DARNA! by Hugo Zacarias Yonzon
MTV INK, April 2003, Vol. 3, No. 3

When I was a little boy, my uncle taught me a trick using firepowder found in used paputok. We’d gather all the firepowder we could fins, and put it together a spoonful’s worth into a mound. He would make me stand a foot or so from the pile of firepowder and he’d light it using a long, twisted strip of paper. The firepowerder would ignite and there would be a bright flash, lots of smoke, and I was instructed to shout “Darna!” This is my earliest memory of Darna, Needless to say, you should try this at home.

If you need to know why that little trick was called “The Darna,” then you probably didn’t grow up in the Philippines. That, or you’ve been carefully shielded from exposure to Filipino pop culture. Mars Ravelo’s super-heroine first appeared as Varga in comics in 1949. Comics back then were the soap operas of today, closely followed from week to week. You think some semi-pornographic men’s magazine’s circulation is impressive at 120,000? Try about a million for Fil;ipino komiks back in the 50s. When Ravelo, the highest-paid comic book serye writer in his day, moved to work for another publisher in 1951, he shrewdly brought his creation with him, circumnavigating certain restrictions by renaming her Darna.

Drawn by the country’s top illustrator, Nestor Redondo (Varag was drawn by Ravelo himself, who gained more fame as a writer than an artist), Darna was an instant hit. That same year, it was made into a film. The first Darna was Rosa Del Rosario, who reprised the role for the second film, also in 1951. Since her debut on celluloid, Darna has been remade into film a whopping 14 times. That’s more than any American super-hero can claim! Darna has been played by a bevy of popular Filipino stars from Sharon Cuneta (in a cameo in Captain Barbell) to Dolphy (as a temp Darna in Darna Kuno) to Nanette Medved and Anjenette Abayari. The most popular Darna of all, Vilma Santos, portrayed the role four times from 1973’s Lipad, Darna, Lipad! To 1980’s Darna and Ding.

Some critics would dismiss Darna as a Wonder Woman rip-off. More accurately, Darna seems to be more directly inspired by Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel (Shazam!) with some Wonder Woman elements thrown in. Captain Marvel’s alter ego was a young boy named Billy Batson who shouts the wizard Shazam’s name to call on thunder and lightning to transforms into the power Captain Marvel. The similarities end there, however, Darna is a Filipino icon through and through.

One of the popular elements of Darna is the mystical stone which fell to earth, and which the curious young Narda swallowed. In the original series, Darna swallows the stone only once. The movies, however, in their many versions, made it so that Narda would have to swallow the stone before each time she shouted “Darna!”, giving rise to the immortal line, “Ding! Ang bato!” This element is original Ravleo, with a hint of influences from Filipino mysticism, Filipino myth describes an agimat or enchanted stone which is swallowed and gives its possessor superhuman abilities.

Darna is an enduring Filipino pop icon who finds relevance in society even in these jaded times. Although Darna’s last appearance on the silver screen was in 1994, and her last appearance in comic book form escapes my memory, Darna is still very much a familiar and popular figure in local pop culture, Darna has, in recent years, even endorsed the Toyota Tamaraw FX. Her presences is so ingrained in the Filipino psyche that even a cleansing bleach can imply so much with the statement “Ding, ang takip!” (complete with bright backlight).

Darna is, put simply, the greatest Filipino super-heroine ever. Her mystique continues to appeal to Filipinos young and old. The old remember how she was in film and print, and the young get taught stupid and dangerous tricks with firepowder called “The Darna.” She appeals to women because she embodies female empowerment in all sense. Narda’s role model and authority figure is her grandmother, who raised her and her brother Richard (Ding, comes from Carding, the colloquial term for Richard). Richard, practically, the only recurring male character in Ravelo’s series, was the archetypal damsel in distress. He always needed rescuing. Darna’s nemeses were mostly female, her arch-enemy was the serpent-coiffed Valentina, for example. Among her gallery of rogues were Armida, Ang Babaeng Lawin; Ang Babaeing Tuod; and Ang Impakta. This isn’t to say that Ravelo limited Darna’s tussles to all-girl affairs. Darna fought men, too—most of them uneducated thugs and drunkards.

The unflattering portrayal of men in the series does nothing to reduce the male demographic, however. Darna is strong, stylish, and sexy, star-spangled bra and all. Portraying Darna in nearly every film was always the latest, hottest young starlet. Lipad, Darna, Lipad! was Vilma Santos’ image-changing role. The moment she dressed up (or down, as it were) in that unforgettable two-piece, it announced she was ready for Burlsek Queen, her break-out role. Then there was Nanette Medved. Can you picture a running Anjanette Abayari? Is it any wonder that she has throngs of male fans, too?

Darna also resonates very strongly with member of the third sex. She’s Madonna, she’s Kylie, she’s Regine Velasquez. Overheard at the Mango Comics’ launch at Eastwood last February 28, where people who bought the comic were given the chance to have their picture taken with a model in a Darna outfit; gay man 1: “Tara, magpakuga tayo kasam ni Darna!” gay man 2: ”Ayoko! Gusto ko AKO si Darna!”. Women admire her, men want to be with her, and gay men want to be her.

2003 promises to be a big year for the 50-year old super-heroine. Kicking off what has been dubbed as Darna Year is Mango Comics’ launch of the new, English edition version of Mars Ravelos’ Darna. Done in the tradition of American comic books (DC, Marvel, Image, etc.) computer-colored and printed in five-color Heidelberg machines, Mars Ravelo’s Darna is Mango Comics’ way of paying homage. Having been out of the comics scene for an incredibly long time, Darna returns with a bang. The three-part series is written by Boboy Yonzon, an award-winning film writers and director; penciled in turns by Ryan Orosco, Lan Medina, and Gilbert Monsanto, the latter two being comic professionals who’ve done work for American companies; and inked by Monsanto.

The limited series will be followed by a Darna tribute album, slated for release in June. At the same time, from the end of May to mid-June, there will be a Mars Ravelo’s Darna staged by Ballet Philippines. It’s Ballet Philppines’ most ambitious project eve, done on a scale they’ve never attempted. In this incarnation of the super-heroine, there will be flying. When I say flying, I mean, piano wire, Chinese movie, Matrix-style flying. (When I saw the pre-production training and initial choreography, I was blown away). It’ll be directed by theater veteran Cris Millado, and choreographed by Denisa Reyes.

In these uncertain times, Darn fills a much needed void of inspiration. There’s always a need for heroes, especially, one we can call our own. This year, Darna flies again.