“There Are Some Experiences That Bring Us Closer”: An Interview with Marcelo D’Salete

In 2017, the Brazilian cartoonist Marcelo D’Salete won his first Eisner Award for best U.S. edition of international material with his 2014 book Run for It. But his last major work published in Brazil is by far his greatest achievement. The 432-page Angola Janga tells the story of the rise and fall of Palmares, the largest quilombo ever assembled in Brazil’s history. For those who don’t know,quilombos (or, in the past, referred to as mocambos) were settlements founded mostly by escaped slaves of African origin, which came into existence when they arrived in colonial Brazil around the 1530s.

Marcelo D’Salete, a graduate of the University of São Paulo with a degree in Fine Arts, spent a whole decade working on Angola Janga. Apart from being his best work to date, the book is by far the most incisive comic story written about slavery in Brazil as it demystifies certain “historical convictions.” Although Palmares was a great community with several major and many minor settlements, at a certain point in time it was not considered an isolated territory in colonial Brazil. The quilombos were spread out all over the colony and in someway a part of its landscape. The changes in this relationship are not only due to the need for more slaves, but also deeply connected with the growing tensions related to the origins of racial prejudice in the country.

Author Photograph by Rafael Roncato

Heitor Pitombo: I think it’s worth explaining to the readers what Palmares was.

Marcelo D’Salete: The first Africans who were to become enslaved arrived in Brazil around 1530. Since the beginning of the 16th century there were rumors that some of the Africans who were brought to the country to do fieldwork by means of force were fleeing to the mountains. This tactic was not only used in colonial Brazil but all over Latin America. Their motivation was clear: they needed to establish themselves in places where the Spanish and Portuguese soldiers could not attack them. They needed protection. The first record of enslaved Africans who fled from a landlord’s mill dates back to 1590: 40 of them went to the Barriga ridge located in the Captaincy (administrative division of Brazil during the colonial period) of Pernambuco. Since the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese made attempts to destroy mocambos, made of refugee slaves in the woods, but failed in most of them. They kept on trying, but the mocambos were gradually growing in size. Around 1630–40, the first Dutchmen came to Brazil and began the occupation of the Northeast — a theme unfolded by the Brazilian author André Toral in his graphic novels — and soon after that, the biggest of all mocambos, Palmares, began its expansion. Most of the Palmarists (inhabitants of Palmares) called their land Angola Janga (“Little Palmares” or “Little Angola”).

Of course, the attacks endured…

For sure. After this period, Palmares was attacked by the Portuguese several more times and there were also four or five unsuccessful Dutch expeditions. Both managed to capture some Palmarists but they did not succeed in destroying all of the mocambos. A few years after the Dutch left Brazil definitely (1655), the Portuguese fell on the Palmarists once again (around 1660) and fought with 300–400 soldiers in battles against them every year. Palmares survived all of them due to the fact that it wasn’t a mere mocambo — it was a group of 10 or more mocambos located in the mountains. While one of those mocambos was being attacked, many Palmarists went to another one to force the Portuguese soldiers to wander through the woods, which made them easy targets in a very barren location. Palmares won lots of battles this way and resisted for a long time guided by leaders such as Ganga Zumba and Zumbi. They would resist until Palmares’s main mocambo, Macaco, was destroyed in 1694. Zumbi managed to escape, but ended up being captured and beheaded a couple of years after that. Angola Janga or Palmares would endure for a few more years. The last battles between Palmarists and Portuguese soldiers dates back to 1720–30. Most of the Palmares’s inhabitants were captured and enslaved. Many of them died, especially in 1694, but as there was a population of 20,000 people, some Palmarists fled and ended up putting up a new mocambo of dissidents called Cumbe — this name was an inspiration for my previous graphic novel Run for It (originally named Cumbe in its Brazilian edition).

Why did you choose Palmares as a theme for this graphic novel?

Because it’s part of my life and has been in my thoughts since my youth. I began creating comics around 1999–2000, pencilling stories written by a friend of mine (the musician Kiko Dinucci) and then kept on producing more urban-inclined stuff, heavily influenced by artists such as Peter Kuper, Miguelanxo Prado, and Lourenço Mutarelli. The idea of telling stories about colonial Brazil from a black perspective came to me around 2004 when I was working on my first graphic novels. But I had to do a lot of research in order to put out books such as Angola Janga, which I was only able to do in 2017.

