New Global Voices: Obrigado Futebol

Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with  comic creators whose work I find interesting, unusual or exemplary of larger trends in the evolution of global graphic storytelling.

Over the summer I received a mysterious note on the Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture Facebook wall, expressing interest in my global perspective and suggesting I check out a new Brazilian webcomic called Obrigado Futebol. The strip was billed as an exploration of the social meaning of futebol (soccer), Brazil’s national obsession, and its inspiring effect on three kids who eventually become superstar players. The writer goes by the name “Wai of the Wave,” with art by Giulio Mariotti.

I clicked over to the site with few expectations. The first strip, “The Story of Little Ant,” had been posted in June, 2012. It tells the story of a kid from the favelas (slums) of Rio, from the tragic and heartbreaking circumstances of his birth and upbringing to his efforts to find escape through mastery of the soccer ball. The painterly almost folk art style, highly unusual for a comic, is detailed, compelling and extremely effective. The storytelling is confident, mature and sophisticated. It is emotional without being melodramatic. Sports comics as a genre in North America are typically nothing special, but Obrigado Futebol’s approach to the potentially corny “futebol as salvation” theme deftly skirts platitudes and stereotypes.

The complete “Story of Little Ant” is currently available in English, with plans for Japanese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Chinese versions announced on the site. Because it’s on the web, it’s instantly available to a global audience. Several other chapters in the story are announced but not yet posted (as of September, 2012).

Obrigado Futebol is as serious, ambitious and accomplished a work of graphic fiction as you’d find published anywhere in the world, telling a story that could only come from Brazil. The art is an intriguing synthesis of global and local styles. The story represents a voice and perspective that readers in North America and elsewhere might not ever hear, but it’s finding an audience through self-publication and digital distribution.

In short, it represents everything about the optimistic “Expanding Multiverse” scenario from Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, in combination with the spirit of Millennial entrepreneurship in the emerging world that I wrote about in my previous book, Young World Rising. Seeing it gave me the idea to pursue similar stories from new global voices in comics – those taking advantage of the the spread of digital technology and the new self-publishing business models that it makes possible to reach a worldwide audience with innovative graphic fiction.

I reached out to “Wai” for more information about his project. Here are his responses to my questions.

ROB: Hi, Wai, thanks for taking time to chat. I’d like to begin by asking you to briefly describe the concept of Obrigado Futebol. Who are the characters, who is the audience, what are you trying to achieve?

WAI: Obrigado Futebol is a Brasilian favela football story told through the lives of three street kids: Little Ant, Snake Bite and Fallen Angel, who through tragic circumstances are bonded together by their extraordinary football abilities. We follow them as they struggle to survive on the streets of hell on earth, Rio de Janiero, whilst feeding their impossible dream of becoming professional football players.

The story begins with three preludes, exploring the back story of each kid’s difficult upbringing and their own unique football ability.

Our ultimate aim is just to tell the best we can our version of a Brasilian football rags-to-riches tale. Our passion has always been football, art, history, traditions and mechanisms of the human spirit, so this is the result of all our experiences, our tribute.

The audience naturally is football fans, however our biggest challenge and aim is to capture the imagination of masses who are not yet interested, by showing them many facets of the “beautiful game” and intertwining that with a powerful engaging story.

ROB: Can you give a brief history of the project? How did you decide to start it, what were the major steps so far?

WAI: WoW! I started waaaaaaaaay back in 1997, age 17, almost 15 years ago, and as crazy as it sounds, I had an epiphany and the story just appeared to me. Everything I knew up until then just all came together: films, cartoons, video games, stories I read and was told, life experiences, my love for football. Something just clicked. You know that feeling when you know something is undeniably true and right? That’s the flow I tapped into and I have been riding that wave ever since connecting the dots.

2007, 10 years had passed, and I had created an epic football dynasty, immersed in a Brasilian football world I had created decades of the story spanning a lifetime. Even more than that, it had become my alternative reality, an escape from the struggles in my real life which related directly to the kids in my story. By now Obrigado Futebol was just my nature, my life, my world.

The kids felt like my children, my close family, and it was impossible not to feel emotionally attached to them. I cried a lot and spent many years wrestling with many plot lines, every inevitable dangerous scenario these kids faced, I felt responsible for their outcome. This led to many conflicts and stop-start on the project.

Up until 2008, the Obrigado Futebol world only existed in my mind and on paper. But fate continued to unveil itself. It wasn’t until I re-connected with an old friend, Giulio Mariotti that suddenly the chance of transforming the Obrigado Futebol world became a reality. Giulio was a student studying in an art academy in Venice and had never worked on a comic or in any professional capacity before. Something he had drawn five years earlier just stuck in my mind and he just fell into my life at the right time. Giulio gave Obrigado Futebol its physical body, pencil, ink, design and color. His work is nothing short of breathtaking. He is a gem of an artist!

We successfully launched company along with the first comic “The story of Little Ant” in June 2012.

