Henfil and the New Legion of the Undead



The relevance of Henfil's creative work, an exponent of engaged political humor

On the 5th of February, Henrique de Souza Filho, Henriquinho, Henfil (77-1944) would have turned 1988 years old from Ribeirão das Neves. An exponent of engaged political humor, one of the founders of the Workers' Party and one of the most imaginative and combative Brazilian artists of his time. Reappreciated in the middle of the 1960st century, Henfil's creative work in the 1970s, 1980s and XNUMXs is of persistent relevance.

It is a vigorous critical reference in the face of socioeconomic, political and cultural realities that continue to reproduce inequalities, exclusions and violations of human rights. In the dark court we are going through, I believe it is providential and encouraging to remember his insubmissive humor, ethical firmness and political commitment to democratic and popular causes. To cite a passage that dignifies him, it is enough to remember the tireless militancy during the exciting campaign for direct elections for President of the Republic, in 1984, when he launched the slogan that infected the country: direct now!

Without fearing risks and controversies, Henfil intervened in the battle of ideas with a deliberately questioning sense – of hegemonic conceptions, mentalities and practices. He didn't camouflage targets. He rejected impostures, discriminations and oppressions. He wanted to transform the world to rid it of injustices.

Leandro Konder accurately synthesized his legacy in journalism of resistance to the repressive regime installed with the military coup of 1964: “Henfil punished the violence of political repression during the dictatorship. And he railed against pervasive hypocrisy and dishonesty, ethical bias and cynicism. There was in his humor a constant appeal to revolt, to indignation. The conviction that no one has the right to stand still, without trying to do something to change what needs to be changed”.[1]

With a daring, corrosive and engaging style of humor, Henfil knew how to occupy the available tribunes, obstinately concerned with contesting the gears of domination and defending socializing alternatives. He discerned that, in a country where the oligopolistic concentration of the media prevails in the hands of a few private groups and family dynasties, all available spaces should be explored to reverberate citizenship claims and expand popular awareness.

That is why he has acted on several fronts: in the business media (Newspapers in Brazil, The Globe, The State of S. Paul, Folha de S. Paul, Correio da Manhã, O Dia, Sports Journal, Brasilia Newspaper, Journal of Mines, This is, Placar, The Cruiserthe, among others); on television (leaded the transgressive segment “TV Homem” on TV Globo within the program TV Woman and made electronic cartoons on Globo newspaper), in the opposition trade union press, in alternative media (Quibbler, Opinion); in cinema (scripted, directed and starred in the film Tanga - Was it in the New York Times?); at the theater (wrote the ravishing Henfil Magazine on the threshold of political openness); in the literature (it was bestseller with the books Henfil in China, Letters from mother and Diary of a Cucaracha); and in own successful publications (Fradim Magazine, Almanac dos Fradinhos). Not to mention newspapers from the United States and Canada, during the two years he lived in New York in an attempt to “make America”, but without giving up his critical and independent spirit, which proved impractical by the conservative standards of the American media.

At a time when the dictatorship's punitive thermometer recommended prudence, Henfil did not hesitate to state that “engagement is necessary”, arguing: “You can't keep talking about skis, tennis games or personal problems when people are literally dying of hunger. (...) Today I have all my antennas turned on for a work of transformation, in search of a more humane social structure”.[2]

He wasn't intimidated by the piles of cartoons and cartoons vetoed by police and business censorship, with the obvious intention of trying to silence him. Despite the frustration and nonconformity with the censorship fury, which made freedom of expression a dead letter, Henfil resisted producing as many other drawings, so that some would survive the nightmare of the bans. He did not back down when he lost jobs or suffered misunderstandings for taking positions that often placed him against established common sense or the consensus of the occasion. And, above all, he spoke truths to power through what he produced, based on analysis of the situation in continuous update (he drew or wrote with the radio and television on practically the whole day). “The real comedian is the one who makes people laugh against power and without its permission”, that was how he defined the clash with the dominant anti-popular and anti-national forces.[3]

If we reexamine the forcefulness of his creations, we realize that Henfil detested docile grace and wasn't content with superficial jabs. He mercilessly beat the bullshit converted into lucrative merchandise and disposable entertainment. During a debate at the 5th Salon of Humor in Piracicaba, São Paulo, in August 1978, he was categorical. “I think that whoever wants to make a joke to popularize the system should be a banker. It would get in the way less.”