Which methods did you use in your research? How did you come to prioritize certain sources?

My research was as extensive as it could be and it was part of my work from 2004 to 2010. It’s hard to disconnect Run for It from Angola Janga, as both books benefited from this same research. Each of them has its distinguished features, but they converge in some points. Run for It is much more a collection of short stories, each of them about one character living during the slavery years in Brazil and searching for autonomy. When I dealt with the black population during the colonial years in this book, I thought it was important not to just stick to themes such as freedom and slavery. Freedom, of course, was something all the slaves longed for. But this freedom differs for sure from the concept of freedom we have had since the French Revolution. So, Run for It, more than dealing with the contrast between freedom and slavery, is about people in search of more autonomy, people who are protagonists of their own stories, even connected to the pro-slavery system, and people who face the ones who have the power, the landlords. But these confrontations do not always appear this way, as they also involve the enslaved ones against each other.

Of course, there are gaps in the accounts related to the history of Palmares. Most information is simply not reliable, however the evidence. What methods did you use to fill these gaps?

I considered several possibilities. Early on I thought about doing a silent comic book, but afterwards I realized it would be impossible. I would have had to draw double the pages to cover all accounts. It’s a big saga, more than one century long, and the book covers the last decades of it and the stories related to the main Palmares mocambos. Since the beginning, my aim was to create an interesting story for the readers about Palmares that was not pedagogical, but a very personal view guided by the images. My book’s subtitle is “Kingdom of Runaway Slaves,” and that was an attempt to approach that era. It’s impossible to know exactly what transpired during that time. We can only have an idea of what the environment was like and try to understand the characters’ motivations, desires, dreams, and intents.

But there are many accounts…

Yeah, but most of them were produced by the Portuguese-Brazilian soldiers who destroyed the mocambos. It’s a very particular and militaristic European view about the land. Its content relied on what’s there and on the victories and defeats as well. In these accounts, the soldiers tended to praise what they did, to describe who they captured, and to omit great defeats. Sometimes, they even managed to value the Palmarist terreiros (places where Macumba, Candomblé, and other Afro-Brazilian fetishism is practiced), because they needed to exalt the enemy in order to convince the Crown to reward them accordingly. But what was most important in my research, and in order to fill in the blanks, was dealing with the Bantu origins of Palmares culture, from Angola and the Congo. My research led me to researchers who dealt with these references, such as Robert Slenes, who wrote Na Senzala uma flor: esperanças e recordações da família escrava in 1999 (A Flower in the Slave House: Hopes and Recollections of the Slave Family) and José Redinha’s Etnias e culturas de Angola from 1974 (Angola’s Ethnic Groups and Cultures). These books investigated the traces of Bantu culture and how they’ve reached Brazil. This data were very important to build my characters, to establish their beliefs, and to improve on their possibilities and intents.

What’s most fictitious about the tale you’ve created?

Angola Janga is mainly a fictional book inspired by some historical facts. In my book, as well as in real life, Palmares began its history in 1590 and expanded a lot during the Dutch invasion — due to the Portugal-Netherlands war. Several main characters were based on real people, such as Ganga Zumba, Ganga Zona, Zumbi, Soares, and Domingos Jorge Velho. The Terço dos Henriques (a group of black and half-caste soldiers created after the Dutch war who did business with the Palmarists and also fought against them) also existed, though I’ve created a member of it called Rodrigues who is fictional. On the other hand, I didn’t have much information about several specific characters, so I’ve used more rudiments to make it easier to understand who they were, which path they took, and what their intents were. It was important for me to build these characters in an interesting way.

Can you give us an example?

Ganga Zona, in my story and in real life, acted as a smart negotiator between the Palmarists and the colonial power, and was also a member of the resistance. But the historical accounts do not mention the real reasons behind his behavior or his interests, something I could not put aside in the comic book. The same thing can be applied to Ganga Zumba, who was an older leader (Ganga Zona’s brother) and at some point makes a pact with the Crown two years before his death by poisoning. This is a fact. But nobody knows if he was poisoned by Palmarists or by some quilombo leader. What I think is most fictitious about the story I’ve written is all that involved Soares, who is only mentioned in the final accounts of Palmares history, in 1694. But I thought he was a fabulous character to work with, so I created a preceding life for him in which he would take part in several events.

