Perspectives in Health - The magazine of the Pan American Health Organization
Volume 9, Number 1, 2004
Cover of the magazine
 Photo of Mauricio de Sousa with the gang
Mauricio de Sousa has been called the "Walt Disney of Brazil." But his mission is more than entertainment.His wildly popular "Monica" cartoons are also the perfect vehicle for conveying positive messages about health and life. Photo ©Richard Morgan

Toon in to Monica!

At an inch-and-a-half tall, "Monica" may be the smallest celebrity in South America's largest country. She is also among the world's best-known and best-loved Brazilians.

In March, her new cartoon series earned top ratings on Italian children's television. Her comic books have been among Brazil's top 11 children's titles for the past four decades, and today they are published in 40 countries in 14 languages, including Greek and Javanese. In the next two years, a feature-length movie starring Monica and her gang of friends might even make its way to a theater near you.

The perky, rabbit-toting 7-year-old is the creation of Brazilian cartoonist Mauricio de Sousa, whose artistry and business success have led some to call him the "Walt Disney of Brazil." With a team of 150 artists, Mauricio (as he is known) has built a cartoon empire that boasts a 75 percent share of the children's publishing market in Brazil, with 1 billion comics and books sold to date. Mauricio de Sousa Productions publishes storybooks, activity books, giant and mini comics, and sticker albums; produces television programs and animated films; and owns two theme parks. Monica and her neighborhood friends are just a handful of the 200 or so Mauricio characters used in some 3,500 licensed products manufactured by 150 companies throughout Brazil.

But Mauricio's considerable talent and entrepreneurial drive are matched by a strong social conscience. The cartoonist uses his favorite characters not only to entertain but also to teach. During the past 20 years, he has produced hundreds of "comics for a cause" on issues ranging from water and air pollution to hygiene, infant care, heart disease and smoking. For the Pan American Health Organization's annual World Health Day campaigns in 2003 and 2004, he produced special comic books on healthy environments for children and traffic safety. In April, "Monica's Gang" appeared in a special PAHO comic book for the 2004 Vaccination Week in the Americas. Mauricio's characters have also appeared in public service announcements aired globally as part of campaigns to fight drugs, combat dengue fever, and promote healthy motherhood.

For his work in communicating public health messages to children and adults, PAHO honored Mauricio as a "Champion of Health of the Americas" in 2003.

 Monica and her rabbit

Mauricio's fictional brainchild was inspired by his second daughter, Monica, who today serves as his company's licensing director. The fictional Monica first appeared in 1963 in a newspaper cartoon strip based on the little-boy character Cebolinha, or "chive" in Portuguese. Monica quickly stole the scene, however, as the feisty, independent gang leader who defends her role against competing neighborhood boys. Monica's sidekicks include (in the English version) Jimmy Five (who pronounces his r's as w's), Smudge (Jimmy's bath-hating accomplice), and Maggy (Monica's sweet-tempered and sweet-toothed best friend).

Other Mauricio creations include Chuck Billy 'n Folks, a likeable bunch of country bumpkins; Tina and Pals, who live out the ups and downs of adolescence; and Horacio, an orphaned dinosaur who searches for answers to life's hardest questions (and who may be Mauricio's alter ego).

An enthusiastic environmentalist, Mauricio has also created two other comics series, "Lionel's Kingdom" and "The Amazonics," in which rainforest animals live in harmony with their environment and fend off threats to their well-being from the outside. "If children learn to love the rainforest animals now, in the future they will protect them," says Mauricio.

In all his work, Mauricio draws on his experience as the father of 10 children and his strong beliefs about the responsibilities of parenting. He believes children are "a carbon copy of their parents' behavior," so "it's up to the parents to be role models, an example and a reference for their kids," he says. "Parents have to show children the path to being a decent person, by guiding them but also respecting their independence and creativity. You have to pay attention to kids, learn what they're interested in and provide all the tools they'll need to grow intellectually and become self-confident, well-adjusted and happy human beings."

Childish attraction

Like most children, Mauricio was drawn to cartoons as a child. The difference was in the intensity of his attraction. "I think the spark came with the very first comic book that fell into my hands. It had adventure stories, funny stories, colored pages. It was fascinating!" he recalls.

"I remember the emotion of the discovery of each text, story, theme, illustration... they came like an avalanche," he says. "When asked which character I liked best, I would say, ‘All of them!'" Before learning to read, Mauricio simply tried to guess the story lines. "When I couldn't, I would get my mother to explain the mystery of the letters that filled the little balloons." His mother helped him learn to read in part out of self-interest. "With many tasks to attend to, she set about teaching me my a-b-c's very quickly. That way, I would be able to understand the stories by myself. And she would have more time for herself."

Mauricio was a voracious reader from early childhood through his teens. Among his favorite materials were the tabloid-size pages of a special children's supplement in O Globo, one of Brazil's largest newspapers, and later "Gibi," the country's most successful comic book series before Monica's Gang. Everything the artist read became "templates" for what would become "my whole gallery of characters," he says. Among the characters he grew up admiring he lists Al Capp's Li'l Abner, Vincent Hamlin's Alley Oop, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, and Popeye, with his "peculiar little stories."

Yet Mauricio's career path from child enthusiast to cartoon tycoon was hardly straight and narrow. His first paid job was as a crime reporter.