He concluded with a now classic sentence, which exposes, at maximum voltage, the political-ideological foundation of his work: “The humor that counts for me is the one that punches the liver of those who oppress.”

It was combat humor, but still hilarious. The formula of Henphilan cartoons mixed cutting irony, provocative mockery, mockery and satire, translated into minimalist and calligraphic drawings, almost always with brief and incisive texts. He made you laugh and think, and vice versa: think and laugh again. For this, it explored a variety of themes that referred to the ills of everyday life in the country – from the high cost of living to precarious public transport, from unemployment to public insecurity, from inflation to the external debt, from environmental pollution to the International Monetary Fund, from traffic jams of traffic to the greed of the tycoons.

He came up with a gallery of characters of enormous empathy and popularity, among which the Fradinhos stood out (Baixinho, sadistic, perverse and anarchist; and Fulfilled, kind, pious and conservative). Henfil broke into the weekly Quibbler in issue 11 (5/12 to 9/1969/XNUMX), which featured a cover headline (“Os Fradinhos do Henfil in new and sensational thickened”) and an entire page dedicated to the unstoppable duo. One of the characteristic cartoons of the series: Fulfilled, hopeless, he threatens to throw himself off the roof of a building. Shorty barbarizes: “Jump in a spin! I love a spin jump!” With each cruelty, Shorty, unbelievably, smiled.

Zeferino, Graúna and Bode Orelana formed the phenomenal trio from the caatinga that symbolized (and still symbolizes) the social and institutional misery of the country. A trio that became, in the definitive words of Janio de Freitas, “an invigorating morning that oxygenated minds oppressed by the daytime nightmare that was dictatorial stupidity”.[4]

Janio was one of the many readers who opened the Newspapers in Brazil and went straight to the Henfil comics. “Only afterwards did we leaf through the rest of the newspaper – not least because, due to medieval censorship, the rest was just the rest. (…) The characters were there in the cafundós of Caderno B and, however, they functioned as the cover of the newspaper, because, through them, Henfil courageously said what we wanted to hear and know in the suffocating environment of the dictatorship”. [5] Zeferino did not contain his anger against the corrupt who diverted tax incentives from the Northeast; the sweet Graúna was transformed into a feisty activist to chase away machismo; Bode Orelana devoured kilos of paper in protest of prior censorship of books.

In this article, based on my book The Dash Rebel: The Life of Henfil, I will highlight one of Henfil's culminating moments in the Quibbler: the Cemetery of the Living Dead, which he conceived at the height of the repression of General Emílio Garrastazu Médici's government (1969-1974), with great repercussions. In it, the cartoonist buried, as a rule, those who sympathized with the military dictatorship or were politically omitted; the spokespersons for the market and capital; and those subservient to power, who received benefits, advantages or protections in exchange.

In the final part of the text, faced with the agony of Brazil today, I outline a hypothetical scenario: if he were among us, Henfil would perhaps employ his questioning power in reopening the feared and controversial cemetery. How many people, in different areas of national life, resemble today the living dead who, in the past, were dispatched by him to the tombs of contempt and oblivion.

The court of just cause

The Cemetery of the Living Dead was a kind of “just cause court”, which relentlessly punished with symbolic death well-known figures whose conduct Henfil considered reprehensible. The charges and condemnations were directed, in most cases, to assumed or concealed adherence to the dictatorial government, as well as to impostures, unscrupulous actions, opportunism, prejudices and what he considered “character flaws”.

