Friday, May 30, 2003

Q&A : Carlo Vergara

Look! Up in the sky! Its a bird! Its a plane! Its... Zsazsa??

BusinessWorld's Arts & Leisure staff sat down with spoof komiks creator Carlo Vergara to discuss what he calls 'the stupidest and most expensive hobby ever.'

Zsazsa Zaturnnah might not be as familiar as Wonder Woman or Darna but she is starting to gain a following among Filipinos regardless of sex, age or economic background. A spoof of the popular Darna, she -- "she" is usually a "he" on regular days -- is the creation of Carlo Vergara, a jack of all trades who conceived, drew and published the newest Philippine superhero.

BusinessWorld (BW): Can you tell us about the characters in Zsazsa Zaturnnah?

Carlo Vergara (CV): The characters are based on real people, the hodgepodge of personalities that I've encountered. Some of them, you could call stereotypes but when you get to know them, you find out that they're not. And you find out what makes them tick, you find out what drives them, what motivates them. And that's what I try to inject here. In essence, I wanted Zsazsa Zaturnnah to be a story about the common person who just wants to live, who has his own angst about life, who just wants to earn a living, etc.

At the back of the first part, it says it right there, "Huwag mo nang itanong kung bakit (Don't ask why)." This is the entire essence of Zsazsa Zaturnnah. You go through life, encounter all these things, and you wonder why they happen.

But ultimately, you don't have to ask. You just have to move and that's what I wanted to bring here, that these are characters who just want to live.

A stone falls from the heavens, a giant frog attacks the town. You have these intergalactic amazons who want to overtake the land, and, okay, let's fight them, get it over with and move on.

I hope that's what people see. Apart from the humor, apart from the one-liners and punchlines, I'd like them to see that the story is about people. It's about people who cope despite being faced with challenges all around. They're people like us.

BW: You said that the characters are based on real people. Are you part of the cast?

CV: Admittedly, each of the characters has a part of me. I'd like to think that's common in a lot of creators when they write different characters.

BW: Which character do you identify with the most?

CV: It would be the lead, Ada. Life is absurd and the only way you can deal with it is to live it. That's Ada's core motivation and you could say that's my motivation, too.

BW: Why "Zsazsa?"

CV: One, it's a spoof so I really needed a catty title. The name Zaturnnah is just one of those campy superhero names. These things just pop into your brain. Maybe it's because Zsazsa Padilla is "semi-seen" as a gay icon.

BW: What about the villains?

CV: The Amazonistas from Planet XXX are obviously based on Darna and the Planet Women because I remember watching that as a kid. Yung orange ang buhok (Those with orange hair)! (laughs) The only image I remember is Darna on top of a building fighting this Planet woman.

In one of the climactic action scenes, I'm calling to mind that action scene between Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, silang dalawa lang (the two of them alone). That's the kind of action I wanted because it's essentially mataray (sharp, bitchy).

BW: You're a Filipino movie fan. Lumalabas kasi (It comes out), in the dialogue, the killer Sharon Cuneta lines

CV: I was more a fan of the trailers. Yes, I would watch the films of Sharon and of Maricel Soriano because they were fun (laughs). Not because they were fun for comedic value because I took them seriously back then. I enjoyed watching them. Of course, you have the classic lines in the trailers and they're all there (in Zsazsa). You could say that the things I've encountered in entertainment, TV, film are there.

BW: Can you take us through the creative process?

CV: On my end, I've always been a fan of trying something new. When I started with One Night in Purgatory (a Pinoy graphic novel), I wanted something that was simple, yung two tao lang ang nag-uusap (just two people talking), have an issue between themselves. And see where it goes from there.

When that was done, and I had gained a bit more confidence in the medium, sige let's see where it can go further. And the first image that came into my mind was a homosexual with a large stone, trying to ingest it which you can see in the first issue. That was one of the first images that came to my mind. And then it started to take on a life of its own. Since Zsazsa is mostly a spoof, the resources are easy to get. You take the stereotype and see what you can do with the stereotype to make it more different.