"When I went to the Folha de São Paulo, [a leading Brazilian newspaper] I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I couldn't find a job," he says. "One of the journalists felt sorry for me, because he could see my desperation, and said, ‘Why don't you start here doing something else while you perfect your sketches? Make connections with people who can evaluate how good you are.'" The only position open was for a crime reporter, a job Mauricio accepted even though the sight of blood made him faint, he says. "I think I was the only crime reporter that couldn't stand to see a corpse! I would ask the photographer to describe what the victim looked like."

The experience was invaluable in teaching Mauricio to write in a straightforward manner.

 Part of a comic strip

"People would say ‘cut this, cut that,'" he recalls, making him pare copy down to the essentials of who, what, when, where, how and why. The ability to write concisely would later enhance his skills as a cartoonist, "because in [comic strip] balloons, the less you write, the better." He also became convinced of the importance of "the verb." "Wonderful drawings without a good story don't survive," he says. "My cartoons are usually content with a format, not the other way around."

Mauricio's success would depend on more than producing engaging characters and stories, however. It also required marketing skills. His father, an artist who worked as a barber, had always stressed to his son the importance of validating one's work as an artist. While Mauricio was still in high school, his father persuaded his friend Bruno Castiglioni, a successful painter, to mentor his son in the art of selling his work.

"I used to go out with Bruno and tried to learn what he was like, and sold my drawings. I always had this concern about managing my work well," says Mauricio.

But the most important artistic in-fluence in Mauricio's life was apparently his much-loved grandmother, Vo Dita, who lived to 101. "She was the best storyteller I've ever known," says Mauricio. Though illiterate, Grandma Dita shared with her four grandchildren a rich repertoire of Brazilian and European folk tales, Bible stories, aboriginal legends and—best of all, says Mauricio—ghost stories that "put fear into us all."

Mauricio recalls her keen narrative talents: "a perfect sense of rhythm in the narratives, her choice of the most varied themes, her exact notion of the moment and the atmosphere for the endings." Mauricio inherited more from Grandma Dita than her talent for storytelling. He recalls being strongly impressed by his grandmother's recollections of her own childhood on the family farm, where she spent her days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and working in the fields, but never attending school. Only late in the afternoons would she have time for a swim in the river or to play with her homemade corn-cob dolls.

Compared with his own childhood, Grandma Dita's seemed like no childhood at all. As an adult, Mauricio decided to make "the right to be a child" one of his causes. He's still waging the battle: "In the Amazon and other remote areas, there are still children living in the same dreadful conditions," he says.

A love of storytelling and an appreciation of childhood joy and simplicity have shaped Mauricio's medium as well as his artistic philosophy, which favors "universal images of joy and communication," he says. In turn, these make his comics—with their simple, direct and humorous language—a natural vehicle for communicating messages about social issues in a straightforward and positive way.

 Monica and her rabbit

From the child's right to childhood, Mauricio has expanded his list of causes to include a range of issues in health, education, culture and the environment. In addition to PAHO, he has worked on public service campaigns with organizations including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the American Heart Association, and Brazil's ministries of health, education, and transport.

To better manage this growing public service agenda, in 1997 the cartoonist founded the Mauricio de Sousa Cultural Institute, whose mandate is to develop social action campaigns that translate serious subjects into a comic book format to appeal to both young and adult readers.

One of the more audacious of these efforts was a May 2002 campaign to restore protections for the Brazilian Amazon. In a series of comic strips, on the award-winning Monica website (www.monica4kids.com), and in press interviews, Mauricio criticized Brazil's legislature for weakening environmental laws designed to prevent the Amazon's destruction.

"All of our happy gang is sad and, starting today, will be wearing black clothes as a sign of mourning, a sign of protest," he wrote in a press release and on his website. "All because some of our politicians in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, have decided to change some laws that still somewhat protect our tropical rainforests, our woods, our green areas, our rivers." Four days later, Brazilian legislators voted to rescind the changes.

Monica goes to the movies
Technology has come a long way since Mauricio de Sousa began his drawing career, and the artist-entrepreneur is not one to let opportunity pass him by... [Read more]

In support of a UNICEF campaign to promote the rights of children and adolescents, Mauricio produced 26 million copies of Monica's Gang comics dedicated to children's rights to freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, health care and public education, among others. The comics also emphasized adults' responsibility for ensuring respect for these rights.

In support of a UNICEF campaign to promote the rights of children and adolescents, Mauricio produced 26 million copies of Monica's Gang comics dedicated to children's rights to freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, health care and public education, among others. The comics also emphasized adults' responsibility for ensuring respect for these rights.

Mauricio's public service work has earned him both domestic and international recognition. Among the honors he has received are a Brazilian presidential medal of honor for his promotion of human rights; an honorary doctorate in public service from La Roche College of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Brazilian International Press Association. He also serves on the board of directors of La Roche College's Pacem in Terris Institute, which awards U.S. scholarships to students from countries torn by war or political unrest.

Behind all this work—both for-profit and pro bono—is what Mauricio describes as his "trust in the future and in people, beyond all social, ideological and geographical barriers." "We all want to give our children a better world, give them opportunities to achieve their dreams," he says. "For this, we also have to teach them to love and respect each other."

Clare Davidson is a freelance journalist living in São Paulo, Brazil.


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