In fact, the cemetery descended from the Comando de Caça dos Carecas (CCC), invented by Henfil in the second half of 1970. The CCC was an obvious mockery of the infamous Commando de Caça dos Comunistas. He identified as bald those people who, at his discretion, showed doubtful, alienated and/or retrograde behavior. The first victims of the CCC were the TV presenter Flávio Cavalcanti, questioned in the artistic circles for, supposedly, having denounced left-wing colleagues after the military coup; the composer Carlos Imperial, exponent of the “turma da pilantragem” in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro; and the singer Wilson Simonal, accused, without objective evidence, of being a snitch.

The list of celebrities buried in the Cemetery was extensive and eclectic: media entrepreneurs Roberto Marinho, Octavio Frias de Oliveira and Adolpho Bloch; playwright Nelson Rodrigues; sociologist Gilberto Freyre; economists Roberto Campos and Eugênio Gudin; essayist Gustavo Corção; writers Rachel de Queiroz and Josué Montello; TV presenters Hebe Camargo and J. Silvestre; soccer coaches Zagallo and Yutrich; journalist David Nasser; composer Sérgio Mendes; maestro Erlon Chaves; the comedian José de Vasconcelos; the bishops Dom Vicente Scherer and Dom Geraldo Sigaud; the president of the Brazilian Sports Confederation and later of FIFA, João Havelange; parliamentarians from Arena, the dictatorship party; actors Jece Valadão, Bibi Ferreira and Yoná Magalhães; the Incredibles set; photographer Jean Manzon; integralist leader Plínio Salgado; the founder of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), Plínio Corrêa de Oliveira; the ace Pelé; “The Globe” (alluding to The Globe), among others.

Henfil didn't usually detail the specific reasons that led him to bury the undead. “Character doesn't breed termites”, was his favorite phrase when he demanded maximum coherence from others. He considered it an obligation for good people to defend the democratic freedoms denied by the dictatorship and its henchmen. Among those who had their convictions justified were Arenista deputy Amaral Neto, for the television program praising the deeds of the “economic miracle”; composer Miguel Gustavo, author of “Pra frontal, Brasil”, a song that symbolized Brazilian triumphalism in the 1970 World Cup; and the duo Dom and Ravel, interpreters of “Eu te amo, meu Brasil”, a propaganda hymn for “big Brazil”.

Henfil built tombs for economists who became technocrats in the pay of the regime; for architects who joined real estate speculation; to lawyers who exploited clients with exorbitant fees; for scientists who put their brains to work in the arms race; for police officers and former police officers who made up the death squads; for the “doctors S/A”, who charged consultations with “money, money, dollar, bills of exchange, shares and Diners card”. It involved the Festival Internacional da Canção (FIC), promoted annually by TV Globo. For him, the festival was a “setup” by Globo to divert attention from the dictatorship's excesses; moreover, he thought that foreign music was favored by mass dissemination, while Brazilian popular music was relegated to the background. But what about the part of the FIC destined for MPB? He claimed that, with a few exceptions, the tendency was to select songs that were romantic or harmless.

Inside and outside literary circles, there were vehement protests when Henfil framed Clarice Lispector among the living dead. The cartoonist would have adopted an inquisitorial stance regarding a writer with no ties to the regime, and who, incidentally, took a stand against the prevailing arbitrariness at a march by artists and intellectuals in Rio de Janeiro, in 1968. The newspaper (20/7/1973), Henfil tried to justify the severe (and mistaken) punishment imposed on the author of clandestine happiness: “I placed her in the Cemetery of the Living Dead because she is placed inside a little prince's dome, to be in a world of flowers and birds, while Christ is being nailed to the cross. At a time like today, I only have one word to say about a person who keeps talking about flowers: they are alienated. With that, I don't want to take a fascist attitude of saying that she can't write what she wants, exercising art for art's sake. But I only reserve the right to criticize a person who, with the resource he has, the enormous sensitivity he has, places himself inside a dome.”

