Captain Polo in Brazil – A Sneak Peek

Polo in Brazil_cover Image Alan HesseAuthor-illustrator and conservation biologist Alan J Hesse exclusively previews his latest ‘The Adventures of Captain Polo’ graphic novel, showing his creative process as this savvy climate action ambassador explores Brazil’s threatened biodiversity and climate issues and solutions there.


2,380 words: estimated reading time = 9.5 minutes


I am honoured to have been invited to submit an article for ClimateCultures featuring my artistic and cultural work promoting climate literacy. I have chosen to do this by contributing a ‘sneak peek’ into the next book in the Adventures of Captain Polo, an ongoing series of educational graphic novels about climate change. This article refers to the fifth book, titled Polo in Brazil, a work in progress of which I will be sharing a few preliminary page extracts.

Showing the cover of 'Polo in Brazil' Image by Alan J Hesse © 2024
‘Polo in Brazil’ Image by Alan J Hesse © 2024

Educational storytelling: finding the edutainment sweet spot

Contrary to the earliest Polo books, much of the content in Book 5 is purely there for fun, to make the story compelling and a good read. At the end of the day, I want the book to sell. It has to have commercial value beyond classrooms and special donations to schools and climate education projects. After all, the more people ‘outside the choir’, so to speak, who learn something useful about climate change, the better.

If Captain Polo were all work and no play, reading his books would in fact be too much like hard work: fewer people would read them, and this would be an opportunity lost. The need to give Captain Polo commercial value, in this case through fun and funny madcap graphic storytelling thus aligns to the mission of the Captain Polo Academy, which is to “help all those working on biodiversity conservation, climate change and education achieve greater impact”.

When writing a climate road (sea) trip story that includes a stopover in Brazil the obvious content that comes to mind is the Amazon. This region is famous all over the world as a place of high biodiversity that is also highly threatened. This fragile balance is important to portray at length, which is the main reason why I decided to make Book 5 all about Brazil, rather than pursue my original plan to have Captain Polo and Penguin merely pass through on their way to the Antarctic.

The story goes to some length to show the major issues threatening not only Amazon biodiversity and ecosystems but also the well-being and integrity of its indigenous people, who are notoriously abused in Brazil by powerful and usually criminal groups bent upon seizing land to develop yet more agroindustry and mining operations (p. 8).

Climate heroes & villains — character development

Every writer knows that one of the pillars of good storytelling is character development. A good character is seldom static. There are exceptions – Tintin and Asterix come to mind (both major influences of mine I have to add), but a character with a mission does need to evolve to at least discover and own that mission.

Although Cap’n Polo will never be too serious in his adventures, he is a bear on a mission. Ever since through his own travels (see books 1 – 3) it eventually dawned on him that his tangible melting ice problem in the Arctic was actually also the problem of a lot of people and other animals around the world, he has to deliver on his promise to educate his readers about the critical issue of climate change.

Polo’s mission is really the chief force that transforms the original ‘Polo the bear’ trying to get back home to hunt a walrus (if he can) into Captain Polo the seasoned globe trotter and savvy climate action ambassador, honoured guest of governments around the world (championed by the prestigious likes of President Barack Obama, a badly drawn Leonardo DiCaprio and a better drawn Ed Norton – see Book 3, Polo in East Africa) and a celebrity in his own right.

To be honest I’m not sure how to make Polo evolve any further, which partly explains the growing presence of supporting cast characters such as Penguin along with villains Conor O’Connor and Tex Greedyman.

These two archetypal villains first appear as such in ‘Pole to Pole’, the fourth book in the series. Every good story needs a villain of course, but Tex and Conor are actually very different from each other. Whereas Conor is portrayed as a bumbling idiot, a permanent liability to himself and others (largely inspired by Loony Tunes characters Wile E. Coyote, and to some degree Samity Sam), Tex Greedyman as his name indicates is of quite a different ilk. Tex of course personifies oil and gas, the fortress of the fossil fuel industry. He is stereotypically and delightfully Texan, Republican, brash, overweight, bejeweled, hairy-chested, and filthily wealthy.

The eastern Amazon holds bountiful oil reserves, providing a good way to insert Tex into the Amazon-related plot (p.26).

However, even the likes of Tex Greedyman are not beyond redemption, which is another theme I aim to develop further in this series in the spirit of portraying a positive outlook for climate action rather than too much doom and gloom. Readers of Book 5 will see the beginnings of a transformation as Tex, marooned on an island after a helicopter crash, is set up to experience a future epiphany: with nothing to eat or drink but coconuts, this credit card-toting, Havana cigar-smoking, Scotch-drinking oil and gas tycoon begins to reconsider his priorities in life (p.28-29). My plan is to portray a full transformation of Tex in the next book, turning him into a reformed man who uses his wealth and power to promote renewable energy over fossil fuels! The caveat of this plan of course is that I will be left without a proper villain (poor Conor doesn’t really count). But more about this in a future article.

The involvement of criminal groups in illegal logging and land-grabbing devastating the Amazon provided me with a perfect opportunity to have some fun with caricatural ‘baddies’, who both Polo and Penguin get to beat up. Conor being Conor blunders into these characters, an extra opportunity for fun and humour, hopefully making this whole section of the comic come to life (p.16). But Polo’s human encounters in the Amazon are not limited to stereotypical bad guys: he and Penguin also meet and learn from Carla the conservationist and an unnamed indigenous shaman, both strong female characters that allow me to address the crucial role of women in leading climate solutions. 

