Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Two Brothers. Adapted by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (Casanova, Daytripper) from Milton Hatoum’s novel The Brothers, this graphic novel is a riveting exploration of family dysfunction, rendered with stunning black-and-white artwork that places extra emphasis on the environment. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
From the front cover to the final page, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s new Dark Horse Comics graphic novel Two Brothers is focused on contrast. As the cover illustrates, twins Omar and Yaqub are positioned as two halves of the same whole: the former a spoiled, sensual, drunken lout; the latter a neglected, shy, sophisticated engineer. As children, Yaqub is physically and emotionally scarred by a jealous attack from his brother, giving him the mark on his left cheek that is, at first, the main thing that differentiates the two twins on the surface. To protect him from the wrath of Omar, who lives a carefree, privileged life with his parents in Manaus, Brazil, the young Yaqub is sent away to live with relatives in Lebanon, prematurely ending his childhood and forcing him to mature in a way his brother never has to. These different paths lead to diametrically opposed personalities, and despite their mother’s dying wish, the two brothers never make peace after years at war.
That last bit isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the book’s prologue, immediately establishing that these two contrasts never find a way to put their differences aside. Adapted from Milton Hatoum’s 2000 novel, The Brothers, the story doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure, jumping through time and shifting the character spotlight to create a comprehensive portrait of one family’s history over 50-plus years. After the prologue, the plot jumps back in time to show Yaqub’s return from Lebanon, then jumps back even further to reveal the act of violence that tears the brothers apart. Determined to be everything his brother is not, Yaqub dedicates himself to his education and moves away from Manaus to pursue his career. After his departure, the story jumps back in time again to show the meeting of the twins’ parents, Halim and Zana, and their journey from Lebanon to Brazil. The past, present, and future are all intertwined in Hatoum’s narrative, and that structure makes for an incredibly rich read.
Adapting Hatoum’s dense novel is an ambitious endeavor for Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, but their passion for the source material and immense skill as visual storytellers result in a graphic novel overflowing with beauty and emotion. Hiring Brazilian twin-brother cartoonists to adapt a work about Brazilian twin brothers written by one of Brazil’s premier writers is an inspired decision by the graphic novel’s Brazilian publisher Companhia Das Letras. That personal connection compels Moon and Bá to bring as much detail as possible to the book’s complex family relationships and exotic setting. They preserve much of Hatoum’s original narration to maintain the lyricism of the novel, but they also take full opportunity of the comic-book medium to flesh out environments and characterizations without text. The pacing is impeccable, and the brothers have a firm understanding of when to incorporate passages from the novel and when to let the artwork do the talking.
Before getting to the first line of Hatoum’s novel, Moon and Bá offer a four-page tour of Manaus to pull the reader into the city that Zana is preparing to leave. As engaging as the character drama is, the immersive setting is the major selling point of Two Brothers, and that opening sequence cements a sense of place as the creative team’s top priority. It wants the reader to feel like a part of this world, and that initial tour of a completely empty city makes the reader the only person in Manaus at the start of the story, forming a connection with the environment before a connection with the characters.
The abandoned streets give the prologue a lonely, somber atmosphere appropriate for Zana’s mental state, but the tone changes dramatically once the story jumps back in time, a shift reflected in the environment. There’s an influx of cheerful optimism when Yaqub is greeted by his father upon his return to Brazil, and the bustling, overcrowded streets of Rio De Janeiro heighten this joy as waves of people celebrate their reunions with loved ones pulling into port. From the architecture and vehicles to the foliage and wildlife, every element of each environment is meticulously researched, and that specificity of setting is essential to the cartoonists’ vision of Hatoum’s work.
With contrast at the center of the story, it’s fitting that Two Brothers is presented in stark black-and-white, and the chiaroscuro of Gabriel Bá’s artwork heightens tension on the page with thick, angular shadows. (Bá is not specifically credited as the book’s artist because he collaborates with his brother on the planning process to make the final artwork a product of both imaginations, but his visual sensibility is definitely in charge.) Shifting the balance of light and dark makes significant changes to the atmosphere of a panel, and the zigzag edges of Bá’s shadows gives them a dynamic quality that brings vitality to these high-contrast images.
When Halim goes to Zana’s father’s restaurant to profess his love for her, he stands in front of a wall covered in zigzag shadows that amplify the drama of his entrance, and in the ensuing panels, these zigzags are used to signify a spark of knowledge as Zana and her father realize what Halim is doing. Later, the zigzags create a sweeping sense of motion when dancers take the floor at Zana’s birthday party, creating more animated characters through the smart use of contrast. The zigzag shadows are a big part of Bá’s signature style, which has a looser, more figurative approach than his brother’s artwork. While still remarkably detailed, Bá’s linework isn’t overly fussy, and the cartoonish quality of his characters amplifies their expressions and movements.
Moon and Bá’s talent for dramatic composition and nuanced emotion allows them to realize the full scope of Hatoum’s novel while interpreting it through their own distinct artistic sensibility, giving readers a deeply poignant story that is elevated by the phenomenal visuals. The tale of Omar and Yaqub’s dysfunctional family is the gateway to a lush world that is brimming with energy and atmosphere. The attention given to the environment engrosses the reader in the narrative, replacing the novel’s descriptive text with highly evocative images of city streets and natural landscapes. The creative team’s appreciation for their home country shines through in their work, and they ease their audience into the heart-wrenching narrative by highlighting the splendor of Brazil. That beauty doesn’t fade as the family dynamics get uglier, introducing a contrast between visuals and narrative that isn’t possible in prose.