Clarice, offended, replied: “If I ran into Henfil, the only thing I would say to him is: listen, when you write about me, it's Clarice with a 'c', not with two 's', okay?” [6]

Another inclusion that caused a stir was that of the singer Elis Regina, after having sung the National Anthem at the opening of the 1972rd Army Olympics, in 147. Quibbler (25/4 to 1/5/1972), the character Caboco Mamadô cleans up the cemetery before announcing the surprise: Elis enthusiastically conducting the choir of the living dead, made up of Roberto Carlos, Tarcísio Meira and Glória Menezes, Pelé, Paulo Gracindo and Marília Pêra. Elis complained through the newspapers about Henfil's intolerance, who returned to the charge drawing her inside the tomb, angry: “You comedians are funny! They want to be everyone's moral guard! They don't want us singers to compromise. But do you think I don't need that money to live?” Forty-five days later, Henfil issued a signal that she had repented of the reproach. At number 154, he praised Elis' new album, with a hint of biting: "Be sure of one thing: Elis Regina is better than Elis Regente!" The episode was overcome, so much so that the two flirted for the next decade. Elis told him that she had been pressured by the military to sing at the Olympics.

Henfil recanted years later for the injustices committed in both cases: “I only regret having buried two people — Clarice Lispector and Elis Regina. (…) I didn't notice the weight of my hand. I know I had a very heavy hand, but I didn't realize that the kind of criticism I was doing was really sticking my finger in cancer.”[7]

Journalist and writer Zuenir Ventura recalls the shock caused in the cultural area by the Cemitério dos Mortos-Vivos: “There was almost unanimity in relation to certain people being in the cemetery, but not in relation to others. It was very strong and aggressive, even irritating.”

For Zuenir, the radical nature of the charges cannot be seen as mere patrolling, much less as an expression of resentment or revenge. “Behind that caustic and radical comedian, there was in Henfil a loving person, incapable of hatred”. In his opinion, the Cemetery of the Living Dead translated “a desperate, sometimes unfair and extreme, gesture of conclamation to democratic resistance”. And he adds: “Henfil was right when he thought we were living in a period when he couldn't stay on top of or behind the wall. It was important, in the process of regaining democracy, the mobilization of civil society and the intelligentsia. Henfil knew that it was essential to have everyone who opposed the dictatorship in the same healthy bag of cats. What led us to the opening? It was the fact that the country was managed to divide, manicheistically (and it had to be that way), between darkness and light, between good and evil. Today, my reading of Henfil's apparent sectarianism leads me to believe that the Cemetery of the Living Dead embedded a metaphor: whoever is not fighting and resisting is dying or has already died. He highlighted this symbolic death and told us: we need to resist somehow”. [8]

Henfil himself, without knowing her, validated Zuenir Ventura's interpretation, admitting on different occasions that, during the dictatorship, he accentuated the aggressiveness of humor, as a resource to try to make people pay attention to what was happening.

A hypothesis: the reopening of the Cemetery

The biographer is never authorized to speak on behalf of the biographee – even more so when the biographee has a unique personality like Henfil's. But it does not seem excessive to me to propose an exercise of imagination, in the midst of the toxic and discouraging situation of a country under a far-right and militarized government, whose authoritarian setbacks have been systematically pointed out by civil society organizations and by the progressive and left-wing opposition. In light of this context, I work with the hypothesis that, if he were alive, Henfil would perhaps consider the political convenience of reopening the cemetery, so many are the undead, suffocating, around us. The purpose would be convergent with that of the years of military dictatorship: to alert to the degradation that pushes the country to the edge of the precipice. Which would certainly require double work on the drawing board to portray, with unmistakable humorous verve, the legion of candidates for the new tombs.

