"We have Magic": Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon Talk Two Brothers and the Underexposed Artistry of Brazil

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Beautifully rendered in black and white, Two Brothers tells the story Omar and Yaqub, twins whose jealousy plagues their relationship over the course of years. Much of the story is told through the interplay between shadow and light, and the chiaroscuro creates a series of striking images that play aptly around the central theme. Binary relationships also extend to the creative team—real life Brazilian twins Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba craft a narrative that balances rich storytelling with Ba’s expressive, angular art. The resulting original hardcover contains emotional texture with a story as engaging as its visuals.

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Adapted from the novel The Brothers by fellow Brazilian Milton Hatoum, the comic weaves a focused, intergenerational story that straddles the exotic and familiar. Moon and Ba, who took four years to produce the book, were kind enough to sit down with Paste via Skype to discuss their working relationship and process for adapting such an in-depth work.
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Paste: Two Brothers isn’t the first time you’ve worked together—you collaborated on Daytripper and B.P.R.D. and you’ve both worked on Casanova. What draws you to working together so closely?
Fabio Moon: When we started doing comics in Brazil, we started doing comics together. Most of the things we did growing up, we did together. And I think that is a consequence of us being twins. We were in the same place together, and drawing was one of these things we could do together—that we could share. We could draw anywhere we were: at school, at home, at the beach. So, drawing was something that increased this bond.

Then, when we started reading comics, that bond grew, because we could read the same stuff and talk about it and share that passion. When we started working together, it made sense that it would also be another one of these things that we could do together and share. So for the first ten years of our career, here in Brazil, everything we did was together. Only when we started working on projects in the U.S.—where we started to work with other writers and tried to branch out into different types of comics—that created the impression that the common thing was to work separately, and every now and then we’d work together. But what we actually try to do is find opportunities to work together. That’s one of the reasons we chose to do this book.

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Two Brothers Interior Art by Garbiel Ba and Fabio Moon

Paste: So would you say that working together on projects in which you’re the only creators is more natural than working separately with another writer?
Moon: Yes, for us, it’s much more natural. We can achieve better results, even though comics that we draw—like Umbrella Academy or Casanova—often push us to try harder, because they’re so crazy and have insane things for us to draw. So we always keep getting better as artists because of these projects, because they force us to push ourselves, to do the best that we can. But I think, in terms of storytelling, in terms of what we think comics can do and aren’t often being done, it’s when we work together. On projects that we work on together, we believe we can do different things.

Paste: And what’s the process like when you work together? Most comic books differentiate who is drawing what and who is inking and coloring and writing. There’s no information telling the reader which one of you pencilled and which one of you inked. So what’s the process of working together like?
Moon: When we work together, the part we collaborate the most on is the script. We work face-to-face in the studio. [Gabriel Ba adjusts the webcam to show the pair’s drafting tables—pressed against each other so that the two can face each other while they work.] We work face-to-face every day. So the script is basically us talking to each other and figuring out story points and how we’re going to turn pages, and how we’re going to decide what’s going to become images and what’s going to become dialogue. And even working how the images are going to be—“Oh, this has to be a close-up,” “this we need more background,” and “this has to be the most important panel of this page.”

So the script writing is a very visual type of creating. For Two Brothers, for example, our script is the thumbnails. Because we create thinking about the images and the words at the same time. And then after the script, we have to choose which one has the better style to draw the story, because our styles are different. They have similarities, because growing up together and working together all the time, we share a lot of the same references, but our styles are different. One fits one genre better than the other, and we always try to choose who’s going to draw based on who is going to be a better artistic choice for the story, so it doesn’t distract the reader. If there’s a shift in the art—that takes away from the illusion. So for Two Brothers, Ba did the artwork. But since we work so close together, he is drawing, but I’m always over his shoulder and being his sounding board, seeing if things are coming out okay and if we think it could be done better.

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Two Brothers Interior Art by Garbiel Ba and Fabio Moon

In the end, I think for us, the important part is to create this illusion: to make the reader forget that those stories are being told by people. They have to forget that this was hand drawn and this was colored and this was in black and white. They have to experience the story and believe in that illusion and forget that it’s just a bunch of drawings. So we focus on creating this illusion, instead of saying, “Ah, I did that” and “I did that,” because I think that that’s part of the magic of comics—fooling the reader and seducing the reader into going to another world.

Paste: Talking about Two Brothers specifically, it’s adapted from a novel by Milton Hatoum. From what I understand, it’s very popular and it’s well-regarded in Brazil. What attracted you to this story and made you think “we have to make this into a comic.”
Moon: We were invited by the Brazilian publisher to do the book. We were at a literary festival talking to [Hatoum], and the comics editor of the Brazilian publisher saw us talking together, and he came up with that idea: “Ah, what if you two drew Milton’s story about twin brothers? You two being twin brothers…” And that was the initial spark—that only came about because we were twins.