So when people ask me when the next adventure is going to be, I tell them, I want to try something else first.

BW: Did you plan for it to come out in two parts?

CV: It was supposed to come out in one part, one single volume. In a sense, graphic novel nga siya talaga (its really a graphic novel).

However the money issue was a problem so I was forced to cut it into two. So when you read part one and part two separately, I don't know, there's a feeling that it's not right. You have to read it from the start, towards the end you get the full impact.

The next thing I would like to try out would either be a horror thing or a sci-fi thing and if you're going to ask me if there are going to be gay characters in it, I'm going to put gay characters in it because when was the last time you saw a gay protagonist in a horror or sci-fi story taken seriously? That's where I want to go.

BW: What's the process, is it like scriptwriting where you have sequence, dialogue?

CV: Yes, the analogy is that you create a comic book in the same way as you would do a movie. The only difference between film and comics is the medium itself but then the process before that is pretty much the same. You have a concept, a script, you go through the script editing process and then you choose what your character is going to look like, what they're going to wear, etc., and then you put it all together on paper.

Parang siyang film (its like film); it's cheaper than film. And of course there are some things that you cannot achieve with comics but that you can on film. It's a good compromise, nevertheless that you get that effect on comics for a lesser price.

BW: If price was an issue, why do it in two parts?

CV: It's cheaper in a sense that combined it would be close to 150 pages worth of comics. If I had a 150-page book printed out (less that 1,000 copies), ang laki nun (that's big). Ang mahal 'yun (it would cost a lot) but if I cut it in half, mas mura in installment (its cheaper in installments). Hindi isang bagsakan (not all in one blow).

BW: For the ones who buy (the comic)?

CV: Not really for the ones who buy (but) for me. I'm not the richest person in the world. Everything is, like, savings from rackets (odd jobs), little projects on the side.

BW: So you paid for everything?

CV: Yes, for everything. I would call it "the stupidest and most expensive hobby ever." It's crazy and I'm very thankful for the kind of response that people have been giving this book. So kahit papano (no matter how), I'm able to pay back the printers.

I haven't been earning at all from my comics work which is good because I don't have to pay taxes. But then of course, you'd want it to earn a bit to keep it going.

BW: In this case, were you able to break even?

CV: For the first one, lumampas na ng (we went past) breakeven point which for the small publishers like me is unheard of. For the second one, hindi pa naman (not yet). But if you're talking about a taxable profit, I don't think I'm going to reach that.

BW: Why graphic novels?

CV: I was interested in comics way back. Ever since I was in high school, I was into X-Men, Marvel. I wasn't so much a DC fan. But I really didn't do comics until after college and I started One Night after Arnold Arre released Mythology Class because it was the first time that someone actually pooled his resources together to come up with something that was born out of his passion for the medium. As history would have it, it won a National Book Award and of course, we, his friends were like, "Yay, we want to do that too."

That's how I started. It was more about testing myself (to see) if I could do it.

BW: Did you have any formal training in drawing?

CV: No, but I was drawing since I was four or five. Mga stick drawings. And because I was an introvert, I didn't have many people to play with when I was a kid. So drawing lang ako ng drawing (so I kept drawing) until it just developed on its own. I would copy from my favorite comic book artists and eventually developed my own style.

It helped that I had that stint in theater as an actor. Because as actors, we get exposed to scripts, on how scripts pan out, structure-wise. And so I use that when I write my own scripts and then you think of terms like blocking and lighting and all of that goes into how I do my comic books.

BW: Can you tell us about your stint in theater?

CV: In college I was part of the Harlequin Theater Guild in La Salle but that was after I graduated. I was supposedly an honorary member because I joined them after I graduated. I think I did three or four productions.

