Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Pacha Urbano

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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Brazilian writer, illustrator, and screenwriter Pacha Urbano describes his brain as “an ideas factory that never stops.” His genre-defying projects include the aphoristic book Livro Ao Acaso (Book of Serendipity), the comic strip Filho do Freud (Freud’s Son), a compilation of that series called As TRAUMÁTICAS Aventuras do Filho do Freud (The TRAUMATIC Adventures of Freud’s Son), and, most recently, a book of short stories, Vidas Despercebidas (Unnoticed Lives). Based out of Rio de Janeiro, with a huge international following online, his work has been translated into English, French, and Spanish. The following interview was conducted over email this past week.

Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren: Do you have a writing and drawing routine? Where do you like to work? What does your writing space look like?

Pacha Urbano: I don’t have what you would call a routine, but I do have some habits, like gathering together all my books that I’ll need to consult, or drawing materials that I’m going to use, so that I don’t have to come and go all the time, interrupting myself. I also try to listen to music that has something to do with the project I’m working on. If it’s something more childish, I try to listen to happier music. Usually instrumental music, without anyone’s singing to distract me. I usually work at home, where I have a room that is both my studio and office, and in it are my reference books (thesaurus, dictionaries of expressions and of cultural miscellany, or reference books on photographics, anatomy, nineteenth-century photography, etc.) as well as my drawing table, my comics, fanzines, drawing and painting supplies. My desktop computer and my Wacom digital pen are there, too, for projects that use illustration and painting programs. It is a simple place, somewhat messy, but where I have everything I need.  However, ideas usually come to me while I’m driving, or having coffee. At my friend’s advice, I always bring a sketchbook with me to these cafés after lunch, so I can just doodle for fun, because many times good ideas—or solutions to problems—are born during these moments of relaxation.

RMC: With your comic strips, do you usually start with the image or the text?

PU: My comic strips start with text. As I’m constantly reading about psychoanalysis or pedagogy, the ideas for the characters’ dialogues come to me much faster than the visual gags. It’s very unusual for the visual part to come to me first, because what I consider fundamental in this series is what the characters have to say, much more than what has to be shown. I jot down ideas in the notes section on my iPhone when I’m out, and then I email the ideas to myself.

RMC: Your Freud’s Son page has more than 500,000 “fans” on Facebook. What has Facebook’s role been in your career? Has social media changed Brazilian publishing?

PU: Facebook is what showed me that it was possible to create a loyal public following. Being quite cynical, I don’t think that the Freud’s Son comic strips would have reached as many people if it had been published in a print journal. Today, the comic strip is published in Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English—I count on the help of volunteers who translated them into these languages—so the number of readers grew even more. How could I have imagined that I would be read by people in Greece, France, the US, Honduras, Mexico, or Canada? The book of collected comic strips came about through an appeal from the fans, rather than through actual necessity. With the popularity of the comic strip came offers to do illustrations, scripts, and workshops. It was a real door-opener! Brazilian publishers don’t pay authors well, which discourages some from considering it as a livelihood, but it offers Internet writers a certain level of respect, so to speak. It’s kind of like a certificate of quality to move from online media to print. However, what makes books sell fastest today is word of mouth on social media.

RMC: You told me that a Brazilian superhero hasn’t been created yet. Why do you think that is? Is there an archetypal figure in Brazilian comics?

PU: It isn’t that Brazilian superheroes don’t exist—saying that would be unfair to my fellow comic artists. Some exist, but they don’t have the same prominence in the popular imagination that foreign characters have, and many are more or less Brazilianized versions of the gringo ones, like Capitão 7, Raio Negro, Capitão Aza, Golden Guitar, and Judoka. In the ’80s here we had some others like Quebra-Queixo, Leão Negro, O Gralho, and, most recently, the Necronauta, but Brazil isn’t necessarily the setting for their stories. Many others fall more into the category of anti-hero than superhero, with stories whose tone is more humor than horror, like Overman, Capitão Ninja, Detetive Diomedes, Nonó Jacaré, Mirza, Velta, which all have different styles. Maybe that’s our archetypal figure, the anti-hero, going all the way back in literature to Macunaíma.

