Comic Book Creators Show Talent, Ambition
By Paolo Manalo

IT HAS BEEN around for more than a century, but the comics genre has yet to earn a legitimate position in literature and the arts, especially in the Philippines. During last year’s National Artist nominations, certain critics and columnists objected when they discovered that the late Francisco V. Coching, creator of such memorable komiks like Barbaro, Condenado, Talipandas, Thor, and Duwag ang Sumuko, was one of the candidates in the visual arts category.

Though Coching was not the eventual choice, to the naysayers the very idea that he could be in the running was an insult to the other nominees. After all, Coching was just a cartoonist, a dibuhista, someone whose lifework was pretty pictures mass-printed on cheap paper and read by the masses, and certainly not a visual artist in the “true” sense, they said. As for his considerable legacy as a pop culture storyteller, his choice of genre worked against him again. Komiks necessarily means the juxtaposition of images and words to create a narrative, and the presence of those images makes it doubtful a nomination for National Artist for Literature would ever be considered.

In recent years many scholars have defended the position of comics and comic books as a medium, and American comic book creator Scott McCloud has written a definitive, much-celebrated book on it—Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1995)—as well as a sequel, Reinventing Comics (2000). The public at large still believes that comics or komiks, whatever the spelling may be, should never be considered a high form of literature or even art. Some might argue that comic books have entered the classrooms with the introduction of several elective courses. A comic book writing course is taught from time to time at the University of the Philippines, but even the teaching of it is at an experimental stage.

In other words, the “invisible art” of comics occupies non-legitimized spaces both inside and outside the academe. Yet with its mass appeal, it is easily accessible to its highly appreciative cult followers in a country with a generally non-reading public. Though considered mainstream, it is not mainstream literature.

Even more interesting is the komiks-comic books divide unique to the Philippine scene. The division may be a matter of language. While komiks are written in the vernacular languages, comic books are read in English, specifically in the English of the American mainstream. But then Japanese manga fans will ask: how does one explain something like the locally produced Culture Crash, a graphic manga anthology written in Filipino which features the latest video games and the latest Western pop icons. Critic Patrick Flores said, “...[I]t fails to evoke a sense of milieu and complement its Filipino narrative.” It seems to have the feel of the komiks in terms of its language, and yet it is not komiks as far as its graphic iconography is concerned. It is not also what is perceived to be “local comics”.

Given the uniqueness of the medium, comic book language is not just limited to its oral and its written word substitutes as with other literary genres. In comics, there is also the graphic language to consider, which forms part of what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls language games. The local comic books follow the same language games of the American mainstream comic book in terms of the grammar and syntax of both the paneling and iconography. Even when local comic books are written using Taglish or Filipino dialogues and captions, they still follow the language games and conventions of their Western predecessors, not that of Filipino komiks. The latter refers to the locally produced graphic texts one buys at the palengke or newstands, or rents from a neighborhood sari-sari store.

The Filipino komiks has its legion of wakasan and itutuloy readers who await the weekly installments of graphic narrative in the same way that most households now put everything on hold every afternoon to watch the next episodes of their favorite soap operas and teleseryes.

Meanwhile, comic book readers wait for monthly issues, annuals and specials that they buy from their favorite comic book specialty shops in the malls and shopping centers. These titles are usually from American mainstream publishers like Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse. Some readers of foreign comic books in turn become the producers of the local comic books. The question is: aside from themselves, their friends and the smaller number of comic book readers, who reads and supports locally produced comics?

Pioneers in the early ’90s were mostly university-based creators. Their comics were more like underground zines, enjoying small but very loyal support groups. One thing that helped them move forward in terms of readership was the chance given to these creators to exhibit their works in mini-conventions held in the malls, sponsored by the local comic shops, of course. Some of the memorable titles that emerged during this period include Gerry Alanguilan’s Wasted, and the anthologies Comics 101 and Memento Mori.

With the exception of Alanguilan, whose artwork has been featured regularly in international comics and whose “Tales from the Big City” appears regularly in the pages of Pulp magazine, where are these other creators now? Where are the forgotten titles? Most were discontinued due to lack of interest and support before they were noticed by a wider, comic-book reading public.

The truth is, not all comic-book readers go out of their way to support the local comics. “Why,” a reader would ask, “should I get a Filipino comic book when it is expensive, in black and white, and has poor production values compared to its imported counterpart?” The more brutal collector puts it: “Why should I get comic books that are obvious clones of Image, Marvel and DC heroes?”

In previous years, many of the forgettable titles were inferior copies of the average American comics super-hero. With the packaging of these comic books, it was no surprise that they were aimed at an American market through an international distribution system. Still, 10 or so years later, there has yet to be a local comic book that is commercially successful locally, let alone internationally.

