CULTURE CRASH: ON THE MODERN FILIPINO COMIC BOOK
By Oliver Pulumbarit
Comic book creators wield considerable might. Like writers and artists in other fields, they can create worlds upon imagined worlds where the fantastic can happen, where the lives of their creations take entertaining twists or turns upon their wicked whims.
The early '90s gave birth to several gatherings of such enthusiastic minds, inspired by successful Filipino-American comics illustrator Whilce Portacio. Every group would have a host of brainchildren, ideas for comic books and stories that were manifested, more often than not, with doses of brilliance and naivete. I belonged to one such group during college, a bunch of aspiring creators and aficionados that included Gerry Alanguilan and Nick Manabat (who would immediately leave for the US to work on the Image title Cybernary).
This young batch of dreamers would spend countless Saturdays in shifting venues, planning and bandying around ideas and designs for the ideal team of Filipino superheroes. By early 1994, another enthusiast group comprised mostly of La Sallistas would release Flashpoint, a quirky merging of mainstream super-conflicts with Vertigo-esque sensibilities. This was followed shortly by CATS Studios' Aster, a cosmic superhero series that was published and released in the US by Entity Comics.
For many of us Pinoy geeks, things were looking up for the latest generation of wonder-weavers. The rock band scene was also experiencing renewed vigor during this period, and the muses seem to be extremely generous in sharing their permeating inspiration.
Before the inevitable union of many of these factions as the umbrella organization Alamat Comics in November 1994, several ashcans (usually photocopied editions sized at half the regular format) and other publications sold out in comic shops like CATS, Filbar's and Platinum. These included Exodus, an Image Comics-inspired conglomerate of komiks artists; Memento Mori, an anthology of provoking short stories for mature readers; and Comics 101, another anthology that showcased a number of potential projects from diverse creators.
It was a time when creative juices flowed (not that it doesn't anymore), especially for people who used the potential of the sequential form to tell very personal stories. Gerry Alanguilan's cathartic Wasted was a result of a devastating failed relationship. He gave me and his other friends photocopied installments of his work, which eventually got collected as an Alamat book, and was also serialized in Pulp Magazine.
Another effort, the six-issue Sigaw Saklolo, was practically a playground for free artistic expression, each photocopied issue a collection of some of the most hilarious, bizarre, and ruminative comic strips, poetry, and commentaries. Pagan Press, meanwhile, is another pre-Alamat title that featured works that deviated from the norm, the Santos brothers' all-ages chronicles of Indigo Valley later spinning off in a series of books.
Alamat saw the blurring of some territorial lines, as creative teams shifted and collaborated in making tales that catered to a wide range of tastes and genres, helping each other out in projects that were just waiting to get worked on. Dhampyr, written by Flashpoint scribe David Hontiveros, was illustrated by yours truly and John Toledo, earning us a National Book Awards nomination for 1998's best comic book (I just had to bring that up, didn't I?). It was about a natural vampire hunter and his unasked-for reunion with his bloodsucking relatives.
Hontiveros would also work with many artists of diverse styles in Pantheon and Avatar, which exemplifies his versatility in handling genres. These were back-to-basics, smart super-adventures that hearkened back to clear-cut, good-versus-evil spandex epics.
Alamat had a lot of promising titles that didn't get to fulfill its promise of being ongoing series. Projects like ARCHON and Alamat 101 were interesting reads that had to discontinue due to unforeseen circumstances. Other non-Alamat independent titles that showed tremendous potenial are Francis Lim's Peace, a meticulously written and illustrated science fiction parable; and Arnel and Mannie Abeleda's Piece of Weapon, a hardboiled crime drama set in 1970s Manila.
It's obviously not easy creating comics because they take untiring devotion, money and an adherence to competitive standards. Arnold Arre's wondrous Trip to Tagaytay and Mythology Class won National Book Awards, and it looks like his massive romantic graphic novel After Eden is poised to win another one in September. Arre's passion for the medium is impressive (that's an understatement), and one cannot begin to predict what world he'll come up with next.
The 3-issue Batch 72, written by Budjette Tan and also illustrated by Arre, was another place that had its own fanciful rules (a superpowered Philippines) and similarly interesting inhabitants (a superpowered college band). Marco Dimaano's Angel Ace, drawn in a manga-influenced style, has his flying heroine trounce bad guys in fast-paced and humor-filled exploits.
There have been dark realms, like the one in Jason Banico's Baylans, a paranoid alternate reality Philippines where supernatural forces and cyber-guardians unite to free the land from the land's subjugators. There's also The Lost from Kestrel Studios, Dean Alfar's peril-fraught universe where many fictitious characters have become real, some of which threaten the lives of their creators.
Last year's National Book Awards winner, Quest Ventures' Isaw Atbp., possesses three inter-connected short stories (by Vincent Simbulan, Arre, Dimaano, and Carl Vergara) as well as poetry from a number of creators. Kestrel Studios has two issues of Ab Ovo, which basically has all the creators from Isaw Atbp., as well as from the community of Pinoy creative types from some of the other local titles. Ab Ovo has poetry, introspection, and brief sequential yarns that tangentially involve jeans (yes, it's true).
Vergara's lauded gay-themed books, the dramatic One Night in Purgatory and the hilarious Darna parody, Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni ZsaZsa Zaturnnah, are both carefully crafted and immensely entertaining depictions of alternative lifestyles.
Darna herself has resurfaced in a new self-titled mini-series from Mango Comics, while anime lovers get their Japanese-flavored fix in the colorful, and hugely popular Culture Crash anthology series.
Filipino comics have been interesting metaphysical playpens for omniscient storytellers and picturesmiths who love the medium. There have been aborted projects, unfinished efforts, and many lessons learned, but as long as there are eager readers willing to visit their brave planes of existences, the local powers-that-be will keep creating and infusing them with unpredictable lives, whether superhuman or otherwise.
Oliver M. Pulumbarit has worked on four of the aforementioned titles, as well as on "Lexy, Nance & Argus", which was serialized in Pulp Magazine.