Teenage cartoonist lampoons Brazil's elite

March 30, 2011

Like any Brazilian boy of 14, Joao Montanaro loves soccer and video games, graphic violence and all.

But he also reads the newspaper for two hours a day and leafs though magazines at the local kiosk, his eclectic tastes running from Mad magazine to Le Monde Diplomatique. Then there’s his never-ending doodling — on loose pieces of paper, in his sketchbook and, lately, at Folha, Brazil’s biggest daily newspaper.

Much to the surprise of Brazil’s political establishment and the loyal readers of the 90-year-old broadsheet, the ninth-grader is the newest member in the paper’s stable of irreverent cartoonists. Joao Montanaro, spindly teenager, has become the editorial cartoonist known simply as Joao M., which is how he signs the cartoons appearing on Folha de Sao Paulo’s editorial page every Saturday.

“Everybody draws when he’s a kid but stops,” said Joao, who is thin and tall and still very much a kid. “But I continue, and it’s natural for me to draw.”

At Folha de Sao Paulo, or the Sao Paulo Journal, tradition holds that politicians exist to be skewered, whether they are the regional bosses in Brazil’s outback or the wildly popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Speaking in workable English, Joao said that since he was old enough to understand Folha’s mission, he had been driven by the hope that he, too, could lampoon the powerful from the paper’s most important perch, the editorial page.

“I make comics, cartoons, comics strip, too, and I like political cartoons,” he said on a recent day in his studio in his parents’ house. “You can joke about somebody bigger than you, and I like this.”

In a sense, Joao’s arrival on this city’s scrappy media scene is not a surprise.

Brazilian journalists say political cartooning in their country has a rich, colorful history, its golden age coming during a 21-year military dictatorship, when the ambiguity of a cartoon could get a political message past censors in a way an article could not. Brazil is now a thriving democracy, but circulation has contracted dramatically at major newspapers, even at the once-mighty Folha, which sells about 300,000 copies daily.

Folha’s editors saw an opportunity to make a splash — and perhaps appeal to younger readers — by bringing on Joao, who at 12 had begun doing illustrations for the children’s version of the newspaper, Folhinha. In May, shortly after turning 14, he joined the paper’s battery of cartoonists, with his work displayed on the editorial page.

“We had the idea of calling him to the most important place of the newspaper,” Mario Kanno, Folha’s art director, said of the editorial page, “to show that papers are not only for old people. It has things for young people.”

Joao’s father, Mario Barbosa, said he has encouraged his son since he was barely 7 or 8. Back then, Joao would climb onto his father’s lap to leaf through books, some heavy with illustrations, others offering the works of Brazil’s best-known cartoonists.

Joao said that he was too young to understand the messages but that he was hooked by the artistry.

“It was just the images, because I don’t understand the ideas,” Joao said. “So I copied the drawings to learn how to draw.”

The naturally inquisitive Joao would later delve into the works of cartoonists and illustrators far from Brazil, including Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” and the commercial illustrator Jim Flora, whose edgy work is well known among advertising professionals in New York.

But Joao said what really inspired him most was the work of Brazilian political cartoonists, particularly Arnaldo Angeli Filho, perhaps the country’s most celebrated political cartoonist. “I say, ‘Oh, my God, I want to do that, too,’ ” Joao said, recalling a book of caricatures by Angeli and others.

Working from a small studio next to the kitchen in his family’s compact home, Joao veers from strips about the complexity of modern life in Brazil to satirical one-pane drawings about the tumult in the Middle East.

He sketched one particularly well-received cartoon last year, when Lula, who was president at the time, was being criticized for the amount of time he spent campaigning for Dilma Rousseff, his former chief of staff, ahead of presidential elections. In the cartoon, Lula’s tongue — with “Dilma” written on it — sticks out of his mouth, dwarfing his body.

In another, published just days ago after the earthquake in Japan, Joao took the famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s 19th-century print “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” and showed it tossing around houses and cars.

“For a 14-year-old,” said Kanno, the Folha art director, “it is very sophisticated.”

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