Unleashing His Inner Superhero
Posted: 7:20 AM (Manila Time) | Jun. 27, 2004
By Ruel S. De Vera
Inquirer News Service

Zsazsa Zaturnah

It was a dream come true in 2002 when comic creator Carlo Vergara unleashed "Ang Kagila-Gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah," a witty, lushly-illustrated story of a gay beautician named Ada who finds a huge magic stone which, when swallowed, transforms him into a muscular super-heroine named Zsazsa Zaturnnah. Yet it was just the beginning for Vergara, 33, and his funny Darna homage. The comic book, published by Visual Print Enterprises, would go on to win the National Book Award for Comic Books as well as get optioned for a possible feature film. It's been quite a flight for Vergara who graduated from De La Salle University in 1990 with a degree in Marketing Management. But diversity \has always been something he enjoyed. "Some people find adventure in exotic places, but there are other ways to experience adventure," he explains. "It's about variety." In fact, Vergara had worked for everything from a greeting card company to an encyclopedia firm and a telecom company before this breakout success. Vergara has been a big comic fan since his youth (Chris Claremont's run on "The Uncanny X-Men" ranks among his favorites) and has constantly honed his artistic skills, just waiting for a chance. Yet he is indeed a man of many skills, as he is a writer and graphic designer aside from being an illustrator. Oh, and he is also quite the actor, having appeared in several plays including "Angels in America" for New Voice Company in 1994. "I miss it terribly," he says of the stage. The bass baritone also enjoys working out and karaoke ("Can't Get Enough of Your Love" is always a crowd-pleaser). Having worked in comic books for over a decade now, he considers comic books "an amalgam of everything I've done." Vergara, who is gay, doesn't mind readers attaching causes and meanings to his work, but he says he just wants to tell a good story. "I try to be universal as much as possible with my work." And for now, that work means working on the shelfload of graphic novel projects in his head. He just might wind up doing other things in the future. "Right now, I'm having fun," Carlo Vergara says. "I want to make comic books into a career. It's nice to be part of the growth of something." Excerpts of SIM's chat with the creative Vergara:

Sunday Inquirer Magazine: So how did "Zsazsa" come about? What was the idea behind the comic book?

Carl Vergara: It was an idea seed in late 2001. I was halfway through another comics script, thinking that it would be my next solo project, when the image of a person taking in a large stone struck me. It was a powerful image, that, and the idea seed just grew, prompting me to set aside the story I had been writing in favor of this new one. My first mode in tackling the project was "unstereotyping stereotypes." I was thinking, "People lament the stereotypical portrayal of homosexuals, but I can't totally remove stereotypes because they won't be such if they didn't exist in real life. So why not take the tried-and-tested and play around with it?"

Wrestling with demons

The theme "Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit (Don't Ask Why)" is more personal, reflecting the bad year that was 2002. It was a year when things weren't really going my way and I was wrestling with a few demons from all fronts. To deal with those demons, I poured it all out in Zaturnnah's story. Doing the comic book became a major part of my catharsis. I believe that this gave "heart" to the story.

SIM: Since when have you known you were gay and when did you come out of the closet?

Carl: It was in sixth grade when I first realized that I was really different, but my coming out story is hazy. Most of my schoolmates knew out there wasn't much of a fuss over it. I didn't fully experience being the target-of-choice for gay jokes, because I acted ambiguously for the most part, I didn't fit the stereotype, and I excelled in class and school activities. I didn't really have to "come out" in the moment-of-truth sense of it.

SIM: What was your intention in drawing and writing gay-themed comics?

Carl: Creating gay-themed comics was a conscious decision. Homosexuality was a subject I was more comfortable handling, especially since I'm partial to character-driven stories. I suppose the major intention was to do something majority of my contemporaries wouldn't do. There's also that need to repackage the gay persona, giving it a few twists here and there, which veers from the way conventional media portrays homosexuality. We've read all the articles lamenting how gays are portrayed in movies and TV, so I wanted to experiment by taking concepts and see where the gay angle would take them.

SIM: Did you have any concerns about the public's reception of "Zsazsa" when you were working on it?

Carl: No. Not at all. Maybe a bit with the cussing. But, heck, it's For Mature Readers Ever. Seriously, not everyone will like the book, either because of the story or the art, or maybe because comics to them is like what golf is to me - it just ain't my thing. But I'm concerned about how people may avoid the book just because of its "gay" nature, like they wouldn't want to be caught alive reading it.

SIM: One of the book's key scenes is when Ada (as Zsazsa) actually encounters his long-dead father, now reanimated as a zombie. It's played for laughs, with the zombie refusing to accept that his son is gay and tearing himself to pieces before running away. Yet Zsazsa is clearly hurt by this encounter. What's behind this scene?

Carl: This scene is what I'm most proud of, creatively. I wanted something that's funny and painful at the same time. Ada didn't really have a great life growing up, and yet he's always wanted to prove to his father that he can do something important. But Ada's father didn't live long enough to see what his son has achieved. So the cemetery encounter was Ada's last ditch attempt to convince his father that his having a gay son was nothing to be ashamed of.
Super-powerful gay man

But the father chose to die again to get his point across. I'd like to think that this is one of the struggles that many homosexuals go through, the need to prove one's worth. In Ada's case, the approval from his father is a strong element behind his drive.

SIM: In the end, "Zsazsa" is the chronicle of a super-powerful gay man who saves the day, defeating what stands in his way to protect the things he values and yet all he really wants is to be loved. Is that what you wanted to say with this work?

Carl: Not really "to be loved," but more to be able to live normally despite adversity. There are things in life we can't control, questions we cannot answer. But instead of getting bogged down pondering those mysteries, we should take a pro-active stance and do something about them, driven by sincerity, love, hope, and faith. It's a lesson that's for everyone, whether straight or gay.

SIM: What do you see then in "Zsazsa's" massively successful run? What does it say about the public's view of gay comics?

Carl: I will question the use of the word "massively." Maybe if I can live off it (laughs). I've always called this book a monster, because I can find no clear reason behind the passionate response to it, but I don't think it says much about the public's view of gay comics. I wanted to have something for everyone. So I have the voluptuous, thong-strapped babe Zaturnnah and the Amazonistas for those who like women, the cute and sensitive hunk Dodong for those who like men, loads of irreverent and naughty humor, high-action, a love story, a lesson or two about life, and so on. If I may quote the PDI's review: "It's not just a great and funny gay comic book. It's a great and funny comic book, period." In the end, it's all about making great comics, whatever the subject may be.

SIM: Tell us about the Zsazsa movie. How did it happen and what do you hope to be able to accomplish with it?

Carl: I was contacted by two film studios by email late last year. Needless to say, I was ecstatic that two companies wanted to get the film rights. I chose one studio and, as of now, the first screenplay had been drafted. In the United States, major comics companies have begun tailoring their products to become easier sells to movie producers, and I take that as a sad thing. It's like making comics a means to an end and not the end in itself, thus further threatening its value as an artistic medium. If my work is good enough to be put on the big screen, that's just an added bonus for me.

SIM: Finally, how much of Carlo Vergara is in Zsazsa Zaturnnah?

Carl: Not so much in Zsazsa Zaturnnah, but more in the book itself. I'm there, right between the lines.