How important are the women in your story?

The researchers have always mentioned a woman who had a very important role in Palmares — people even knew her as “the queen.” She is reputed as being Ganga Zumba’s mother — not necessarily a blood mother — and most possibly lived in a mocambo called Acotirene or Aqualtune. No one knows for sure. In my book I’ve opted to call her Acotirene and to tell the readers that she lived in the Aqualtune mocambo. I also decided to name some of the characters after several mocambos, for instance, the fictitious Osenga.

And what about your version of Zumbi?

It’s important to establish that the story of Zumbi we know begins in 1670 and ends when he dies in 1695. There are loads of accounts from this period mentioning Zumbi as the great leader he was. There’s no doubt about it. But the accounts about his previous life, most notably his childhood and his youth, are dubious. Let’s state that what I’ve done in the book related to this period of his life is completely fictitious. The historian Décio Freitas says he’s discovered documents that assert the theory that Zumbi lived with a priest when he was very young — in fact with a Palmarist who was captured and left in this priest’s care. But these documents had never surfaced and some experts even deny their existence. In my opinion, there’s a chance these documents will appear someday, but I doubt they are in fact linked to Zumbi. Nevertheless, I thought these accounts were perfectly fit for a fictitious narrative.

Where did you get most of your references?

The story of Palmares is described in books by authors such as Edson Carneiro, Décio Freitas, Ivan Alves Filho, Flávio Gomes, and some others. There are also comic books about Palmares such as the one produced by the historian Clóvis Moura — who has always written about the history of the black population in Brazil — and the comics researcher Álvaro de Moya. Their work together dates back to the 1960s and it’s a short comic, 40–50 pages long. All things considered, I knew it was possible to produce a much longer story. But all the references I needed to create my versions of Zumbi and Ganga Zumba were taken from these accounts.

And what about Domingos Jorge Velho?

The references for Domingos were taken from Renato Castelo Branco’s 1990 book Domingos Jorge Velho e a presença paulista no Nordeste (Domingos Jorge Velho and the Paulista presence in the Northeast). That essay’s main focus in on Jorge Velho’s legacy. As a matter of fact, there were many people in his family who got the same name: Domingos Jorge Velho. But we all know there was one guy, the last of them, who was born in São Paulo and ended up being one of the most fierce and effective bandeirantes (term used to describe the 17th-century settlers and bounty hunters in Brazil).

How do you see yourself as an artist, considering the style you’ve chosen to work with on Angola Janga?

My art is always undergoing changes. I’m always experimenting with the new and I feel a great regard for this part of the production. It was hard to maintain the same style all throughout the book. I spent six years pencilling it, from the first story up to the last one. But I think I’ve succeeded in giving it unity, although I’ve had to revise some pages several times. For some of them, I think I’ve given something around three or four different alterations. Pretty hard work. It’s interesting to note that the art has benefited a lot from this process. Of course, I’ve tried to follow a certain continuity considering what I’ve done in Run for It, and even in Encruzilhada. [D’Salete’s 2011 book, not yet released in the U.S.] But with Angola Janga it was possible to give a bit more of detail to the art. It was a necessary move. In Run for It the stories were distinct tales. Angola Janga, on the other hand, is one big novel with established characters. This explains the need for unity. It was the first time I’ve worked using a conventional method of comics creation: first writing the script, then doing pencil roughs of each character in different angles, and in the end thinking about each page’s layout. In my previous books, I’ve worked in a more organic way. I never did roughs of characters and the story was built during the process. That was also an interesting method.

How did you deal with the issue of racial prejudice in your book? In my opinion, Angola Janga identifies the origins of racism in Brazil. Do you feel the same way about it?

Brazil is such an uneven country. It has an inequitable history considering the various groups that moulded its identity (the black population, the Indians, the Europeans). It’s also a country that lived under a pro-slavery system for more than three centuries. It left deep marks in our society, marks that are still felt today. One of them is the way some of these historically kept-apart groups, such as blacks and Indians, are treated to this day. Another one is related to the way we still deal with manual labor. We still view it as something inferior that deserves degrading and shameful payments. Due to this model, there are still jobs, such as the ones that employ domestic servants, that are mostly only held by poor black women. It’s important to understand that Brazil had an inequitable society during the colonial era, and went through the abolitionist movement by the end of the 1800s, when several extremely racist European theories arose and were adapted to our local context. These theories explained the ethnic-racial differences and were used to attest pre-abolition dissimilarities and to reassert old ideologies. Unfortunately, we still have to deal with traces of this ideology in Brazilian society nowadays. It’s easy to perceive it when you notice who is in charge of most political and economical decisions in the country. We haven’t yet broken up with a logic that dates back to colonial Brazil.

