Branco, as well as Carlos Lacerda (an enemy of the comic books that, he used to say, had the power of leading the young astray and taking them to communism), Gilberto Freyre (an ardent fan who, as a deputy, tried to convince Congress to launch the recently promulgated Constitution in a comic book version), Jorge Amado (who attributed his popularity to the versions made in comic strips of his first books), journalists Samuel Wainer and Orlando Dantas (whose moral crusades against the magazines hid a fight for market with Marinho).

In spite of the prejudice that beset them, the comic books may have been born in Brazil, in 1869, with the Adventures of Nhô Quim, by Ângelo Agostini. That is, 30 years before the publication in the United States of Yellow Kid, regarded by many as the ‘pioneer’. Agostini, incidentally, is back again with the facsimile reissue of his illustrated criticism of “São Paulo provincialism”, Diabo coxo [Crippled devil], launched by Edusp (216 pages, R$ 65), recovered by two professors from USP, Ana Maria Camargo and Luiz Cagnin. But, in spite of their success abroad, comic books did not awaken the interest of Brazilian publishers for decades, until, in 1934, Adolfo Aizen, a journalist from Roberto Marinho’s O Globo, saw, on a trip to the United States, the success that the daily supplements (feminine, sports, children’s etc.) of the American newspapers enjoyed, and wanted to repeat the formula in his paper.

But he came up against the lack of interest of the owner, which led him to turn to a competitor to put his idea into practice. The result was a peak in the sales of the periodical on the day that the so-called comic strip stories, a reproduction of the American strips, came out. It was the silent start of the “comic book war”, as Marinho realized his mistake and reacted, a little later, by launching the Juvenile Globo, an imitation of Aizen’s supplement.  Edited, by the way, by Nelson Rodrigues, who, without knowing English, would look at the drawing and fill in the balloons with his texts.  Aizen, though, did not give in lightly and brought another novelty, the comic books, in the format of a little magazine, an innovation also copied by Marinho in Gibi (a synonym for scamp). New enemies entered the battlefield: seeing the magazines’ potential, Assis Chateaubriand did his, O Guri [The Kid], where he launched Captain America and Batman (shortly before, Aizen had launched Superman).

First attacks on the comic books, he wrote, were made by padres who, Italian in the majority, prayed by the missal of Mussolini, an inflexible opponent of comic books, which, he would bellow, “were denationalizing youth”. The tone of censure gradually rose in volume and in political power: in 1946, Carlos Lacerda, in a speech, defined comic books as “poison imported for the children”, since, according to him, the number of “communist” comic book writers had multiplied. Shortly before, in 1944, the National Institute of Pedagogical Studies, of the Ministry of Education, had disclosed a study that accused comic books of causing mental sloth and discouraging learning and the reading of books. “That is why, all over the country, schools and parishes organized monumental bonfires to burn comic books”, Gonçalo says. The phobia about comic books went so far as to generate a law, in 1949, of the authorship of the then alderman Jânio Quadros, to “prevent reading that was offensive to good behavior” from being exposed in newsstands and bookshops.

They also went so far as to think about an amendment to the Constitution that “would combat the excesses of the comic book publishing houses”. Although he was contrary to the measure, Lacerda attacked with even more force: “The idea of these magazines is that life goes by on a plane superior to all the human contingencies and, at the same time, ignorant of all the divine omnipotencies. God does not admit supermen, supermonkeys, or super Robertos Marinhos”. The fight was heating up. Orlando Dantas, from O Diário de Notícias, and Samuel Wainer, from Última Hora, dedicated several pages to show that the comic strips were “factories of little criminals”, and comic books “veritable manuals of crime”. “Because of a quarrel between Marinho and Dantas for leadership in the newspaper market, repression of comic books was institutionalized in the country. I do not believe that padres and teachers would manage to make so much noise and pressure if Marinho’s adversaries had not attacked because of his comic strip magazines.”

An article of the times told how, in a reformatory, a black adolescent called Lilico, the “terror of the suburbs”, scorned books by Monteiro Lobato. “That’s stuff for kiddies. I want Gibi, O Guri. I want stories with shootings and knifings”, the youth replied, the article avowed. “The current prejudice against comic books is an accursed inheritance from those days. Even today it is very strong, even in schools  of communication”, Gonçalo laments. After the moralists, comic books came under the nationalist attack. In 1961, the Brazilian comic strip writers, amongst them Ziraldo, the author of Pererê, and Mauricio de Sousa, the father of Mônica, demanded of the government a law nationalizing comic books, which included a 70% market reserve for the Brazilians. The first to embrace the cause was Leonel Brizola, then governor of Rio Grande do Sul, which subsidized national comic books. “Part of the texts of the magazines was pamphletary and committed to Brizola’s nationalist ideas.”

In 1963, Goulart signed a decree-law that “regulated the production of comic books in Brazil”, an act confirmed by the military in 1966, but never applied. “The Brazilian artists also wanted to create, in their association, a department for censuring the American comic books”, Gonçalo reveals. Amongst the “censors” was Ziraldo, so much combated during the dictatorship. “It was all fruit of a lack of professional vision that remains with us. There are still those who say that the syndicates dominate the market and are asphyxiating our poor artists. Well, they have disappeared from the market, and even so the situation is not good. Comic books are undergoing their worst moment in over a century of history’, he warns. “In the 1970’s, the magazine that sold less than 200,000 copies would vanish. In the 1990’s, the cutoff line stood at 55,000 copies and, nowadays, the publishers print between 2,000 and 5,000.”

Gonçalo regrets what he calls the “arrogance” of many Brazilian comic strip writers who hide their deficiencies behind the so-called “foreign threat”. “They neglect the quality of the plots and do not look for professional means of production. We are still amateurs, provincials.” If this “imperialism” of comic books is doubtful, one fact is undeniable for the author: “The comic books were very important in the dissemination of American culture in Brazil. Our children grew up reading American comic books”. And, perhaps, picking up other vices.  Selma Regina Oliveira, from the School of Communication of the University of Brasilia (UnB), defends, in her doctoral thesis, Woman to the power of two, that the American comic books helped to reinforce sexist stereotypes by showing defenseless, virginal girls, always needing the help of the superheroes, they, in turn, strong men, perfect gods. Even fascinating female villains like Catwoman, she says, depend in the end on a Batman to get out of their scrapes. “The bad woman of the comic books is more instigating than the good little one, but the man always stays with the latter”, the researcher notes. There is a lot of balloon to be deciphered and, counter to what mum used to say, it seems the time has come to get the comic books and study.

The project
General Directory of Comic Books in Brazil (nº 02/03067-4); Modality Regular Line of Research Grants; Coordinator Waldomiro de Castro Vergueiro – ECA/USP; Investment R$ 5,988.00 (FAPESP)