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How the comics of Marcelo D'Salete helps us understand Brazil's past and present

Marcelo D'Salete por Rafael Roncato/ Divulgação.

Marcelo D'Salete working. Photo: Rafael Roncato, used with permission

In 2013, Global Voices published a series of articles about Marcelo D’Salete's comics. At that time, he was beginning to gain recognition for his urban narratives and a perspective characterized by “questioning and making more complex the possibilities for representing black people and their history,” as he said.

Over time, D’Salete turned to Brazil's past. His most recent works, Cumbe (2014) and Angola Janga (2017), tell stories of resistance by black slaves in a country that was the biggest importer of African slaves in the Western world (over 10 times as much as the United States), and the last to have banned it (in 1889).

Based on historical research, D'Salete's works take us on a journey of defiance, collaboration, and courage that has been winning the artist awards in Brazil and abroad.

Marcelo D’Salete spoke to Global Voices and the following interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

Marcelo D'Salete by Rafael Roncato/ Divulgação.

GV: Your work has this characteristic of drawing people’s attention to characters that, usually, are not in the foreground. In doing so, it reveals motives, a whole worldview. Why is the black perspective important in the stories that you want to tell?

MDS: Imagino que tenhamos algumas narrativas, talvez um pouco mais no campo da literatura, com personagens negros. Mas poucas vezes esses personagens são protagonistas nessas histórias. Creio também que são poucas as histórias que acabam alcançando um grande público. Esse tipo de narrativa é importante para compreender o nosso passado, mas também para compreender o nosso presente. Não é simplesmente uma questão de colocar essas figuras lá. É colocar essas figuras, nessas narrativas, de um certo modo, com certa complexidade, tentando compreendê-las, tentando vê-las com seus defeitos mas também com suas conquistas.

MDS: I imagine we have some narratives, maybe a few more in the field of literature, with black characters. But only rarely are these characters protagonists in the stories. I also think that the stories which reach a wide audience are fewer. This type of narrative is important to understand our past, but also to understand our present. It is not simply a question of putting these figures there. It is putting these figures, in these narratives, in a certain way, with a certain complexity, trying to understand them, trying to see them with their flaws but also with their achievements.

GV: In July 2018, when you wrote a post about the Eisner award for Cumbe, you said “the public incentive of training and producing the professional is an essential part of the process of creating comics and of the emergence of new authors and narratives.” Why did you highlight the role of public incentive?

MDS: Os livros “Cumbe” and “Angola Janga” tiveram o apoio do PROAC (de incentivo à cultura no estado de São Paulo), que é um programa que premia os melhores projetos com um valor em dinheiro para o artista e para a impressão do livro. Isso ajudou muito para que eu tivesse um pouco mais de tranquilidade para finalizar esses trabalhos. É claro que eram trabalhos que já estavam acontecendo há mais tempo, e eles viriam a público imagino que mais cedo ou mais tarde. Mas, o prêmio acabou colaborando para que os trabalhos saíssem naquele tempo e com qualidade. Isso é algo importante para incentivar, para que continue, para que se amplie em diferentes estados e a nível federal, para que artistas de diferentes locais possam produzir o seu trabalho e vê-lo impresso, vê-lo circulando.

MDS: The books “Cumbe” and “Angola Janga” had the support of PROAC (a government body that promotes culture in São Paulo state), which is a program rewarding the best projects with an amount of money for the artist and the printing of the book. This helped me a lot to have a bit more peace to finish those pieces. Obviously, they were works that were already happening, and I imagine they would have reached the public sooner or later. But the prize helped the works to come out at that time and with good quality. This is something important to encourage so that it continues to different states and to the federal level, so artists from different places can produce their work and see it printed, see it circulating.

GV: You also praised the role of comics in promoting change, saying that “the arts are essential components for a structural change.” Why?

MDS: Os quadrinhos foram um elemento muito importante na minha alfabetização, no meu aprendizado. Eu lia quadrinhos desde muito cedo. Tenho uma paixão por esse tipo de veículo até hoje. Foi a partir deles que eu tive contato com algumas narrativas diferentes sobre a nossa sociedade e o nosso passado. O quadrinho de ficção e outros, assim como cinema, foram importantes para minhas relações, pros meus colegas, pra minha geração, principalmente nas décadas de 1980 e 1990, nesse momento de formação. Acredito que o tipo de arte que a gente pode fazer, em formato de quadrinhos, tem um grande potencial. É essencial trazer novas perspectivas e novas possibilidades de ver nossa sociedade hoje e no passado. Algo que possa favorecer uma mudança de mentalidade em relação ao tratamento dos diversos grupos que a gente tem no Brasil, contrapondo uma visão hegemônica, que ainda enquadra esses grupos em posições diferentes e desiguais. Essa visão hierarquizada da sociedade, nos últimos meses, a gente vê que está bem marcada na fala de diversos políticos.

