Brown Spaces
by Reginald Vinluan
Philippine Collegian, December 5, 1995

“It is an early culture groping and stumbling its way towards a dimly-sensed maturity! Yet the air seems to throb with a sense of life! There is a vitality such as I have never known!”
-- Silver Surfer (The Silver Surfer # 1)

Although my favorite cosmic harbinger was describing his initial observations of earthly civilization, he could have easily been talking about the emergence of the Filipino comic book.

In these past months we have been witnesses to a seeming graphic novel renaissance in which local publishing lines like CATS, Alamat and Camp have cropped up to do battle with what foreign comic book publishers have to offer. In the future, they say, the well-known Caucasian heroes in tights may soon lose sales to bare-foot brown-skinned Pinoys in bahags with agimat-induced powers and a healthy liking for bagoong to boot. However, as our new heroic symbols for Filipino cunning and courage take to the skies populated by the likes of Superman, Storm, and Spawn, there is the nagging question of which direction they are actually flying off to, and why is it that our old super-powered pioneer, Panday, has been left on the ground.

The first to rocket off to the cosmos of international comic publications as early as last year was Aster, a celestial knight character created by Oliver Isabedra and the CATS creative team. There are two titles, Aster and its spin-off The Harriers, currently out which are wholly produced by Filipinos but published and distributed by a well-known independent company called Entity Comics. Due to an agreement with their publisher, it seems that the CATS titles bear no trace of their roots or ethnicity and concentrate solely on the adventures of the main character in a convoluted Good-vs.-Evil wracked universe inspired by a thousand and one science fiction epics ranging from Jack Kirby’s Galactus mythos to George Lucas’ Star Wars.

In the same vein, TAEKWONDOGS, the yet unreleased but severely hyped title from Camp Comics, led by advertising wunderkind Gil de Palma, takes from a variety of sources. This tale about a clique of Homolient (a de Palma pun: “homosapien” fused with “alien”) kids with the ability to transform into muscular kick-ass canine muties is a bit of WildCATS flair, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tongue-in-cheekiness, and X-Men grit.

Both publications, aside from having clean, stylish, top notch art, share that same dream of being embraced internationally, with Camp focusing on the Asian market and Aster gunning for the American audience.

Alamat comics, however, is one company that is bent on cultivating a Filipino audience while developing the industry. In fact, it was Budjette Tan, the company’s EIC who tagged this year as “the year of the Filipino comic book.” True to their word, if there is a new comic book company which is actually attempting to properly expand the definition of “Filipino Comic” apart from being produced by Filipinos, it would be Alamat.

A conglomerate of independent studios joined together by balikbayan, Bishop creator, and comic artist par excellence Whilce Portacio, Alamat is made up of the people behind Memento Mori, P-Noise, Exodus, Comics 101, Pagan Press, Powerhaus Productions, Shadow Comics, and Flashpoint. These are studios which have, prior to banding together, already produced at least a first issue or a primer for their titles by either pestering publishers like Sterling or, for the less industrious, xeroxing a couple of hundred copies of their works.

The people behind these works are well-off adolescents who have fulfilled what many a comic book collecting teenager has always dreamed of doing—finally getting their notebook scribblings and personal fantasy worlds published.

When asked about their target audience, Eric Santos, an Alamat writer and editor, quickly raises the dichotomy between the new Pinoy comic as opposed to the komiks of old—the popular newstand fare and barbershop required reading which we are used to. Alamat aims to provide an aesthetic and literary quality to their comic books comparable to the foreign works of DC, Marvel, and Image. The works are then automatically geared for the middle to upper middle-class private school bred comic store regulars, rather than the average man-on-the-street. Recent developments resulting from the enthusiastic responses to some Alamat titles received at the San Diego Comic Convention have also assured them of international distribution, which is essentially their second priority.

Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, points out that the potency of the comic medium lies essentially in its iconic nature. The stylized drawings, plus the symbolic and metaphorical personifications of most characters, draws the reader more than other “detached” forms of art or literature, efficiently sucking them into the fantastic. Consequently, this inclination explains why adolescents, who are groping for models for their still developing personalities, are so attached to the medium of comics. Hence, the challenge of a “Filipino comic” is to produce true “Filipino paradigms” or at least capture our ethnic sensibilities in the characters.

The most obvious manifestation of this is the birth of the tribal-inspired characters in titles like Lakan, and P-Noise. Set in pseudo-Blade Runner, chaotic, apocalyptic futures, these titles talk of heroes inspired by ancestral myths and empowered by folkish tribal magic to save a Philippines on the brink of either alien or foreign invasion. In Exodus, a Wolverine character, peculiarly dressed in what seems to be Spanish matador garb, spouts Bisaya as he claws at the enemy. However, even with the inclusion of such characters, their stories still come off as The Adventures of the X-Men in Tribal Wear. Surprisingly, of all the superhero titles out, it is Flashpoint which has the most potential, even though their heroes don’t sport traditional Igorot attire. In their first issue, David Hontiveros and Alex Santos weave the story of a supposed Virgin Mary apparition in a barrio being a front for an alien attack which is eventually thwarted by a pack of other-dimensional adventurers. An intelligent mix of Pinoy humor, mysticism, and drama is evident all throughout the already four issue series.

Unfortunately, for all its hoopla, the Vertigo-inspired Memento Mori series, a comic with literary not superhero pretensions, lacks a true Filipino feel, despite its clever prose and elegant art. The most striking story so far—Hubert Posadas’ “On The Pillar of His Conceit”—is saved from its blatant Sandman inclinations with cunning insertions of Filipino dialogue. Other than that, they all come off as the detached, haughty yarns of snotty art school brats. In the same vein, Gerry Alanguilan’s Wasted, a chronicle of the wanderings of an angry teenager with a gun, who comes to epitomize the worst of our urban teenage anxieties, is so melodramatically angsty, it destroys its potential to critique its surroundings. Thus, the main character being drawn to near-suicide and subsequent aimless wandering by a two-timing girlfriend and an incorrigible father loses its irony and becomes a mere sick—rather juvenile—joke.

All these efforts, however, should be acclaimed and applauded, if not for the sincere creative expression and entertainment they afford. The pioneering efforts of the Alamat group to build a local comic book industry is laudable and the mere eclectic variety of their titles shows a genuine respect for the stories their talents have to offer. In fact, Ricky, an Alamat artist says that the very Western and detached nature of the titles that are currently out is due to a need to break the local colonial-minded comic buyers market and the international audience. Eventually, he says they will venture out to print the stories they want to tell—“true Filipino stories.”
Let us hope that they gain success soon, because what will really distinguish a Filipino comic from its foreign competitors will be its adherence to the culture it comes from. For all Alamat, Camp, or CATS’ clear storytelling potential and impeccable art, what they need is the down-home earthiness that our own komiks carry. The international market noticed Japanese comics for its eccentricity and unique nature, after it was already extremely popular as a medium in Japan—not vice-versa. Even the European comics hold a feel unique to their lands of origin.

Maybe, before we go off launching new heroes into the stormy skies of the international comic market, we should first give Panday the power of flight.