Alberto Pessoa settles into a booth at Pão com Gergelim, a local burger joint on the eastern coast of the large Brazilian city of João Pessoa. The whitewashed brick walls are decorated with American rock ’n’ roll memorabilia dimly lit from the freely hanging light bulbs. The clean, crisp design of the eatery captures the atmosphere of popular hangouts in the American communities. The menu mirrors the theme, with burgers named after rock icons: Hendrix, Bowie, Jagger, Joplin, Elvis. Alberto orders his usual, the Cobain.
“I consider João Pessoa a great place to study, work, and live,” explains Pessoa. “The city has a great global cultural scene and there is a high quality of life here. The air is pure and it is one of the most wooded metropolitan areas of the world. The amazing beaches here make me feel like it’s summer all year long. I love living here.”
As an artist, Pessoa takes advantage of the picturesque scenery of this South American city. “I really enjoy walking, at least an hour per day, as exercise and a time to think about new ideas,” Pessoa says. “I walk on the beach and the sounds of the water, the sand, and the coconuts inspire me.” He also finds inspiration in the pages of books in his local library. “I read digital books a lot, but I prefer to hold physical books. I drink a cup of coffee while I read books and look at illustrations. It´s a quiet moment that I try to bring to my life, day by day.”
Pessoa has spent a large part of his life furthering his education and knowledge of the world, and has built up quite an impressive resume in the academic world. He received his art education bachelor’s degree from Faculdade de Artes Alcântara Machado, his master’s degree in Art Education at UNESP, his doctorate degree in linguistics from Mackenzie University, and pursued two postdoctoral studies at the Universidade Federal da Paraíba: one in sociology and one in education. Pessoa also studied art and graphic design at Impacto Studios and Quanta Academia de Artes under professors who had worked with major comics publishers, such as Marvel and DC.
Now, Pessoa passes that education on to the scholars of the future. He teaches at the Digital Media Institute at the Universidade Federal da Paraíba, where he instructs in graphic design, infographics, and digital illustration. He is also spending his time at the university doing developmental research on comics within the educational system.
“The act of teaching and publishing a graphic novel has a similar effect, in my opinion,” Pessoa states. “Both can influence a person and transform his life. When I was a kid, I discovered comics and thought ‘okay, I can do that!’” At only eight years old, Pessoa created his first fan comic book, Snake Eyes, using the popular G.I. Joe ninja. He went on to create other fan comics using other established characters like Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky.
“When I was a teenager, I thought that comics were just superheroes, manga, or cartoons. It discouraged me because my art style didn’t fit the type of comics that I knew. I thought that I would never work with comics professionally, but my teacher made me believe in my dream of making comics. His hard work and advice encouraged me to work hard to discover my own creative writing style and narrative. Now, I see similar results with my students during my thirteen years as a teacher at my university.”
As an adult, Pessoa’s first professional publication was a short story in an anthology called Front. His first solo book was a 2013 short horror collection called Medo! (Portuguese for fear). “My major influences in art style are the artists Marcelo Campos, Flávio Colin, and Mike Mignola. I don’t have specific comics that I prefer, but I can say that my narrative is very influenced by the Italian comics.”
While Alberto enjoyed creating comics, he realized that his true passion as an educator was using comics to teach and communicate. “I started using comics in education when I heard of the American graphic novelist and teacher Gene Yang in 2002,” Pessoa recalls. “He was the first guy that I read something about comics in education and I sent him an e-mail explaining my interest in using comics in education and research. Gene was a gentleman and helped me a lot. I lived in São Paulo and he was in Pittsburgh at the time. I started using his methods in schools with students 10–16 years old until 2007, when I moved on to work with students in universities.”
Pessoa talks about the reactions he receives from students regarding his comic book based teaching style. “Their reaction is the best! Brazil has a lot of comic fans and is one of the top five countries in the world when it comes to comic readers. I have had great results using comics to explain graphic design, infographics, desktop publishing, and art. The students like the classes and I always have the opportunity to teach a talent that can produce comics. It’s amazing. The key of good teaching is to prepare the student to learn something. Comics and textbooks use different kinds of languages, but they complement each other in the educational process. The benefit of comics is the fact that people really enjoy comics and most consider them easy to read. The educational result depends on the quality of the comic book and strategy of the teacher.”
When his day of teaching at the university is over, Pessoa doesn’t leave the comic books at school. “I read comics every day,” he says. “I believe in comics as a means of communication, introspection, and education for readers of any age. I read all the kinds of comics published in Brazil along with American comics, fumetti (Italian comics), and manga (Japanese comics). As a creator, it’s great to read these works to understand the different languages, artistic styles, creative writing, and narratives.”
Pessoa’s first graphic novel is Primas, which takes a sincere and thoughtful look into prostitution as one of the only choices for women living in poor areas of northwest Brazil. The book is based on real narratives that Pessoa has scripted into the fictional story of Rosa, a woman who lives in a poor area called Paraíba.
“Rosa has few choices of work and gaining money,” he explains. “She also hates the idea of submitting in a relationship and she thinks that prostitution can give her money and independence. Her choice, however, ended up having consequences she wasn’t ready for, and I try to show this in my graphic novel.”
The real-life testimonies and interviews used to create Primas came from sociology researcher Loreley Garcia, PhD, who was a colleague of Pessoa’s during his postdoctoral studies. “She has a wonderful job where she travels to these places, holds interviews with women, takes photos and videos, and collects data,” Pessoa says. “My job was different in this aspect. I had to select the information, form the best narratives, create a story based in real facts and write with my own focus; that is using comics for educational purposes. Primas is a graphic novel made by someone who has dedicated all his life to learn how to express ideas with comics.”
“I think American readers will enjoy Primas. I understand that the graphic novel talks about a people and culture that they may not be familiar with, but the human condition is a universal theme,” Pessoa stresses. “Primas tackles a subject that many don’t openly talk about, but it’s the truth. And I think that authors need to work with themes like that. Creators like Chester Brown talked about prostitution and opened up great discussion with their works. I believe that Primas can contribute to this as well. It is one thing is create a comic book with superheroes and talk about prostitution, but it’s another thing to bring stories that most people don’t have access to in mainstream society and open up that discussion. That’s our mission as creators.”
Alberto Pessoa’s original graphic novel Primas is now available on Kickstarter.