MDS: Comics were very important when I was learning to read and write. I read comics from a very young age. I have a passion for this type of media even today. It was from them that I had contact with different narratives about our society and our past. Comics of fiction and others, as well as cinema, were important for my relationships, for my colleagues, for my generation, mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. I think that the type of art that people can make, in comic format, has a great potential. It is essential to bring new perspectives and new possibilities for seeing our society today and in the past. [It is] something that could help change mentalities regarding the treatment of the diverse groups that we have in Brazil, countering a hegemonic vision, which still frames these groups in different and unequal positions. That hierarchical vision of society, in recent months we have seen that it is very present in the speech of several politicians.

Página de Angola Janga, de Marcelo D'Salete. Reproduzida com autorização do autor.

Page of Angola Janga, by Marcelo D'Salete. Used with the author's permission.

GV: As your career progressed, how was it to see your audience grow?

MDS: Foi muito interessante observar a formação de um público para o tipo de quadrinho que eu estava fazendo. Foi um processo lento, mas foi muito interessante observar que, a cada edição, mais pessoas ficavam conhecendo esses trabalhos. Geralmente, essas pessoas não vão atrás apenas de um livro, elas acompanham a obra completa de um autor. Acho isso interessante, é algo que eu gosto de fazer também — quando eu gosto de um artista, gosto de acompanhar todo o seu trabalho.

MDS: It was very interesting to watch the development of an audience for the type of comic that I was making. It was a slow process, but it was very interesting to see that, with each publication, more people have got to know these works. Generally, these people do not go for only one book, they follow the whole work of an author. I think this is interesting, it is something that I also like to do – when I like an artist, I like to follow all their work.

GV: What memories do you have of comics during your time as a student?

MDS: Na escola pública, onde eu estudava, eu não lembro de ter contato com quadrinhos. Os quadrinhos acabaram entrando na escola pública, e mesmo particular, um pouco depois, em meados dos anos 2000. Eu só fui ter contato com quadrinhos por meio de colegas que tinham o mesmo gosto. Infelizmente, não era uma leitura realizada em sala de aula.

MDS: In public school, where I studied, I do not remember having contact with comics. Comics ended up coming into public school, and even private ones, a little later, in the mid-2000s. I only had contact with comics through classmates who had the same taste I had. Unfortunately, it was not something taking place in the classroom.

GV: Having works listed in the National Plan of Teaching Literature (PNLD) opens new possibilities for an artist. How do you anticipate having your work referenced by a whole generation of students?

MDS: É um meio muito interessante e tem um potencial enorme para atingir diversas gerações de leitores. Lembrando que não é apenas uma narrativa mais fácil que a literatura em prosa, mas, sim, uma outra forma de contar histórias. Acho muito importante que os livros estejam no PNLD. Não era a minha intenção inicial, mas, depois, vendo o trabalho pronto e observando a relação do público com essas obras, mostrando para os jovens e vendo a reação dos meus próprios alunos com essa literatura, eu fui me acostumando mais com a ideia de que, sim, é um material que pode ser utilizado em sala de aula. Professores têm comentado que as obras são um excelente recurso para discutir esses temas.

MDS: I think that it is very important that the books are on the PNLD. It was not my initial intention, but, later, seeing the work ready and watching the connection of the public with these pieces, showing them and seeing the reaction of my own students, I'm getting more used to the idea that it is material that could be used in classrooms. Teachers have been commenting that the works are an excellent resource for discussing these themes.

Página de Angola Janga, de Marcelo D'Salete. Reproduzida com autorização do autor.

Page of Angola Janga, by Marcelo D'Salete. Used with author's permission.

GV: After so many interviews, book signing events, and debates is it possible to suggest a question that nobody has asked you and that you would like to answer?

MDS: Gostaria de reforçar que este trabalho, do Angola Janga, é um trabalho que fala sobre um período e um contexto. Eu gosto muito de vê-lo como uma obra com diversos personagens, diversas narrativas, tentando analisar aquele contexto do modo mais complexo possível. Foi uma experiência muito rica, um aprendizado enorme nesses anos todos. A ideia era tentar fazer com que a gente se aproximasse um pouco mais desses diferentes personagens naquela narrativa, para além de alguns líderes que são importantes, como Zumbi [um dos líderes do Quilombo dos Palmares], mas revelando também outros personagens igualmente relevantes para tentarmos compreender aquele período.

MDS: I would like to highlight that this work, Angola Janga, is a piece that talks about a period and a context. I really like to see it as a work with diverse characters, different narratives, trying to analyze that context in the most complex way possible. It was a very rich experience, a big learning process during all these years. The idea was to try to make people get a little closer to these different characters, in that narrative, beyond the leaders who are important, like Zumbi [one of the leaders of Palmares’ Quilombo], but also revealing other characters who are equally relevant for us to try to understand that period.

To find out more about Marcelo D'Salete's work, check his website.

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