- How to Read Chico Bento:Brazilian Comics and National Identity
Mauricio de Sousa's beloved comic books are a staple of many Brazilian childhoods. Starting in the 1960s, his six-year-old characters began providing not only entertainment, but also a distinctly Brazilian representative in a market dominated by imports. Currently, these publications—several different comic books and strips—represent 70 percent of the children's market in Brazil, with over one billion issues sold, not to mention a large Internet presence. The characters' expansive commercial empire includes an enormous indoor theme park, videos, live theater, and over 3,500 consumer products (Mauricio de Sousa Produções [MSP], "Mauricio de Sousa: Cartoonist"). Thus it is not surprising that Mauricio is sometimes referred to as the Walt Disney of Latin America. He was awarded the Yellow Kid (a major industry award), and recognized by the Order of Rio Branco for his service to the country in 1971. The thirtieth year anniversary publication, Mauricio: 30 Anos, includes a number of interviews in which various well-known Brazilians stress the national nature of the themes found in the comics, their identification with the characters, and their pride regarding the success of the series (Editora Globo 16–18). In 2009, in commemorating the fiftieth year of Mauricio's career, the Ministry of Culture declared his first character—Mônica—a cultural ambassador ("Personagem Mônica").
In the thirtieth anniversary publication, contributors tout the comics as distinctly Brazilian on the levels of setting, themes, characters, and language (Editora Globo). Many characters live in a small town near a big city in the state of São Paulo, but others are small-scale farmers in the countryside, and one is an indigenous boy in the Amazon. We see kites and love letters, TV star Xuxa (Cebolinha 39), bolo de fubá (cornmeal cake) (Chico Bento 3), and references to playing the bicho (a parallel to the state lottery). Of course, soccer runs in the background and foreground of many stories. We hear Brazilian lullabies, such as "Nana nenê" and "Boi da cara preta," as well as children's songs (Cebolinha 32, 34). Fabulous entities such as the saci, headless horse, and black-faced ox, as well as the legendary little black shepherd (negrinho do pastoreio), make their appearances (Chico Bento 10, 92, 256, 274, 301; [End Page 142] Mônica 23). There are ample references to rich Brazilian expressions (dor-de-cotovelo, estou de mal, etc.), traditional sayings,1 and—especially in the side strip featuring the Louco (Crazy Guy), a trickster character—plays on language that clearly indicate the comics' original language and culture as Brazilian.2 Saint Paul even cries, causing it to rain, now and then (Chico Bento 43; Mônica 60).
It is one thing to ask what makes Mauricio's comics distinctively Brazilian; it is another to question why his comics, in particular, were celebrated as quintessentially Brazilian—a representation of national identity—and produced under the censorship of the military dictatorship (1964–1985). In fact, Mauricio's comics were the only Brazilian comics allowed during this regime (Moya). In what way were the images and messages of these comics attractive to and compatible with state goals and policies during the dictatorship? What vision of the nation—its history, populations, and future—are proposed through this cultural text? In what ways do the comics resonate with the worldview and experiences of the author and readership?
This article contributes to a growing literature demonstrating the importance of comics as a powerful medium of communication, and certainly not just for kids. Although people may begin reading a comic as a child, product loyalty can extend through adulthood (Wright 253), and many comic books attract a crossover audience (Andrae 8–9). Indeed, Mauricio himself asserted in an interview that his comics are read on different levels by children, youth, and adults—that only adults perceive their "philosophical force" (Martins). Comics may provide a vehicle for social critique, as in the Argentine Mafalda (Foster). They may reflect conversations regarding national identity, as in Canada's Captain Canuck (Dittmer and Larsen). Writers also assess the portrayals of particular social identities in relation to...