But Brazil of course is more than just the famous Amazon. There is so much to say about this wonderful country that I couldn’t possibly fit it all in, so I opted to continue the logical geographical progress of our heroes trying to get to Antarctica by having them drop in on the fabled Rio de Janeiro and its Atlantic Forest to later make a final stop in Rio Grande do Sul, where there is an interesting and controversial initiative in place to grow ‘climate friendly cattle’. Many have warned me to stay away from this tricky subject, but I disagree. One of the principles of the Captain Polo adventures is precisely to explore such controversies in order to let my readers make up their own minds. As Captain Polo will find out, there is an argument (that not everyone agrees with) supporting the case that natural grasslands maintaining free range and well managed cattle is actually positive for biodiversity and the climate. I haven’t got to drawing that part yet so it will have to be for a future article.

Storytelling and political messages

At this point I ran into a hitch: it has taken me so long to work on this book that a couple of years have passed since writing the plot, and in that time Brazil’s political landscape has happily changed. The current government is by all accounts making strides in reversing deforestation and many other threats in the Brazilian Amazon.

My original plan was to have Polo beat some sense into the previous president, notorious for promoting the interests of agroindustry, fossil fuel giants and even the thinly veiled criminality in the Amazon and being single-handedly accountable for a devastating return to massive deforestation rates. Given the huge improvements in this regard I had to slightly tweak the plot. Of course, it’s never a good idea to date a book like this, so I have opted to not get Polo too closely involved with any Brazilian government or political figure in particular. He now makes his way to the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio to have a chat with the current president, who will happen to be there (unrealistically, I grant you), to “discuss Amazon matters”, without necessarily throwing the president off the cliff (as was the original plan).

This leads us back to an important storytelling element omnipresent in my books: the use of stereotype.

The Rio de Janeiro scenes include quite a few stereotypes. One of these is the cable car fight on the way up to the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain, where Polo is hoping to have a chat with the President of Brazil. The cable car scene tellingly divulges my age: it is of course inspired by James Bond’s rooftop struggles with bad guy Jaws in Moonraker, starring Roger Moore. However, it also provides a good way of weaving in a bit of extra information about the extent to which indigenous groups get embroiled in the notorious exploitation of the Amazon and its inhabitants. I was surprised to find out from my research that not all indigenous groups are quite as innocent as world media like to make out, and in the interest of providing my readers with truthful food for thought I wanted to include this (p.35).

The other stereotype in Rio is with the beach football game in which Penguin, wearing a No.10 Brazil shirt no less (he must have nicked it), manages to become top goal scorer and is celebrated amid much Samba dancing and carnivalesque merriment. Anyone who knows their football history may also notice a subtle nod to recently departed Pelé in the form of the shoeshine boy on page 38 (Pelé famously started his football career after himself having been a shoeshine boy living in poverty). Penguin benevolently bestows both his shirt and trophy upon this Pelé reincarnation and this was also a neat ploy to quickly get rid of both items as soon as possible (I couldn’t keep drawing Penguin in a Brazil football shirt lugging a massive trophy around!).

What is definitely not a stereotype but in fact quite the opposite is the sequence of events in one of Rio’s infamous favelas, or shanty towns. These cover much of the Rio heights and are still the nest of armed drug-related criminals and street gangs who make Rio a very dangerous city. However, I discovered a paper about a very different story in one particular favela with a wonderful community spirit that includes actual climate actions (p.37 – note the words in blue. This is a system I use to refer the reader to a technical section at the back of the book where the words in blue are explained in a sort of annotated glossary). I wanted to celebrate this in the book, largely to counteract the mostly negative technical content in the Amazon, and this was a perfect opportunity to do so. As so often in Captain Polo’s dialogues, there is also a quick reference to climate justice when Polo’s new friend explains how it is the poorest areas of Río de Janeiro that suffer the worst effects of climate change. Polo’s visit to the favela provides a natural progression to the next few scenes — as yet undrawn — that celebrate more positive news: the stellar work of Brazilian NGOs and conservationists restoring the heavily fragmented and yet biodiverse Atlantic Forest. I recently completed a consultancy with BirdLife International that involved writing a communications article about this work, and this provided me with handy technical information to throw into the comic.

Where next for Captain Polo?

So, what’s next? I aim to publish Polo in Brazil sometime this year, and like Books 1 to 4 it will be available from all major book retailers online. Those wishing to make a pre-order will be able to do so, and I will be posting about this on social media in due course.

This fifth book in the series is taking so long to finish I find it hard to think of its sequel, technically the final book in the second trilogy. However, this book will exist, and it will see our friends Captain Polo and Penguin finally reach the Antarctic, probably stopping over in Argentina. No idea how I will end that story, but you may be sure Tex and his epiphany will be involved, Conor will somehow reappear after a long and life-changing experience being lost in South America, and there will be lots of ice. Oh yes, and probably a new villain.


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Alan is an award-wnning author, with ten children’s books: most of them graphic novels and comics, including the growing and highly acclaimed Adventures of Captain Polo series about climate change. Polo books 1, 2, 3 and 4 have all won awards (the Literary Titan Gold Award for the first three), and Alan’s graphic novel Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection has won two awards. 

The Captain Polo character is the inspiration behind the Captain Polo Academy as a global brand promoting environmental and climate literacy, helping people and institutions who work on biodiversity conservation, climate change and education achieve greater positive impact.

You can sample more of Captain Polo’s adventures in Pole to Pole, a short feature in our Creative Showcase. And Alan contributed a short piece on Environmental Justice as part of our Environmental Keywords series.

Alan J. Hesse

Alan J. Hesse

An author-illustrator, educator and conservation biologist inspired by nature's majesty and fragility and the need to protect it and who believes that education should be fun.

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