If we were based, in general terms, on their rating scales from the 1970s, it would not be so difficult to distinguish likely profiles of occupants of expanding vacancies. It is plausible to assume that among them were: authorities who deny a very serious pandemic and ignored measures that would have prevented thousands of deaths; bankers and financial market executives who, appointed to the State apparatus, implement neoliberal economic policies and antisocial “reforms”, while safeguarding the privileges of big capital and the tyranny of financializing and speculative logic.

And more: virtual militiamen who propagate hatred and lies through fake news, with the ultimate aim of destabilizing democracy; anticultural fanatics who deface cultural bodies; ultra-right gurus who gather unconditional supporters through virtual courses and groupings in digital networks; leaders of certain organizations in the religious field that exercise elective mandates or own television channels, aimed at promoting fundamentalisms and crossed interests; business conglomerates and contractors who pay bribes to secure monopoly controls and profits; coup-mongering parliamentarians who overthrow a leader re-elected by popular vote, honest and without any hint of guilt.

Other possible favorites to go down to the tombs: accomplices in burnings and forest devastation, paradoxically lodged in instances charged with looking after the environmental balance; obscurantists who preach “schools without a party” and a regressive “education” to darkness; widows of the military dictatorship who deny the barbaric acts carried out by it (illegal arrests, torture and murder of opponents) and already proven by the National Truth Commission; armed militias that dominate suburbs and peripheries and operate as parallel structures within organized crime; famous soccer players who, in public appearances and selfies, posing festively with representatives of low reactionism.

It wouldn't surprise me if media groups that keep control of information and opinion intact are on the list of living dead, with the unstated purpose of neutralizing contradictions and dissent. Including the support of task forces – handpicked, according to the system's convenience – of journalists, economists, financial consultants, businessmen, political scientists and sociologists, who share the ideology of neoliberalism, references of conservatism and animosity against divergent thinking, especially the one on the left. It is opportune to remember that, in the lead years, Henfil had an aversion for this type of troop in confrontation with pluralism, which leads me to think that several of its members could even have places in the tombs of today.

If the fruits of imagination allowed us to envision the reopening of the Cemetery of the Living Dead, we would have the chance not only to accompany the explicit denunciation of delay, stupidity and villainy, but also to attest, once again, to Henfil's unhaunted humor. . Wherever we find the marks of his audacious and fierce intervention, Henfil's inspiration is always in tune with ethical-political and humanist values. The traces of rebellion in the drawings, invariably, clarify critical awareness and distill civic indignation against the country's predators. As Florestan Fernandes rightly pointed out, Henfil’s unique talent is manifested in an art created to “exalt the humanity of the person and condemn the philistines, the abuses of power and the selfishness of the powerful.” [9]

*Denis de Moraes, journalist and writer, he is the author, among other books, of The Dash Rebel: The Life of Henfil (José Olympio, 3a. ed., 2016).


[1] Leandro Konder, “Henfil, 50 years old”, The Globe, February 5, 1994.

[2] Henfil interview with Tânia Carvalho, “Drawing, for me, is like chewing stone”, mood status, no. 41, 1979.

[3] Henfil interview with Wagner Carelli, “For Henfil, this is a moment of humor”, The State of S. Paul, September 3, 1978.

[4] Janio de Freitas, “Prefácio”, in Denis de Moraes. The Dash Rebel: The Life of Henfil. 3a. ed. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 2016, p. 14.

[5] Janio de Freitas interview with Denis de Moraes, in The Dash Rebel: The Life of Henfil, ob. quote, p. 102.

[6] Interview by Clarice Lispector to Sérgio Fonta, “O papo: Clarice Lispector”, Journal of Letters, no. 259, April 1972.

[7] Testimony of Henfil to Regina Echeverria. Elis drilling. Rio de Janeiro: Nórdica/Círculo do Livro, 1985, p. 191.

[8] Zuenir Ventura's interview with Dênis de Moraes, in The Dash Rebel: The Life of Henfil, ob. quote, p. 94-95.

[9] Florestan Fernandes. The required response: Intellectual portraits of nonconformists and revolutionaries. São Paulo: Attica, 1995, p. 173.


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