ROB: Who is involved? Do you have partners, supporters, etc?

WAI: We are currently just a crew of two, me and Giulio, who do almost everything, with great friends helping along the way with design aspects and web programming.

We started to post on Facebook and Twitter we had many positive response worldwide. Famous football players Solomon Kalou and David James have re-tweeted our comic and Legendary Dutch footballer Edgar Davids tweeted his appreciation for “The story of Little Ant”! (Edgar Davids is the epitome of a the “street ball style” and originally from Surinam, next to Brazil)

It is very early days for us and a small project, but we would love to partner and work with other producers, writers, directors and artists in the near future.

ROB: How do you plan to make money on this, or is it a labor of love?

WAI: It’s a free webcomic so we fund it ourselves and do it with a lot of patience, care and love. We would love maybe to do this for a living one day and make some money, but we are happy with our work lives and we can produce these comics in an effortless way, while balancing hectic life styles. Again it’s first and foremost an escape for us, a way of life and sharing it with the world is where true wealth lies.

ROB: What’s happening now? What is your plan going forward?

WAI: We are currently finishing the final pages to our footballing masterpiece, the second comic and prelude: “The Story of Snake Bite” and begin working on the third and final prelude “The Story of Fallen Angel.”

We hope one day Obrigado Futebol can become a popular series and we would like to set up charity project for street kids in the world’s poorest countries. However, right now we are just content to enjoy the process of producing the comics and continue telling an incredible sports story!

ROB: Brazil has a unique relationship with futebol/soccer. How are you exploring that theme, and how is your comic tied in to Brazilian culture?

WAI: Brasil has a rich history, a fascinating melting pot, blend of different cultures, however when it comes to football, its obsessions is unparalleled, literally engrained in the country’s DNA. Brasil has produced history’s most famous and legendary football players, or in some circles known as artists or poets. “Ginga” is Brasilian rhythm and movement that forms the base of their unique “samba football” mentality. Music and movement plays an essential role in our comic and we try to depict their influence within the football. With the extreme divide between rich and poor in Brasil, the climate was already emotionally charged for deep stories about raw human desires… Naturally this was the ideal place to set our story.

ROB: The art style of the first online strip is quite beautiful and unique. What are some of the inspirations for the art?

WAI: Our influences combined is a mash up of World cinema, video games, art history and modern, nature, mathematics, Japanese manga, European comics especially [Milo] Manara and Brasilian culture.

ROB: Will the other stories have different artists and different art styles?

WAI: “The Story of Snake Bite part 1″ is a tragic tale of the beginnings of “Brasil’s nightmare child,” a street orphan thrown in the trash as a child, constantly escaping death, exploited and neglected. In complete contrast to “The Story of Little Ant,” we chose to make this story in black and white to best reflect the darker environment and themes involved, and also because it’s a flashback.

We try to change the style of each page depending on how best to reflect the mood and the message we are trying to convey. Sometimes we will take on a traditional comic book structure with just basic frames, but if necessary we will then switch it up to beautiful art poster pages. So yes it really depends on the flow, and space, environment, page by page. We have a lot of freedom of what we create and we have taken many chances to create something fresh.

ROB: “The story of Little Ant” is set in very realistic scenes of poverty and is very emotionally violent, but at the same time spiritually uplifting. What are your main goals with this approach?

WAI: Sport has always been a champion of the human spirit and we try our best to convey this message in “Obrigado Futebol” through our experiences with football. Sport stories are always great because we empathize with the hardships, sacrifices and share in the feeling of union, hope and glory.

ROB: You say these stories are fictional, but are they based on any real people or experiences? Do you or the other creators come from background similar to those of your characters?

WAI: I have tried to enrich the story with my own experiences and in many ways I can trace everything back to real life characters and experiences in my life. My parents were poor immigrants born during wars and brought up in slums like the favelas. So our house and lives were filled with tales of third world hardship, our wealth was in escapism, hope and dreams. Both parents worked hard, 14 hour days and often were not at home, so as children we were pretty much street urchins, wandering the streets looking for excitement and things to do. Playing football everywhere, with anything we could kick (bottle tops, cans, paper bags). It was the key to connecting with the street kids in our comic and maybe they are based on my own friends! Our own parents tales of poverty and their hell growing up naturally bleed into the setting and emotional framework.

ROB: By doing your strip as a digital comic, you are immediately reaching a global audience, and not just people in Brazil. Does that affect your creative approach in any way?

WAI:  We never really thought about it. We just do what we comes natural to us and our approach is quite a “free” process so you never know what comes next. It can quickly switch from a drama to a dream. That’s key for us and I hope the readers can appreciate it. So far we have nothing but great feedback from readers worldwide.

ROB: Well you can add me to that list. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WAI: All we ask if you like is to share the story with everyone and thanks for reading!!!

Check out the Story of Little Ant at www.obrigadofutebol.com

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