There is no professional local comic book industry. As sophisticated and professional as they may seem to be now in terms of production, these titles are still labors of love, without regular shipping or launching dates. Copies have a limited print run, not even half the number of copies that a komiks publisher puts out in a week. In certain cases, issues get delayed for a few months. Readers receive the first two issues of a supposedly ongoing series, then never hear of future issues again either due to lack of funds or lack of interest in the project.

Creators are lucky if they manage to break even with the issues that they sell. This does not happen often so it is a small comfort if these writers and artists are not in it for the money. They have their day or night jobs, mostly in the fields of media and advertising.

But as 2001 shows, despite the economic crisis, several small studios have risked time and money to produce new and exciting material to the small comics non-industry. With the prices of imported comic books getting more expensive as the peso devaluates over the years, local comic books have managed to price themselves competitively. Their prices range from P100 to P160. These small studios include the Alamat Comics Group, Kestrel Studios, Tala Studios, and Quest Ventures.

Reading last year’s local comics, it becomes apparent that there are fewer super-hero titles set in some generic Western world and more stories in a localized universe, mostly versions and revisions of a fin de siecle Metro Manila. The super-hero team is replaced by the barkada. These stories, like Arnold Arre’s short-attention span epic, The Mythology Class (1998), are usually populated by confused and idealistic teenagers, college students, and unhappy yuppies.

Arre was last year’s most prolific artist, his work appearing in the titles published by Alamat, Kestrel Studios, and Quest Ventures. This is not surprising since Arre is one of the more committed comic book artists whose work shows an understanding for the genre and its place in Philippine arts and literature. Though prone to certain narrative flaws and a cluttering of panels, Arre’s dedication to his craft is part of what makes him so prolific.

In Kestrel Studios’ initial offering, the limited, three-issue series called The Lost, Arre lends his talents to illustrate the script prepared by Dean Francis Alfar. In The Lost , Manila is the world filled with shattered dreams, literally. Certain forces are out to destroy the personified dreams and desires of a group of yuppies and possibly the dreams and aspirations of the nation. Issue No. 3 has yet to come out, but from the narrative, it seems that Alfar has more interesting stories to tell, and Kestrel has more titles to offer in the coming years.

Meanwhile, Vincent Michael Simbulan put out an anthology of interrelated stories called Isaw, atbp. with his Quest Ventures. There are no super-heroes or supernatural creatures, no explosions or car crashes throughout the work. Simbulan’s narratives examine relationships and the relatedness of unrelated events, much in the same way that the comic book operates through its juxtaposition of related and unrelated images and words. In his introduction, Simbulan writes: “Our love for this medium compels us to give something back, to reach out with our own stories.” No longer as passive players in the language games of comic book collecting and reading, he and his collaborators are active participants in these games.

Like Alfar, Simbulan confesses to not being able to draw past stick figures, and so Arre, Carlo Vergara, and Marco Dimaano illustrate his stories. Dimaano is known for his own Angel Ace. Last year, he had just completed his latest Ace limited series, Angel Ace Again (published by Alamat). In between stories are poems by Dean Francis Alfar, Nikki Alfar, Emrys Capati, and a sestina by Simbulan.

After some years, Alamat finally put out the long-awaited Batch 72 limited series by Budjette Tan and Arre. This 1995 title focused on a college band in a Philippines whose members have superpowers. It had the greatest potential for a title and the best timing since it came out during the peak of the alternative band explosion. But after an issue, nothing was heard about it again. This became a common problem with some forgettable Alamat titles: they began, and as soon as they did, they were discontinued. With Angel Ace Again, Alamat’s production has matured.

Last year’s best comic book was Alamat’s One Night in Purgatory by Carlo Vergara. It is the best example of a Filipino one shot. Purgatory is a simple and complex story of the changing states of friendship and commitment that can only be told using the medium of graphics. Though there were problems with the story’s language and the characters’ milieu, not to mention the melodramatic Cervantes epigraph, Vergara uses successful shifts in details, evocative panelings and multi-level juxtapositions to tell an organic, self-contained story. The comic book is the perfect medium for it. It allows the years between the two characters to collapse into one special night after which Purgatory successfully closes itself with the new day.

Hopefully, these creators will challenge themselves and their readers with more graphic storytelling, leaving behind the four corners of the comic shops that have nurtured and sheltered them these past few years. It augurs well for the future of local comics that the titles mentioned and the names of their creators were included in the Coching retrospective at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last November. Komiks: Katha at Guhit ni Francisco V. Coching, organized by the Coching Foundation, brought together the history of komiks and comics in one comprehensive exhibit.

This year comic book creators need to think of strategies to make their works accessible to a wider audience. They’ve already proven that they have talent and the ambition to work at what is so far a thankless career, but what they face now is the harder task—the need to read more in order to be read by more. (With assistance from Lia Bulaong)

About the Author
PAOLO MANALO teaches creative writing at the Department of English and Comparative Literature at University of the Philippines Diliman and is literary editor of the Philippine Free Press.