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Neymar a superhero? PSG star's tattoos come alive in new comic book series

Turning international soccer star Neymar into a comic book superhero wouldn't be all that much of a stretch. So a pair of comic book mavens decided to breathe life into Neymar's tattoos instead.

That's the premise behind the new comic book series "Inked," which was launched in mid-September and showcased at New York Comic Con in early October.

Neymar Sports will donate 1 percent of every issue sold to the Neymar Jr. Project Institute in Jardim Gloria, São Paulo, Brazil. The institute helps nearly 10,000 underprivileged Brazilians with sports opportunities, well-balanced meals, literary classes, and health and financial consultations.

The comic book series was created by Fan The Flame Concepts. President Chris Flannery and editor-in-chief Jason M. Burns then traveled to New York Comic Con to promote the story.

Every year, more than 250,000 fans from across the globe descend upon the convention, now in its 13th year. What was once a niche subculture has ballooned into an all-ages mainstream mecca for the boldest and most ardent comic book enthusiasts. The airplane hangar-esque Javits Center in Manhattan spills over with costumed fans shoving their way through a dizzying sea of people, merchandise and promotion. Of course, the usual suspects -- Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse -- dwarf smaller outfits struggling to gain fan traction.

At the 2018 edition of the convention, Flannery and Burns jaunt up flights of stairs with stacks of comics under their arms. The covers boast a hazy blue likeness of the Paris Saint-Germain and Brazilian striker. "Isn't this amazing?" Flannery, a svelte, salt-and-pepper Brit, says of the fervent mass swarming the main floor below. Nearby, a cosplayer dressed as Negan from "The Walking Dead" texts while resting a shockingly realistic barbed-wire baseball bat replica on his shoulder.

Burns, crew-cut with tattoos covering his right forearm, has written for the "Megamind," "Jericho" and "Kung Fu Panda" franchises and had long harbored a story about a hero whose tattoos come to life.

"Given how important [the personalities of tattoos are] to Neymar and the character, that was the start of the snowball," Flannery says.

Flannery, who is fluent in Portuguese, has a long working relationship with Santos FC, the club with which Pele came to prominence and where Flannery worked with the Brazilian soccer legend. When he and Burns began discussing Burns' idea of a comic book character whose tattoos come alive, Neymar, who came up with Santos FC, was the perfect fit. The team approached Neymar, who was sold on the idea. Issues of "Inked" are mapped out through late 2019, including a partnership with Momentary Ink, a temporary tattoo company that recreated some of Neymar's tattoos.

On a table at the convention, Burns arranges promotional print copies of English and Portuguese versions of the first few issues of "Inked: Art Animates Life," a special to Comic Con. The actual comic is a digital-only collaboration between Neymar Jr. Comics and Fan The Flame. Although it takes place in Brazil, the comic will be presented in multiple languages.

"It was important to Neymar, and us, that PSG fans could read this in France," Flannery says. "We also have it in Spanish. We're launching Italian soon and looking at Arabic and Asian languages.

"Couldn't tackle the whole world at once. We're not superheroes," he says with a laugh.

A horde encircles two twenty-somethings dressed as Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. Nearby, a poor man's Joker struts about while Burns and Flannery discuss Neymar's generational talent and how his popularity and contract have the power to dictate the very economy of his sport.

The "Inked" protagonist, Junior, is the de facto Neymar. The story revolves around Junior's sister being kidnapped by a cartel. To get her back, Junior is tattooed with magical ink that allows the images to come to life and fight alongside him. A lion on Junior's left hand -- based on the actual lion tattoo on Neymar's hand -- becomes his go-to ally, Baysan. In fact, many of the tattoos featured in the comic are based on Neymar's own skin art.

"[Neymar]'s a fanboy, he likes comics, so this came together very naturally. When Neymar got involved, the story made even more sense because his tattoos have personalities of their own," Burns says, crediting art director Dustin Evans' vision for bringing Neymar's ink to life.

Flannery and Burns notice fans crowding the Marvel stage. Expectant arms, young and old, hope to catch the souvenirs being tossed into the crowd. Although this Comic Con scene is unfamiliar to Neymar, the comic book world is one he relied on while bouncing around Brazil, living by candlelight during São Vicente's frequent power outages. Now, he's transforming his tough love upbringing and ascendance to stardom into a story for his fans.

Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior was once just a rail-thin boy from Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo, Brazil, with dreams of being a professional football player -- and a superhero. He read comics and graphic novels voraciously, his favorites being urban heroes such as Gotham City's son, Batman, and New York City's own Spider-Man. Contrasting the privileged surroundings of Batman's alter ego, millionaire Bruce Wayne, Neymar's hardscrabble origins offered the co-creators a muse for the main character -- everything from Neymar dribbling a soccer ball in the city streets to a tattoo artist modeled after Neymar's grandfather.

"We put those humble backgrounds into the character," Burns says.

This heroic path has deep origins in Neymar's real-life story. One rainy night, with 4-month-old Neymar Jr. in the backseat, Neymar Sr., a professional winger at the time, badly crashed his car. When the car stopped spinning, Neymar Sr. couldn't find his son. He believed the baby had been ejected and was dead somewhere outside. But the infant Neymar wound up beneath a seat, unharmed. His father called it a miracle.

"This is an arc of a hero story," Flannery says.

At an early age, Neymar's soccer ability earned him a spot in the youth academy of Santos FC. At 14, he and his family visited Real Madrid. Wagner Ribeiro, Neymar's then-agent, had negotiated former star Robinho's transfer from Santos to Los Blancos. Most believed Neymar would follow suit, but Neymar stayed loyal.

"In a humble family, there is always the question of cultural values," Neymar Sr. said in 2012. "We thought he had to grow up in Brazil."

Of course, over the years, there have been petulance, a panoply of cards and on-field tiffs. The Neymar that millions remember from Russia, writhing in mock agony, is infamously indelible. But in recent weeks, videos of Neymar giving young pitch invaders the jersey off his back have made waves. Perhaps in time, fans will forgive the dust-ups and flopping. Even heroes have to find their way.

After the $263 million record transfer fee from Barcelona to Paris last summer, including $350 million in salary and 200 million social media followers, Neymar wasn't finished. Twenty-six years after that car crash, he set out to be the world's newest superhero.

"Like many kids, I had two dreams growing up: to be a professional footballer and a superhero. I've been blessed enough to play football at the highest level," Neymar told media when "Inked" launched in early September. "Now I have the chance to bring new, modern, powerful storytelling through comics and graphic novels to fans around the world."

But negotiating the comic book landscape is not easy, even with the soccer bona fides that Neymar boasts. Hundreds of exhibitors comprise the labyrinth of shelves, displays and merchandise on the Comic Con floor. Artists and writers come accompanied by assistants who marshal fans into snaking lines in aisles packed to standing-room-only capacity. A young woman dressed as a character from "Dragon Ball Z" entreats passersby to check out a Manga graphic novel produced by her boutique comic title. It isn't working. Fans shuffle on by, albeit slowed to a crawl in a particularly crowded row. The competition for fans' affections is somehow both fierce and nebulous.

When he was a youth, Neymar's family lived modestly with his grandparents in São Vicente, sharing one mattress. Neymar Sr. says the neighborhood was so poor that people just threw their garbage on the street. Despite transcending these meager beginnings, Neymar has never betrayed his childhood ideals. And like his favorite heroes, Batman and Spider-Man, he has pledged to help his home city.

"[What] was very important on both sides early on was the tie-in to his institute in Santos," Flannery says of the Neymar Jr. Project Institute. "That's been really important since his first days on the scene in Santos."


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