KOMIKS: THE LOST HERITAGE
Chester Ocampo and Paolo Ferrer
The La Sallian, March 14, 2003
You might have seen the latest cartoon incarnation of the Justice League-you know, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and a handful of other not-so-popular superheroes like Flash and Green Lantern-we knew them as the Super Friends back in the 80s. We see these comic book legends again on TV fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Don't you ever wonder why we don't have Filipino super heroes running around the boob tube? Where's Darna? What's Panday doing nowadays? Where does Captain Barbell work out? We don't see much of our komiks super heroes, do we? In fact, we don't see much of our komiks at all! Whatever happened to those cheap, four-color, newsprint, wakasan stories that our yayas used to read? Well, they're still there, but boy, have they changed.
Just to clarify, in this article, comic books produced in the Philippines will be referred to as komiks (with a "k"), just as Japanese comics are called manga. The popular misconception is, komiks are baduy; the stories, the art, even the paper they're printed on sucks. But there was a time, oh so long ago, when the medium didn't have such a bad rep.
Who's da man? Kenkoy!
Back in the late 1920s, before the advent of the all-powerful television set in the Philippines, komiks gradually gained popularity. Being a cheap mass-based medium of entertainment, komiks reached people from the bustling cities to the rustling provinces. Initially appearing only as a section in Liwayway magazine, characters like Antonio Velasquez's Kenkoy gave our forefathers loads of (what was then considered) humor. After World War II, komiks underwent a radical change in format, leaping from the pages of Liwayway and into the independent magazine Halakhak Komiks. Althought the venture was short-lived, numerous publications took after the concept of the independent komiks magazine. And because most komiks were published weekly, it became as religious a ritual as going to church.
Komiks, the Conqueror
Over time, komiks became more profitable and by the 1950s, different genres came crawling out of the woodwork. Enter: the legendary Francisco V. Coching. Using fantastic, eye-popping art and a fresh, novel-like treatment of his stories, Coching's work paved the way for what would go down in history as the Golden Age of Komiks. The subject matter of his stories ranged from grand, sweeping epics like Lapu-Lapu and Duwag Lang ang Sumuko to the downright mundane life of the Movie Fan. His versality and meticulous attention to detail and quality was constant in all his works. Throughout his career, Coching was able to create 56 komiks series; because of their inherent commercial appeal, it's no big surprise that a whopping 51 were adapted into motion pictures. Some of these movies starred no less than Gloria Romero and the "Action King" himself, Fernando Poe Jr, whose careers Coching "helped engrave." Up to now, his contributions to komiks and Philippine culture are remarkable feats that remain unchallenged.
This era also gave birth to one of the most enduring komiks characters of all-Mars Ravelo's Darna-and the superhero fantasy genre.
Other artists during this time like Nestor Redondo (who co-created Darna), Alfredo Alcala, and Alex Nino, also produced inventive, dynamic komiks that would inspire a new generation of creators. During this time, komiks was king of the visual entertainment hill. It was held in the same regard as painting and sculpture, but its ability to reach a wider audience made it surpass the other visual arts in popularity.
By the 1960s, television was slowly gaining ground in komiks readers' imaginations, presenting itself as a more engaging form of entertainment due to its audio-visual nature. Undoubtedly influenced by TV, cinema, and the international comics scene, komiks creators continued exploring the superhero genre. The continuing rise of TV's popularity in the 70s eventually unseated komiks as THE medium of mass entertainment. Gradually, komiks became a less profitable business venture. Some of the local industry's best illustrators were lured by more lucrative offers to work abroad. This diaspora of komiks artists left a gaping hole in the industry. The remaining komiks creators desperately tried to wrest audiences' attention from TV by pushing the envelope with themes such as sex, violence, and gore. Things got from bad to worse when Martial Law and censorship put a lid on the komiks industry's exploration of subject matter, momentarily stunting its growth in terms of content and market.
On its way to entropy
By the 1980s, television gained the top slot in the entertainment arena. Instead of buying the latest issue of Hiwaga or Pilipino Komiks, people were nailed to the floor watching Eat Bulaga or Lovingly Yours, Helen. The melodramatic audience that studiously followed the weekly komiks serials of Nerissa Cabral and Gilda Olvidado during the 70s were now hooked on the afternoon soap operas that aired on weekdays. Middle-class Filipinos during the 80s also started collecting Western comic books (mostly superhero fanfare) while the lower class still patronized the local komiks scene. It was during this time that komiks started being labeled as bakya entertainment. Colonial mentality dictated that the komiks enjoyed by the masses was substandard literature compared to Western comic books.
In the United States, Image comics, the upstart, irreverent new company challenged the industry giants Marvel and DC in the 1990s. With Image's progressive outlook on comic book creation, the traditional companies were forced to make changes in quality and content. This new movement inspired komiks creators, who leaned toward the superhero genre, to redefine the local scene's standards. Thus, was born Alamat comics. Creating numerous local equivalents of superhero stories, the Alamat people stirred things up in the local industry. However, their works failed to reach a wide enough audience and the inconsistencies in their production made the market's interest in them fizzle. Meanwhile, the newsstand komiks were littered with stories that ripped-off imported pop culture phenomena like video games, movies, and of course,
Western comic books.
Since Western comic books now had local counterparts, the line between Comics and Komiks was clearly defined. The high-end comic books produced by Filipinos, which heavily take after their American influences, are now considered by many as "better". Unfortunately, it's true that komiks are produced in poorer print quality compared to the new local "comic books". Critical readers who prioritize substance over style would say that most Filipino comic books these days, despite their slick covers and fancy coloring, still fail to capture the essence of what made Coching's reign in the komiks scene the Golden Age: thought-provoking concepts, unconventional treatment of characters, and superior draftsmanship skills.
The fate of komiks
Due to Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime) currently flooding the market, Filipino komiks artists follow suit to be able to compete. The influence of manga and anime on komiks is undeniably visible in recent releases such as Culture Crash, Angel Ace, and various independent titles. The Internet, cable TV, video games, text messaging, telenovelas-all these new forms of entertainment are competing for the attention and budget of the comic-book-reading minority. They have reduced the medium to a mere hobby or novelty-a far cry from its mass entertainment beginnings.
Unfortunately, the public at large remains completely unaware that the komiks they now see on the newsstands, even the Filipino comic books in specialty stores, were part of a legacy that once shook the world with its sublime art and novel ideas.