August 2003 issue
PORTRAIT OF THE FILIPINO AMERICAN ARTIST AS A KOMIKERO
By L. Marcelline Santos-Taylor
At the Philadelphia Convention Center, site of the East Coast Wizard Comic Book Convention, a line forms at the Wildstorm/DC comics booth. At the end of the line, sits a genial looking fellow artist Whilce Portacio. He smiles and signs autographs, smiles and signs, smiles and signs. Then the line stops moving when a pony-tailed Asian fan hands him a stack of comic books to sign. One of the convention coordinators steps in and informs the fans that there is a two-book limit. Pony-tail isn’t too happy “ Come on,” he tells Whilce, “give your Asian brother a break, dude.” He manages to sneak in five instead of two books and grudgingly moves back to the end of the line.
To many young artists and comic book aficionados, Whilce Portacio is a hero much like the comic book characters he has worked on including the Uncanny X-men, Iron Man and Stone. The latter being the first comic book based upon Filipino myths and legends to be released internationally. He has played mentor to a crop of young Filipino artists like Gerry Alanguilan (Wetworks, Stone, X-force,Wolverine and Superman: Birthright) and Leinil Yu (X-men, Wolverine and Superman: Birthright), who are now enjoying success in the U.S. comics industry.
Born in the Philippines some thirty-something years ago, Whilce moved to America when he was two years old. His father was a career navy man so most of his childhood was spent on military bases. “Living on military bases gives you the freedom of safety,” shares Whilce, “Because there was so little crime our parents let us stay out with friends till 9:30PM sometimes and my friends and I, being boys, explored every inch of everything labeled ‘military’ and ‘restricted.” The young Whilce loved to read and spent many Sunday mornings after church at the library pouring over Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It was not until he was ten years old that he discovered comic books. “My next door neighbor wanted to throw out her husbands comic book collection while he was at work and instead gave them all to me,” says Whilce.
His high school years were spent in Hawaii. And although he always had a knack for art, he never thought of becoming an artist professionally. “Until I found out I was too short and had bad eyesight from watching too much TV,” Whilce shares, “I wanted to be an astronaut…then I wanted to be a rock star but couldn’t sing…” With his innate artistic talent, he started to pursue a fine arts/advertising degree at the Philippine Women’s University (PWU) in Manila only to return to the States after his second year. It was then that fate stepped in and chose a career path for him.
Armed with a stack of art samples, Whilce attended the San Diego International Comic Book Convention. He so impressed Marvel Comics editor Carl Potts that he was offered a job on the spot. From penciller, to inker, to writer, Whilce career as a comic book artist took off. Since then he has worked in various capacities on titles like Alpha Flight, The Punisher, X-factor, Uncanny X-men, Iron Man, and X-force. For the X-men, he even created the famous X-men character Bishop. Currently, he is a studio manager and artist for Wildstorm/DC Comics, working on the series Storwatch: Team Achilles, dubbed as “hard-edged military fiction.” His “discovery” at the Comic-con has inspired many young artists to follow their dreams.
Whilce confides: “I was excited (about getting a job on the spot for Marvel Comics) of course but strangely not bowled over or overwhelmed. I knew it was a job and people depended on me (so I had to do it well). There was so much to learn. I was responsible for my grandmother and my sisters so I had to make money being the Kuya…no time to think just do…” Playing big brother comes naturally to Whilce. It is the most Pinoy thing about him: “I was born to be a Kuya,” he says. And the most American thing: “I think I can fix anything,” he smiles.
In the mid-90s, Whilce was back in Manila. He lived in a large old house on Balete Drive in Quezon City, where he once again found himself playing kuya to a rag-tag family of artists. After fifteen years in comics Whilce felt he had reached a plateau both professionally and personally.
“I decided to take a (self-imposed) vacation to find myself so to speak and one thing lead to another. I just rented a spooky cool house on Balete because a friend’s family owned it and the people came. As we made more friends it just became right for us all to hang out…Then we all said, hey we’re a bunch of talented people let’s pool our talent together and make some money for rent and have as much fun as possible.”
His semi-retirement proved productive. He taught comic book/art workshops for the LEARN center of his old school PWU and helped launch the careers of a new breed of Filipino comic book artists.
“I fell into teaching so easily,” Whilce says, “it was kind of a release for me -- a way to let loose all my thoughts and experiences." Fifteen years is a lot of comics, Whilce had a lot to say. Teaching at a school and preparing new artists for "real world" jobs was a way for him to see himself as others did -- a comics idol and role model. He quips, "Work never prepares you for that role. (With work), you just think of the deadlines and the next vacation." He was definitely onto something.
Another offshoot of those Manila years was the creation of his own comic book company called Avalon Studios. Avalon released titles like Aria, Hellcop and Stone. Stone received international acclaim and will go down in history as the first comic book based upon Filipino myths and legends to be released to the international market. Like most Filipino-Americans, Whilce had been interested in understanding his two cultures. For Whilce, writing Stone meant finding his roots through Philippine mythology.
“My feeling is that the Philippines is in a rut because we do not know as a whole who we are in the world. If we can’t find a common identity as a country, how can we banner together as one people and achieve the things that we know we can achieve (as Filipino people)?”
In the future, he plans to revive his original concept of the Stone book – a compilation of “ghost stories” that Filipinos hear growing up, as described by Philippine scholars and psychics and illustrated by top artists. “Hopefully, a definitive look into our psyche,” he says.
Whilce Portacio is back in the US. Not too long ago, Whilce suddenly fell into a coma and was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. “Even though I almost died, I am very blessed to have come out of it with barely a scratch. Fortunately, all I need to do is watch my diet and exercise a little more. My diabetes is very borderline and controllable,” he says sounding grateful.
Perhaps it is this brush with death that has made him a bit reflective about how his life’s turned out. Via e-mail, he writes: “My first fifteen years in comics were spent learning the skills God gave me. My five years in the Philippines were spent finding out who I was and ended up with finding my own family to love and protect. So my future time on Earth is dedicated to my wife, my son, my two daughters. My life right now is 9-5 working manager/artist then the rest of the day and night devoted father and husband…to some a very ho-hum life but for me, I have reached a very meaningful stage in this wonderful life.”
From caring Kuya to loving Padre de Familia, Whilce Portacio, foremost comics illustrator and author has definitely found his place in this world.
BIO-NOTE. L. Marcelline Santos-Taylor is a freelance writer. She writes the column Manila Girl for the Filipino Express. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and toddler son. You may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org