RMC: Do you see marked differences between the comics produced in the US and Brazil?

PU: I do. Because we don’t have what you would call a “comics industry,” the way the US does, our comics are much more personal in nature. The ’80s and ’90s here in Brazil was a very rich period for the reader of comics, as well as the producer, with magazines sold at newsstands (kiosks that still existed on almost every corner), with distribution in every country. We had comics for all tastes: humor, horror, science fiction, erotic and pornographic, children’s, adventure . . . But then came the crisis and the comics became more cult and they were edited in order to be sold in bookstores, driving up the cost of production, distribution, and the cost for the eventual customer. The already consecrated US superheroes, Monica’s Gang, and Japanese comics were on the newsstands. So, I think that because an “industry” doesn’t exist where Brazilian editors regularly publish Brazilian comics made by Brazilian illustrators, Brazilian writers, with Brazilian characters, heroes, or settings, comic artists end up being isolated or forming small creative collectives and producing their comics with more personal content. We have many talented artists, including some who work for US publishers, and we have great stories. The Internet has made it easier to see these materials, which I think is fantastic, primarily through crowdfunding, which eliminates intermediaries and allows writers to publish their own work and sell it in bookstores. The publications of Brazilian comics by Brazilian editors are much less bold. Unfortunately.

RMC: Measuring about 2” x 1”, with aphorisms printed in bold typeface on an assortment of brightly colored papers, Book of Serendipity is more of an art object than a work of literature. Despite its size, the stylish design catches your eye, even from a distance. What was the origin of both its format and its guerrilla distribution methods? What interesting places has the book been left in?

PU: Book of Serendipity came about accidentally in 2005, in an attempt to do a version of Unnoticed Lives in comics and in a different format. I wanted a comic that could develop, and for these developments to happen not just in the writing itself but physically, in the way it was published. But the most important thing was that it would have to be produced inexpensively, so that it could be published independently. I made a prototype and I didn’t like the results very much, which forced me to look for other solutions. At last I came up with the accordion format, with aphorisms, which is Book of Serendipity. When I had the prototype in my hands, I understood that it had to be distributed at random, left where anyone could find it and then pass it along again, in a chain of randomness. Since I use public transportation a lot, I wanted to disrupt the flow of that routine we get into, and I thought about how cool it would be to be surprised by something that would snap us out of that trance. I did a trial run and I saw the way people who found it reacted. It was unexpected. I started to print it in 2009 and it has been that way up until today.

I’ve left copies in museums, bookstores, cafés, on park benches, in mailboxes, the pockets of clothes in stores, books in cultural centers. I always leave them in places where someone can find them. One friend left a copy in the bathroom of MoMA, in New York, another left it in the Buenos Aires Airport. However, it was an email from Luanda, in Angola, that surprised me the most. In it, a woman asked if the project was Angolan, which she doubted because of the way it was written, and she also asked for more copies. Who brought it there? How many hands did that copy have to pass through? I’ll never know, and the joy is exactly in that.

RMC: Unnoticed Lives, your collection of short stories, is your first book of fiction. Was it hard to write without drawing? How is your voice different without the visual elements?

PU: Unnoticed Lives is one of the projects closest to me, because it’s where I could focus on the writing and work with various literary genres in a few sentences, with anonymous characters, without marked endings or beginnings, which is to say, I was free to create what I wanted. At first it was hard, because it was work to wring the excesses from the text, to throw out everything that wasn’t essential to telling those stories, which was the hardest thing for me, because I’m verbose, and to go the route of short stories, to “illustrate” with so few words, was a big challenge. With time I came to understand that the stories should function the same way as an overheard snippet of conversation on the street, or the end of an argument at the table next to us in a restaurant. We don’t know how they started, where those people came from, or how those stories will unfold. I had to find a way to evoke fun, anger, pain, repugnance, excitement, ultimately with few words, short phrases. This power of narrative synthesis helped me a lot with other projects and it’s helping me a lot with the novel that I’m writing.

