Monday, April 08, 2002

Alamat Explodes Its Colors
Lourd Ernest De Veyra
Today Weekender, page 4, July 7, 1996


To view it as a compliment or otherwise: “Wow, ano ito, imported?” – the usual reaction from first-time readers of Alamat, a new comic-book line that looks and smells completely like any issue of Marvel, DC, or Image, the leading names in the US market. Expect they were conceptualized and executed, from the first page to the last, by visionary twentysomething Pinoys.

“X-Men in Filipino” costumes is how many inveterate devil’s advocates describe its characters, who shout, scream and curse in English. But Budjette Tan, Alamat Comics’ head honcho, simplyhas this to say: “Well, we couldn’t help it. We all grew up with the X-Men and all these popular superheroes.”

Alamat is actually an umbrella organization of local comics groups initiated by US-based Filipino artist Whilce Portactio who has become noted for his work with the top lables, most popular of which is The Uncanny X-Men. As a matter of fact, most of the Alamat characters gloriously swinging and whiplashing within the pages obliterate their enemies with X-Men-like powers and skill.

More so with ARCHON, the latest and the first and only full-color Alamat title which proudly lays claim to being the only computer-generated comic book in the Philippines. ARCHON, the brainchild of Virtual Media, a small graphics design studio in Valle Verde II, boasts of swirling color fields and dazzling special effects achieved through the miracles of Adobe Photoshop, Photostyler, Painted, and Kai’s Power Tools, lifting it thousands of lightyears above the three-color Aliwan, Pinoy Shocker, Wakasan, and other komiks that have adorned the newsstands for several decades already. The difference is that of a typewriter and a high-powered laptop with Internet connection. As the rest of the masa komiks industry are still blissfully using the primitive cut-and-strip method, the employment of computers has been standard fare in the United States for many years now, led by the Image group.

So the usual reactions such as “Parang imported!” or “Really now, Pinoys did this?” can be considered either complimentary or derogatory, as if us brown natives are absolutely incapable of such work. This just goes to show that we’ve got the talent all along but not the machines.

“Using the computer makes coloring easier and faster,” explained 27-year old Russel Tomas, Virtual Media’s main man and the one responsible for the amazing shades and hues that carpet every box in every page of ARCHON. “But of course, to be able to do this, one should have first mastered the basics of manual coloring, painting by hand.” Russel was not even a Fine Arts graduate—he majored in Psychology in Miriam but has now transferred to a Business Administration course in UP.

The Virtual Media studio, despite its hoity-toity name, is merely a small part of the Tomas residence, with two computers, a printer, a professional-sized drawing board, and piles and piles of comic books both local and foreign. Plastered on the walls are several posters and flier which showcase Russel’s mastery of computer graphics manipulation.

His brother Jay Jay, together with David Hontiveros, 27 a graduate of La Salle and devotee of the somber award-winning Sandman comic book by Neil Gaiman, whipped out the storyline and several of the characters. Joseph Fouts did the pencilling and the inking.

ARCHON, which stands for Assistance Response Contingent and Hazard Overseer Network, is about a team of intergalactic heroes with supernatural powers tasked to protect the universe from evil. Leading the pack is Troy, a brilliant half-Greek-half-Filipino. Other interesting characters include Shinu, a snake-man with the sword-swinging abilities of a samurai; Ordnance, a cyclop-Robocop-type of tougie you wouldn’t want to bump into when you’re walking in a dark street; Myrrdin, a sorceror who draws his powers from the environment and has a twin brother, Totem, with tattoos that come to life in the event of combat.

These are, as might be observed, extensions of the superhero archetypes operating within the good-guys-beat-the-crap-out-of-the-bad-guys quotient. And why not? These characters have long been swimming in the fecund imagination of these artists dating back to their grade school days. Many of these illustrators and writers were your typical daydreaming kids who spent most of their classroom hours filling notebooks with doodle of cartoon idols. “Yes, some of these characters were the very same ones I created when I was still a kid,” confirms Russel.

“Basically, for our artists, the very thought of creating their own books is almost like a dream come true. Now they’re presented a chance to give free rein to their imagination professionally. The financial side of it is a bonus.”

Budjette says, “That’s why Alamat merely functions as a marketing arm, handling the dirty work. This way, we free the creativity of the artists and leave them to focus entirely on the craft.”

Concerns about money and all the other conundrum that goes with it, Budjette reveals, have been the least of their concerns. And how they regretted it. “ We learned the hard way. We didn’t pay much attention to the business and marketing side of it. So we’re only getting it all down now. We realized the important of maintaining a healthy relationship with the bookstore owners. Before, we could only afford photocopies posters, now we have them in full color.”

The people behind ARCHON, like its idealistic defenders, are setting their eyes on the beyond. “We plan to release it internationally,” said Budjette, “and we think we’ve got a pretty good chance at it.” He, together with Russel, visited the States last year to attend the [San Diego] Comic Convention. There, they were able to meet and show their material to the people of DC Comics and received an enormously positive feedback. “They told us to show them more, and normally, in this business, that’s a very encouraging sign. That means they’re interested in us.” But the Alamat kids are about to surrender their independence and “integrity” – not just yet.

The initial batch of ARCHON comics sold over 10,000 copies (sic) in select shops, topping even the sales of Marvel titles. “We want people to buy it because it’s Pinoy. But most of all we want them to buy the second issue because they liked the first one,” hopes Budjette.

The sensational Japanese manga (comics) swept across the US and Europe a couple of years ago, and left comics artists attempting to imitate their fast-paced excitement and braggadocio. As for the prospect of Pinoy titles invading the same territory, “we’re banking on the quality of the stories.”

“The American market is so huge that by capturing even just 1 percent of it, we can already live on that. It is big enough to have a certain following for bad books. And those are bad books. Us, we’ve got better quality than those naman siguro. What we’re trying to do now is create an awarenewss of our titles,” says Russel.

While making the ARCHON personnel blast the living daylights out of dreaded galactic villains may seem like the best job in the world, the money involved will certainly pull one down back to reality. Budjette says that for printing costs alone, 1,000 pieces of a black-and-white title, will cost P30,000. A full-color release can go as high as P80,000 for the same volume. That’s why ARCHON tied up with Mega Publications to help with the printing. Retail price is P90, almost the same as that of foreign brands. While they’d rather have it maintained at the lowest price possible, the culprit for the increase is this: it’s printed in Hong Kong.

Some of the Alamat titles out are Tattooed, Shadow/Scions, Angel Ace, TKS(The Kill Stalker), Indigo Valley and Timawa, all done by different teams. But the best-selling so far is not the superhero genre but the whacko Adventures of Pugad Baboy, which is almost sold out. Another project in the drawing board is Batch72, expected to continue in the same hilariously offbeat spirit.

“We’d like to expand our audience as much as we can, that’s why we try to get into schools. In Xavier, the sales were quite impressive,” Budjette related. “But lately, there’s the problem about the school authorities. They say these comic books are too violent.” Well, that’s reality, man. There’s always a censor anywhere.

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