The Pinoy tradition
by Dirk Deppey
I first stumbled across Gerry Alanguilan's Komikero Comics Journal by accident about six months ago. I was idly running a Google search for "Comics Journal," just to see what came up, and there it was: a chronicle of the day-to-day adventures of a comic-book artist in the Philippines, written in a friendly and conversational tone, like reading letters from home written by someone I didn't know. Having essentially stopped reading superhero comics some ten years ago, I was unaware of Alanguilan's work with fellow Filipino cartoonist Whilce Portacio for Image Comics, but I liked reading the blog, so I bookmarked it and checked back every couple of weeks to see what he was up to.
For the longest time I never bothered to look at the rest of his site. When eventually I did start clicking around, I discovered that in addition to being a working mainstream cartoonist, Alanguilan was also an artist steeped in a deep and rich tradition of comic books of which most Americans are unaware to this day. Which is strange: for the past forty years, Pinoy cartoonists -- "Pinoy" being to Filipinos what "Yankee" is to us Americans -- have been making significant and high-profile contributions to the American comics scene, developing an industry-wide reputation for astonishing craftsmanship and skill.
The Filipino komiks tradition began in 1929 when Antonio Velasquez' comic everyman character Kenkoy first made his appearance in Liwayway Magazine. Kenkoy was a cartoony character -- the only image of him I could find on the web is at the bottom-right corner of this page -- and was something of a caricature of the young Pinoy male of the era, whose continuing romance of the lady Rosing entertained his readers in bi-weekly installments for decades. Meanwhile, adventure strips started growing in prominence, mainly featuring knock-offs of American strips at first.
By the time the island nation had picked itself up again after the Japanese had been sent packing and World War II ended, the industry entered its Golden Age, and the man who would become its undisputed master, Francisco V. Coching, began drawing his first comics. By the 1950s, he was at the top of his game. According to the Sunday Inquirer:
"Coching's panels are distinctive in that they are fairly bursting at the seams with virile energy, as well-muscled heroes strike dramatic poses and explode into action. Not only did Coching render his pages in mind-boggling detail, with a richness in line and shading that remains unsurpassed, he was also a master of the visual vocabulary of the komiks, choosing the most dramatic angle, zooming in for the decisive moments, creating detailed, historically accurate backdrops for his stories, and moving the plot along at a brisk pace. He was also a rarity in that he wrote and illustrated his own stories, whereas most serials were collaborations between a writer and an illustrator."
Coching's skill was impressive -- according to the same article, cartoonist Alex Raymond considered him the best in the world. And he wasn't alone. To list his contemporaries in the field is to produce a roll-call sufficient to leave any knowledgable fan of fine comics art drooling: Federico Javinal, Nestor Redondo, Rudy Florese, Nestor Malgapo, Alfredo Alcala. To be a kid reading comics in the 1950s and 60s must have been a very rich experience.
Girls' komiks in the Philippines were great during this period as well, with probably the best of the lot being Mars Ravelo's Darna, a superheroine combining elements of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. You can even read her four-page origin story online (page one, two, three and four).
By the mid-1960s, television began to overtake komiks in the imaginations of Pinoy children, and the industry began to wind down. Around this period, editors for American comics companies, especially DC, began cherry-picking the best of the Filipino artists for work back in the States. While their overseas work brought them new levels of international fame and financial security, and while artists like Tor Infante continued to work in the Filipino market, Pinoy komiks were never quite the same again.
This is not to say that the komiks industry of the Philippines is dead, but by all accounts it does seem to be searching for direction. With the influx of Manga in the following decades, many Pinoy cartoonists began emulating the style, prompting the more traditionalist Gerry Alanguilan to remark:
"Personally, I think it's truly a missed opportunity. They have the means, they have the talent, the money, the machinery and the the will to create really good Filipino comics. It just saddens me that they chose to create Japanese comic art when they could have aspired to elevate the state of Filipino Comic Art. We really need those kinds of comics now."
As an ill-informed outsider, it seems presumptuous of me to comment, but I do wonder at such statements; it seems to me that inspiration is where you find it, and if you use the methods that appeal to you in well-practiced craftsmanship to create the stories you feel compelled to tell, everything else is but a means to an end. Like I said, presumptuous. Perhaps a better person to give the last word might be Francisco Coching himself -- in 1980, Philippine Comics Review writer Ros Matienzo tracked Coching down, finding him comfortable in his retirement, and asked him if he had advice for those who would work in comics. His reply, in part:
"Kailangan nilang pagandahin ang kanilang trabaho. Kailangan nilang magtiyaga, at magka-ambisyon na paunlarin ang kanilang sining, at ang komiks; kailangan din nilang magsikap. Hindi sa lahat ng panahon ay salapi lang ang dapat isaalang-alang. (They need to make their work beautiful. They need to be studious, hardworking, carrying with them the ambition to improve their art and the comics.)"
Local advice it may be, but it has international applications.