I had to get a job. In 1994, the audition article for Angels in America came out in the Manila Chronicle (so) I decided, hey, why not try and do this? So I auditioned and I got a big role, it was a dirty role, a sleazy role. I had the opportunity to have one whole scene where I get to seduce a guy. And in the next scene, I would be in bed with him.

Anyway, after Angels I got poor reviews which were okay with me because it was my debut professional theater stint and it was a difficult role because you had to have some knowledge in American political history which I did not have.

So after that, I did a few workshops with New Voice Company and appeared in another production. After that, I had to leave because some of my friends and I had to start up our own graphic design studio. I did a couple of theater productions after, independents naman. One was for UP and another was for some fly-by-night theater groups. I loved to do them because I miss theater and acting. Even until now I still miss acting but now they're all doing musicals.

BW: You don't sing?

CV: Only for the benefit of my friends in videoke sessions but not in front... The experience with the second production (I Want to Make Magic) I had for New Voice, it was a good learning experience. The concept was, you take songs from different musicals and then put them in a sequence with an underlying story, that kind of thing. I had a solo in there, and uh

BW: You didn't like it?

CV: No (stops), training was great but 'ika nga nila, hindi kaya ng powers (laughs) so huwag na lang (as they say, my powers were not great enough so don't do it).

BW: But that background really helped in doing the comic books?

CV: Yes, it really helped particularly when in comics kasi, subtlety can lose your audience unlike film. In film, you can have a small piece like, The Age of Innocence with Winona Ryder where you can have a close-up shot with no emotion, and yet it engages you.

In comics it's hard to do that. The pattern when it comes to comic book reading is mabilisan (speed). It's very rare that you stop and stare at the page.

BW: But don't you end up spoon-feeding your readers?

CV: To some extent, I do a bit of that. But since comics in themselves are very subjective sometime, you can afford to leave some things for the readers to interpret on their own.

It's hard to explain the dynamics of comic book creation. I always tell my friends, "I don't fart this." It's not something where I just sit down and do something and, voila!, it's there. There's a lot of thinking that goes into it, much more than what ordinary people might think. So this one, 150 pages, took me about six months from start to finish so it's not like, "Uy, gawa tayo ng komiks," "O sige" (Come on, let's make comics. Sure). It's not that simple.

BW: Given the choice, would you have wanted it in color?

CV: It would be nice to have color but going back to the analogy with film, there are some films that work in color, there are films that work in black and white. Because we have been trained -- not by choice but by budget -- to have our works in black and white, I personally had to tweak my style and learn, relearn to draw in black and white to get that effect. Siyempre sinasabi nila na kapag colored, mas maganda (Of course they say it would be nicer in color). But there are some pieces that won't work in color because black and white has its own atmosphere. If ever I would be asked to do a story in color, I would have to rethink the way I do things. So it's just adapting.

BW: What comments or feedback have you received re the comic book?

CV: For Part 1, I got a number of letters for Part 2, I only got one. The feedback I've been getting is mostly word of mouth. What I've been getting are text messages. It's amazing because this is like -- if ever -- the only time, the first time for a comic book about a gay beautician who gets a stone from the sky, transforms into a woman. It's campy, it's a spoof people have been sending copies abroad. They buy for their friends.

I've had news na dahil wala ng kopya sa (since there are no copies left at) Comic Quest, they buy the display copy na may nakalagay (that is designated) "For display only."

BW: Do the vendors actually sell the display copies?

CV: Yeah, because they have no choice. The person would not want to leave until he gets his copy and the only copy then was the display copy. Naka-Pentel pen na display copy at medyo lukot-lukot na yung cover (The display copy was written on with Pentel pen and the cover was somewhat crumpled).

I've had another feedback (about a) a customer (who) had to buy (the comic) three times. The other two copies he bought before he lent to friends and they never returned it (laughs). And then, when I was printing the first part, nahiya pa ang accounts person sa printing press because the workers at the press, inuuwi nila ang ibang prints (the accounts person of the printing press was embarassed because the press workers were bringing home some copies).

