Over the last decade, the comics made by Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon have run the gamut from surreal spy stories to contemplative takes on life and death to unorthodox superheroes. Sometimes, the two have collaborated on their own projects, including the collection de:Tales and the deeply moving Daytripper; they’ve also worked with writers like Matt Fraction, Gerard Way, and Michael Chabon. Their latest work, Two Brothers, is an adaptation of a novel by Milton Hatoum; as the title suggests, it focuses on two brothers over the course of several decades in the Brazilian city of Manaus. I talked with Bá and Moon about the project’s origins, the history of adapting fiction for comics, and more.
What first drew you to the novel that you adapted for this project?
Gabriel Bá: We were actually invited to do the adaptation by a Brazilian publisher. Both Fabio and I knew the author and the novel. We were all at this literary festival in Brazil, and the editor of the comic book imprint of the publisher had this spark. He came up with the idea of us adapting this novel, based on the fact that we are twin brothers and it’s a story about twin brothers.
As someone who’s also read Casanova, I was wondering if the sibling aspect of this had been intentional.
Bá: It wasn’t intentional on our part. It was on the part of the editor. We really liked the story; we liked how it was a complex, dense, tragic family drama that could present all of these possibilities of troublesome relationships between everybody in the family. And how we could explore that in comics, which was something where we didn’t see a lot of stories with that density, that complexity. The stream-of-consciousness type of narrative, and if we could nail that visually. All those challenges in the structure of the story were what really made us do it. Being twins was the intial spark; the editor saw it and thought, “Wouldn’t that be funny?”
What was the process like of translating the novel into comics form?
Bá: We read the novel several times to understand the story, trying to understand, between us, what we would keep, what we would leave out, and how we would tell the story. What we would focus on. We spent the first two years only working on the script, reading and re-reading, scratching things out, deciding what was going in and how it was going in. We did grids in this layout version of the story, so we were already deciding the images and the text at the same time. Afterwards, we had to draw it. We were doing image research throughout the whole time.
When we started working on the scripts, we made a trip to Manaus, the city where the story takes place, to get to know the city. Even though the story takes place in the past, and the city has changes, it’s one of the issues of the story, how this city doesn’t exist any more, how it has changed a lot. We went there, and for that, we talked to Milton Hatoum, the author. He gave us tips on places to look for, places that are still there, places that are not. He put us in touch with people in the city to help us walk around and get the most out of our visit.
We did a lot of research from history books and photos and over the internet. That helped us realize how much the city has changed. We saw the city now; the story talks about the city in the past. All of those pictures of the city helped us understand the changes that it went through while we were working on the script and understanding the changes of the family. The whole process took us four years.
Fábio Moon: We really had to deconstruct the novel and try to think visually about how we would tell the story and, at the same time, preserve the stuff that we liked from the original novel. The style of the writer and how he seduces the writer with words. We tried to keep that and add to that, how we could seduce the reader with images as well.
In terms of other graphic novels adapted from literary works Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass comes to mind. Were you looking at other examples like this for how to translate prose into comics?
Bá: We had read City of Glass before. When we were teenagers, there was this series of graphic novels adapting novels: Bill Sienkiewicz did Moby-Dick, and Kyle Baker did Cyrano de Bergerac. We had read several adaptations, some good, some bad.
Moon: Recently, there was Parker, by Darwyn Cooke.
Bá: Darwyn Cooke showed us how adaptations can really play into the strengths of being a comic book. In the same way that City of Glass had done that before. Our challenge was to try to do the same–to make it work as a good comic book for people who had never read the original, and at the same time, be as respectful and as demanding of our own work as we would if we were doing an original novel, so that people who had read the novel would also be pleased.
Did you know from the outset that you would be doing the comic in black and white, or was that something that you arrived at along the way?
Bá: At first, we thought that it would be in two colors or something like that. We knew that it wouldn’t be full color. We thought maybe we could use two colors to differentiate the two brothers, or the whole universe of each brother. But as the story developed, and as we worked on the script and everything, we realized black and white would be more striking. Black and white has a deeper poetic force to it. It demands more from the artist to represent reality, making more abstract decisions. And it demands more from the reader, who has to understand those images and translate them in their heads. We believe it brings a more personal, stronger, reading experience. And this poetic force fits with the story that we were telling and the way that we wanted to tell the story. So very early in the process of making this book, we decided that it would be in black and white.
