Rosa carries names like these as she struggles to make her way as a prostitute in one of Brazil’s poorest communities.
With striking illustrations, Primas opens a window to her world of sex and violence, friendship and family.
The graphic novel explores the question of personal decision versus victim of circumstance. Can sex work be a necessary career choice in an area that offers few other opportunities for women?
Artist and educator Alberto Pessoa creates a portrait of Rosa that is both tender and raw. His debut graphic novel Primas is based on field research and interviews conducted in partnership with sociologists at the Federal University of Paraíba.’
Written by/art by: Alberto Pessoa
Publisher: Stache Publishing
Released: October 18th 2017 (English version)
Heads up straight off – this is an adult comic. It being about prostitution should tell you that straight away, but just so that you know, this is a mature readers thing. I don’t often cover mature content stuff for review (though it has come up before), but a reality and research based story covering such an often-dismissed topic is too interesting to skip, and the bright emotionally-invested artwork looks a treat. It was originally published in Portuguese (Brazil’s official language thanks to European colonization, if you’re confused what Portuguese has to do with Brazilian sex workers) and in stark black-and-white, colour was added with the English translation.
The story itself isn’t a true story as such; it’s basically a conglomeration of various real experiences based on interviews, but turning it into a story narrative makes what might be thought of as dry academic data into something readers can sympathise with, and convey the kind of stories told in the research in an easily digestible way. That last point is a particularly important one, since the purpose is education; Pessoa is a professor who’s been using comics to help engage students for years, and this was created in accompaniment to his sociology research under Professor Lorely Garcia Ph.D. Their aim is to create an easy resource in helping communicate what life can be like for women who find themselves with few options for independence thanks to poverty and inequality.
The story itself follows Rosa, who’s left an abusive marriage but has few options for supporting herself and her mother, and follows a friend’s example of taking up with a local pimp as an option to provide income, independence, and the aphrodisiac of being desired. Things take a turn for the worse (after all, lack of respect for prostitutes, including violent assault, isn’t limited to areas of poverty or inequality), though it doesn’t end on a hopeless note. The events themselves aren’t overly dramatic (after all, this is a real person’s story, not conveniently invented) though told well and tensely, including a good old use of showing part of the climax at the start then going into how it all got to that point. Pessoa has some good storytelling sensibilities, which is excellent to see.
One of the interesting aspects was leaving a lot of the slang intact rather than trying to translate it to its closest English equivalent, both as a tie to the place it’s set and since ‘closest equivalent’ sometimes isn’t very equivalent after all. You can gather from the context what the Portuguese slang means, and luckily in amongst the extra content at the end the meanings are explained, but I wish the definitions had been supplied at the start or as the words popped up (turns out ‘primas’ means female cousin but is coded slang for prostitute). The dialogue is actually pretty sparse, relying on Rosa’s narration largely instead, and it flows well. The stylised and graphic visuals suit the amount of narration, playing out as someone telling a story. It’s not wordy, but doesn’t need to be, as both Pessoa and translator Jordan Williams have done a good job keeping it simple and expressive.
Those visuals very deliberately keep a light touch; lots of brightly coloured silhouettes and figures, whole pages of blackness with a single simple scene, keeping it emotional and focused on what you’re being told with no risk of getting lost in details. The intent isn’t realism after all, but very specifically accompanying the story – Pessoa said he deliberately used things like neon and unnatural colours in areas like the opening panels to convey emotion. Switches between imaginative bright blue, green, and pink highlighting people, and more realistic coloured scenes aren’t jarring; the scenes that aren’t in neons still use simple flat colours to complement the angular and looping stylised artwork. Environmental details show up when needed, but the focus is very much on the people, friends and strangers alike. I haven’t seen anything else of Pessoa’s work, so I’m not sure if this is a standard style for him; it is interesting to read his influences for the artwork though. The simple style, strongly contrasting colours and lots of solid black backgrounds won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s a great example of the diversity of comic art, and how to focus the visuals on what you want people to see and feel.
The extra content in this edition included an introduction from the author, an extended creator profile piece by translator Williams (who is also one of the publisher founders), and a piece by another of the publisher people (Anthony Mathenia) about his connection with the work when preparing it for English publication. There are also some ‘Picturing Paraiba’ comparison shots showing how some photos of the area inspired certain setting shots. It makes me give a little side-eye to see something so important in portraying some of the circumstances and situations unique to women being completely done by men, who are often given far more opportunity to create and publish important works, so I’m glad that it is made clear more than once that it was done with the help of Dr. Lorely Garcia of the Federal University of Paraiba as head researcher when Pessoa was working on it. I would have very much liked to see more on how to access the work that the comic is based on, to compare and just to find out more on what it’s trying to educate readers on. For example, rather than be able to look up a link or named study in the comic’s introduction, I had to look up Professor Garcia’s work to find out about her 2014 publication Pitfalls of Desire: A Study About Rural and Indigenous Juvenile Prostitution in the Northeast Of Brazil, which must have shared some of the same research as Primas at least. My other annoyance is that while it shows the often struggling conditions that surround prostitution in these areas, it gives no hint or option for doing anything about it. If I wanted to help women in the area, is there a charity I could donate to? Could the comics publishing have been done in conjunction with a local charity or service receiving a certain portion of the profits? Some sort of assertive action being done or promoted would have been nice rather than just showing us the story and then leaving it.
Anyway, I do recommend it for its educational factor, its evocative colours and individual artwork, scenes sensual and scary, and a slice of Brazil. Like I said, it definitely won’t suit everyone, but definitely have a look.
Thanks to Comixology.com for providing this edition of ‘Primas’ for review.