On the other side of the spectrum, I get a text message from someone saying, "Hey, Zsazsa is making the rounds in the ad agencies in Makati (laughs).

BW: Parang (Its like a) calling card?

CV: Oo (Yes). (laughs)

BW: May pirated version na ba (Are there pirated versions already)?

CV: (Laughs, jokes) Sa Recto may mimeographed copy na (Recto already sells mimeographed copies). (Laughs again). For someone to do that, it means na it's something worth doing. Right now, I'm in that "whatever works" mode. As long as it gets out there.

May mga nagsasabi sa akin (Some people are telling me), "Sell the movie rights!" And I'm like, it hasn't even permeated into the consciousness of the masses. It's just among a few select people who just pass the comic around. If ever there's a publisher who bites and asks for a new adventure -- which I already have in mind -- yes, I will consider movie rights. But not now, it's too early.

BW: Other feedback?

CV: Friends buying for friends. Straight people read it, have a good laugh with it. It has crossed sexual preference, it has crossed economic background. When people ask me, "Are you happy?" (I tell them) Of course, I'm happy but I'm more overwhelmed than happy. Because this is unthinkable. I've been in this small comic book industry for quite a while and this is such a small circle of people who do their own comics, self-publish, etc.

To my mind, this has never happened before. And I don't know what it is about this gay beautician who transforms into a woman that does it.

BW: Have you ever considered hooking up with a bigger publishing firm? I'm sure you've had a lot of offers to do that.

CV: No, I haven't. My next step really is to have Parts 1 and 2 together, the way I had envisioned it

BW: By another company?

CV: Yes, who could distribute it to the major bookstores because right now, (the comic books) are only available at Comic Quest and Comic Central headquarters on Katipunan Ave. and that's it. Because I can't monitor it if I distribute it any further. Talagang ako lang (it's really just me). It's a one-man thing. So I hope that a publisher bites to reprint in one volume Zsazsa.

Of course, there are going to be a few extras. I'd like to add a few conceptual sketches, how it came together. Hopefully, I can invite some big-shot, like Pol Medina, Jr. (Pugad Baboy cartoonist), to write a foreword. Plus other stuff so kahit papano, ma-e-entice ang mga tao (so somehow, people will be enticed).

BW: Did you get any reaction from the people who made Darna? Did you have to ask permission?

CV: I didn't feel that I needed to ask permission because it's a spoof and if you subscribe to spoof as being the highest form of flattery then there shouldn't be any issue about it.

BW: Have you gotten any negative feedback from people who think that you're enforcing stereotypes?

CV: I have always been against the way homosexuals have been portrayed -- as the sidekick, as the butt of jokes and we all know that. But a stereotype wouldn't be a stereotype if it didn't exist. The stereotype exists; it's real. What I attempted to do with Zsazsa is take the stereotype and do something with it. There must be more to the stereotype, there must be more meat in there.

The two protagonists (Ada, the beautician and Didi, his gay assistant) are your stereotypes but then as one homosexual reader said, "We don't laugh at them. We laugh with them." And that's what I wanted to achieve. Give them three dimensions so that you'll want to care for them, that you'll want to see more of them.

I haven't received any negative feedback. I hope I get some kind of negative feedback because the perfectionist side of me wants to know what you think. If you don't like something, tell me. And if it's valid, I will work on it. In terms of feedback, there's objective and subjective. I'll take objective feedback any day in whatever language. Kahit mura-murahin mo ako, basta objective ang essence ng feedback mo (even if you curse me, if the essence of the feedback is objective), I will take it. If it's subjective feedback, OK lang. You're entitled to your own opinion.

My first book, One Night in Purgatory, had a few negative comments which were objective, and that's good. Here (with Zsazsa), I've gotten nothing but "It's funny, it's great." And that's good.

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