How do you view Angola Janga’s release during this moment of Brazilian social and political history?

Angola Janga was released in Brazil in 2017 and was published in France last year. There are signed contracts that guarantee future releases in Austrian, Polish, and Portuguese editions. It’s a book that tells a story of Brazil in comics form that people don’t know much about. In spite of it, there’s a lot of information about this subject in several books published throughout the years. Brazilian researchers have always studied the slavery period — for a while we were one of the main publishers of studies on the theme — but these books had never been accessible for most of the population. Angola Janga is an attempt to bring this report to a larger audience. I hope this sounds interesting at this moment, when I think we all need to discuss our identity in the face of Brazil’s history. We are now having to deal, in the country, with extremely conservative groups that treat the black and Indian population as a secondary lineage, a hierarchical inferior group compared to those of European descent. It’s important to think about the Palmarists’ experience in order to establish a counterpoint between the fictional tale I’ve written and an authoritarian vision that doesn’t allow such criticism. To resist is vital.

Do you see other comics artists worldwide broaching the racial issue wisely?

Yes. I would mention Ho Che Anderson in the U.S., who wrote and drew King, a chronicle of the civil rights movement. There’s also the South African Anton Kannemeyer, whose work is very sarcastic about the racial issues inside his country. His parodies of Hergé’s Tintin are top notch. Here in Brazil we’ve got artists such as Robson Moura, who explored the theme of modern racism with his graphic novel Black Friday, and also João Pinheiro & Sirlene Barbosa with their book Carolina, a fascinating story of the first Afro-Brazilian writer to document the conditions in the favelas of São Paulo in her diary Child of the Dark (1960). The book Couro de Gato, by Patati and João Sanchez, also stands out due to the way it describes a very rich moment in the history of the black identity inside Rio de Janeiro.

Do you think Angola Janga has more potential than Run for It in terms of achieving international prestige?

I don’t know. The book was very well received in France and got a lot of reviews through different channels. Most of them have praised its historical value, the characters, and the way I’ve told the story. I’ve ended up concluding that the book may have a positive course in other countries as well. In Brazil, of course, Angola Janga was hugely acclaimed, as it was considered one of the finest fictional books published in 2017, considering Brazilian literature market on their whole.

How do you see Angola Janga’s release in the American market, in terms of the debates it can generate?

I’ve been keeping up with the recent debates about identity and awards in the U.S. Angola Janga and Run for It are very much linked to these issues. Recently, Spike Lee gave birth to a debate about black representation in the Oscar nominations. Then, the Get Out movie, which was bombastic in my opinion. It handled these issues in an interesting way, full of terror, tension, and subversion. It was a very important film at that time. Later on, we had the Black Panther film. So, these kinds of themes are crucial nowadays and people are even more interested in these kinds of stories. Although American history is far different in comparison to our Latin American history, there are some experiences that bring us closer and connects our black groups. Thinking about it, Angola Janga may turn into a very interesting reference for the debate related to our American history and the mocambos’ experience. Getting in touch with this legacy is very important, as well as creating reports related to these facts for the next generations. These weren’t just a few incidents and they consist in systematic strategies to face the colonial experience of several black groups in different countries.

How was it to translate Angola Janga for the English version?

I stayed in touch with the translator for quite a while. There are many Bantu expressions all over the book and I’ve noticed that most of the translators try to maintain these original expressions. It’s important to mention that we have a Glossary section in both Run for It and Angola Janga that explains the meaning of those expressions. I made a decision to define these words because most of the people have never heard of them. Also, I wanted to produce material for other researches as much as I wanted to bring information to a larger audience for everyone to understand the basics of it in its entirety.

And what about your next graphic novel?

Right now, I just want to enjoy some free time. I’m just reading and studying and I don’t have a theme for my next major work.