You’ve been working on this over four years, so you’ve been working on different projects at the same time. Did your work on any of those help you with problems that you might have encountered with this book?
Moon: We learn something from every project. When we were in the beginning of the script, we were working on Casanova: Avarita; Bá was drawing that for Matt [Fraction]. And we were working on BPRD: Vampire. We were doing these three things at the beginning of working on the script. Definitely, having to work from somebody else’s scripts had us thinking about the mechanics of doing a comic. When we were doing Vampire, we were doing a lot of research to build the world where Simon goes out to hunt the vampire. That was very helpful in building the world that people would discover when they see Manaus in the story of Two Brothers.
Bá: Working on the other projects, especially Casanova, helped us understand how to tell the story a little faster. When you’re a cartoonist that writes and draws, you’re relying on your art to tell the story. It’s very common to use big panels and have very few things happening in each panel. On each page, you have four, five panels. In this story, like in Casanova and The Umbrella Academy, it’s a very dense story. Matt is telling a lot in every page. And he has characters saying a lot on every panel. So working on Casanova helped us understand that you can put a lot more information on each page, tell a lot more on each page, with the words and the images and how many panels you have. That’s helped us with our own stories–it helped us with Daytripper before, and it’s helped us on this one, for sure. It’s a very long story, and we had to make a lot of difficult decisions on how to tell this story, how to keep the rhythm of the story flowing, not getting it too slow or too fast. To balance everything.
I’ve been reading your work for a long time now–de:Tales was the first comic of yours that I read. How would you say that your work has evolved since then?
Moon: I think that it got deeper.
Bá: We’re telling longer stories, so we can go deeper.
Moon: I think we’re trying to find ways to develop everything more. We’re trying to find more ways to develop our art or be more expressive with the artwork, and build more complex visual worlds. And, at the same time, we’re trying to create or tell more complex stories, where it has more appealing, multi-layered characters.
Bá: We’re always looking for something that’s relevant, that we feel needs to be told. All those stories in de:Tales, they represented what was relevant for us at that time. Growing up, trying to figure out how to relate to other people, how you fit into this world, how you relate to work and your friends and relationships. These things evolve and change over time. We grow up and become more complex people and lead more complex lives. I think all of these reflect on the types of stories that we want to tell, even though they have the same core, which is human relations and relationships. But they’re getting complex–more complex, and deeper. And we can’t tell those short stories today.
Moon: It’s more difficult to tell the short stories. We spend a lot more time creating them; even the short stories, we want them to be multi-layered, more dense, more complex, and have more meaning.
Two Brothers makes significant use of narration, and in Daytripper, your main character is a writer. Is that something that you come back to: telling stories about people who are themselves telling stories?
Moon: If we had to choose, we would try to fight against that next time. We just want to tell stories that people can relate to and can reflect upon. We try to find characters who are good vessels to tell these types of stories. It’s not so much about the guy wanting to be a writer or the narrator also becoming a writer to tell the story that he saw, that was told to him. It’s about stories. It’s about how stories can take you somewhere else, and you experience something, and that causes a change inside of you, and you reflect on that. That is both the case in Daytripper and in Two Brothers. The stories that are told are not only about the people in the stories–they are also about the people who are hearing the stories, because it merges inside of everybody and makes them reflect about their own lives. It was our way to connect with the reader, to make the reader think and reflect, and to shake the reader a little bit.
Was there anything that you found in your research for this that didn’t work for this book but might show up in something down the line?
Bá: The forest.
Moon: We took a boat ride within the Amazon forest, and that was the beginning of something. We took hundreds and hundreds of photos of trees and the river and animals. It’s not really what this story was about. That’s such a different world; it’s a mysterious world, and someday we will find a way to put that into some other story.
Images courtesy of Gabriel Bá/Fábio Moon/Dark Horse