I don’t think there would be a comic adaptation of the story if it weren’t made by twin brothers, if there wasn’t this hook. But I had read the book before, when it came out in 2000, so I knew it was a very complex, dense, difficult story to adapt. So our first instinct was to politely say that it was too complicated and maybe too much work. But they kept talking about it, and Milton was instantly interested and curious. So, I re-read the book, Ba read the book, and…despite being very, very, very hard to adapt, the book had everything we wanted to put in a comic book. The density of the relationships, and…

Gabriel Ba: [the theme of] the consequences of our choices…

Moon: …and how the story develops, and the way the narrator goes through the memory of what he saw and what people told him—that whole structure, that’s very fluid and organic and deep in the novel. If we could pull that off in the comic, it would be great. That was the challenge that motivated us to make the book. It’s like, “Ah, if we can make a comic that dense and that fluid and that seductive, that’s a challenge worth taking.” Ultimately, that’s why we chose to do the book. The story itself also carries two things that we [were interested in]. It’s a tragedy, and we thought it would be a good challenge to work on that. And it shows a different Brazil than we are used to portraying and we are used to living in. That was a good thing, both for the Brazilian readers and also for international readers, to see a different part of Brazil.

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Two Brothers Interior Art by Garbiel Ba and Fabio Moon

Ba: It’s a very specific and different world. But as different and exotic and complex as it is, it’s also very relatable. Even though it takes place in the heart of the rainforest, that port town, it’s still a story about this family and one of the kids is sent away. The family itself, it’s a family of immigrants trying to build a life for themselves. All these things are very relatable: a story about relationships, a story about family, a story about being the outcast, about being rejected and how bonds sometimes can’t be mended if they’re broken. All that stuff is intriguing and complex, and if we could do that in a visual way—that could enhance those feelings. That was something that we were…

Moon: Excited!

Ba: Excited to spend four years making.

Paste: And had you ever adapted something from another medium before this?
Ba: A few years earlier we adapted a very short story from Machado de Assis.

Moon: Machado de Assis is the biggest Brazilian writer.

Ba: He was a writer at the turn of the 20th century, and he’s…the classic writer of Brazilian literature.

Moon: We adapted a very short story into a 60-page comic book. It [ended up being] a completely different work, because we could use all the text of the story [and] we could stretch it to tell it visually. We did it in four months. We did that in 2006. We didn’t think we would work on another adaptation, but [Two Brothers] was just too seductive and too good to turn away.

Paste: What was that process of adaptation like? How did you decide what to keep from the book and what to add of yourselves?
Moon: After reading and re-reading the book—the whole process of writing the script of the book took us two to three years, because we decided we had to make a layout of the pages where we [thumbnail] what’s going to be on the page, the storytelling, the panels and we decide what text was going there—either narration or dialogue. That’s a good process of writing the script, because after the script is done you have the whole story set in front of you. But it’s also a little more difficult than just writing.

Ba: It’s slower.

Moon: Yeah, it’s slower. Because you have to make all the decisions right there. What’s going in? What’s coming out? How are we going to set these panels on this page? What’s the angle? Everything.

Ba: There’s not a lot of re-writing when we’re writing a script, so before we started writing the script we had to read the book several times and work a lot of timelines and a list of characters, a list of places, list of trees, list of birds, list of everything, so we could understand the story intrinsically.

Moon: The way that the story is narrated [in the book], you don’t always know where the characters are when things are happening or…there are a lot of things that were told to the narrator, so we had to choose: were we going to show the things they’re talking about? Are we going to show someone talking to the narrator? Are we going to show the narrator? Whenever we wanted to show the narrator: is he going to be in the scene? He’s [narrating] something that he saw, he’s going to be in the scene or he’s going to be talking about it. All these visual decisions were one of the hardest parts of the work that was not in the book.

At the same time, we had to decide what our main theme was. What was the focus of the story? Who are the most important characters, [what are] their most important moments? All the things that would take the story sideways, we had to take away. So, different from creating an original story, like we usually do, the hardest part is choosing what’s coming out, what’s not going into the book. So we’re cutting the edges of the story to make our adaptation. That was the hardest part.

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Two Brothers Interior Art by Garbiel Ba and Fabio Moon

Paste: You mentioned being attracted to the book because it allowed you to depict a Brazil that’s different from other depictions, and different from even the Brazil that you live in. What do you think Brazil’s role was in making you the artists you both are today.
Moon: We could talk about that for hours. But mainly, we wouldn’t do the type of work we do if we weren’t here. If we weren’t in Brazil, if we weren’t in Sao Paulo…that completely shaped our interests and our approach to comics.

Ba: And also the books we’ve read. I think we have…magic. It’s like a little secret. Brazilian literature is not as well known, it hasn’t been widely translated into other languages, as opposed to Spanish language literature from South America. People are well aware of Magical Realism from Columbia or from Chile or from Argentina.

Moon: Or from Mexico.

Ba: Or from Mexico! But they don’t know Brazilian literature. And I think the types of stories we grew up reading inspired us to tell stories, and they were very much day-by-day, contemporary stories, urban stories, sometimes stories from the countryside, and that influenced the types of stories we’re interested in telling, and the way we structure the stories.

Moon: Also the comics that we used to read—the Brazilian comics that we grew up reading—influenced the types of stories we want to tell. It gives us this kind of edge, this…difference. We used to have a lot of European comics where we grew up, and then we read a lot of superheroes and everything else. But I think being in Brazil, the type of culture that we consumed when we were growing up helped shape the types of stories that we do, our interests, our point of view. But we don’t think [our stories] are local. They’re not going to be appreciated only here. We believe good stories are universal. They have deep influences in where they’re told, who is telling them, but they can carry messages that are universal.

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