RMC: What is the relationship between your three books? Can you talk about your artistic progression and the trajectory of your work? Do you have plans for your next project?

PU: My brain is an ideas factory that never stops. If I had more time and money I would go from books to cartoon scripts to comics one after the other. I like to tell stories and to think about diverse formats for telling them. Actually I’m simultaneously working on a magical realism novel and a new comic in a different format. Some stories from Unnoticed Lives are going to be adapted for the theater by the company Michael Chekhov Brasil, because the idea is for that book to be a doorway into other formats. For example, I’ve been writing new stories to make a comic version, as part of the Unnoticed Lives series, with one-page-long comics, without speech bubbles, for each of the characters, in which I’m imagining a total of fifty stories. And the second volume of Freud’s Son is also due out this year. How I find time for all of this I still don’t know, but I’m not used to revealing all of my projects.

RMC: The US obviously has a big influence on the culture here in Brazil; which US comics and comic strips were the most influential for you? Which other countries, or specific foreign cartoonists, have an important artistic influence in Brazil? Who do you think are the most influential Brazilian cartoonists outside of the country?

PU: Like most young people of my generation, I was influenced by the superhero comics Marvel and DC Comics made. There is a very famous children’s comic book character named Monica, drawn by Mauricio de Souza, and she’s the most famous national one abroad, in more than 40 countries. Many people here, when they think of comics—also called gibi—think of Turma da Mônica (Monica’s Gang). I was never a big fan of the character, though, I was more into superheroes and their universes of adventures and battles. However, I always liked Calvin and Hobbes, who were baptized Calvin and Haroldo in Brazil. There were other US ones, like Garfield and Peanuts, but it was the entertaining stories that Bill Waterson told with Calvin and Haroldo that captivated me. I think they still influence me today, not just in the Freud’s Son comic strips, but in my other work. Bill Waterson’s mode of narration, his timing, and his style are, obviously, fantastic.

We weren’t very influenced by the countries around us in terms of comics. It’s only been ten years since the Argentine Liniers started to publish here and he is actually one of the most famous ones from Latin America. We consume more comics from the US and from some European countries. In the ’90s, there was a Japanese comics boom here, but it was still a niche market. The French Moebius and Urdezo, the Belgian Hergé, the Italian Manara, the Spanish Aragonés, were very well-known here and influenced many people due to magazines like MAD and Heavy Metal, with the exception of Uderzo and Hergé, who have more well-known characters. The Americans Eisner, Crumb, Kirb, Miller, Waterson, and Shultz, too. Each one in their own genres, but with strong influences on Brazilian comics and comic artists.

RMC: What is your favorite Brazilian book that hasn’t been translated into English yet?

PU: My favorite book was the debut novel from my favorite Brazilian comic artist, Lourenço Mutarelli. The book is called O Cheiro do Ralo (The Smell from the Drain), published by Devir in 2002, and later republished by Companhia das Letras in 2011. It tells the story of a mean, egotistical pawnshop owner who humiliates the people that come in to sell him their objects, and who is also infatuated with the ass of the waitress at the dive bar where he eats lunch every day. This man is tormented by the smell of shit emanating from the bathroom drain beside the room where he meets with clients. The smell has so much influence over the characters’ behavior that it practically becomes a character itself. Somewhere between comedy and drama, with concise prose, and written in the first person (the character’s stream-of-consciousness), The Smell from the Drain, with its cynical humor and pessimism, is a very entertaining book. Its success was such that it had barely been published before it was adapted for the screen (in English Drained, by Heitor Dhalia, 2007).

Translated from the Portuguese by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren.


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