FROM: BluPrint / Volume 4 2004

Where we are
Where we’re heading
Who’s who in the comic book world


Written by Charlene F. Sawit
Photographed by RJ Fernandez
Art directed by Mela de Luna
Make-up and grooming by Benjie Angeles and Jasmine Mendiola

Art is produced not only by those who have talent and skill in a medium and enjoy the process of creating but also by those who are compelled to say something—and are willing to suffer to say it. Hence the stereotypes: starving artist, struggling writer, hungry poet, penniless musician, independent (code for all the adjectives used above) filmmaker. Part of this list (but one that does not immediately come to mind) is the comic book creator. While most artists are at least given by their skeptics the benefit of the doubt in the form of respect for the tradition of their media, comic artists/writers often do not get their “benefit”. They are usually perceived as immature, their medium of choice touted as kid’s stuff, and unlike their fellow dreamers, aspiring comic artists have no flourishing local industry to break into,

At present, compare to the income-generating comic industries of the United States, Japan and Europe, a student cannot expect to graduate from college and find a bread-and-butter, feed-the-wife-and-kids job in Philippine comics. Still, a number of artists and writers are continually drawn to try their hand at the medium; many producing titles independently (in other words, not just from their hearts but from their own pockets); some of these comics go on to become such underground gems that publishers eventually take notice and finally bring the titles to a wider audience. Occurrences like these, though rare, are the little struggling breaths that are helping to revive a long stagnant industry.

In the end, artists go through all this trouble because they are compelled to; and many local comic book creators are just people itching to tell a story. Comic readers know that it is a potent but underrated medium of storytelling, open to any subject matter ranging from mundane slice-of-life occurrences and adventures of spandex suited superheroes, to the horrors of the holocaust and back again. And like any successful work of art, a comic book that is done right can evoke an immediate emotional response and perhaps stretch one’s gray matter and inch of two.

A bold combination of fearless outlook and intense, deeply earnest stories

“A lot of young artists end up in advertising;” muses Arnold; reflecting on how he graduated from the College of Fine Arts in UP Diliman and went on to become an artist for several advertising agencies. “It’s one of the few opportunities for them to be creative and still get paid.” Coming up with a comic was something of a necessity. “I guess you get to tell stories in advertising… but still, it’s not the same. I needed something of my own out there. To prove something to myself, in a way.” His first project, “The Mythology Class” surprised him by going on to win the Manila Critics National Book Award in 2000. “I wasn’t out to win anything. I didn’t even know comic could win any awards. I made that comic to entertain myself. It was just something I wanted to read but didn’t see anywhere— a comic based n Philippine mythology.”

Since then, Arnold has been know for creating thoughtful, introspective comics, as opposed to the action-driven ones created by most of his contemporaries. Despite whatever fantastic events or realities surround Arnold’s characters, the heart of his stories lie mostly in the character’s emotions and minds. His second book “Trip to Tagaytay” (a quietly affecting tale set in the late 21st Century Manila filled with mad predictions of the future—Aga Mulach as president of the Philippines, to say the least), won him the National Book Awards again in 2001. He attributes inspiration for his this and latest comic, “After Eden” to his wife; wife and fellow artists Cynthia Bauzon (who designed almost all the album covers of the Eraserheads). “Trip to Tagaytay” is actually a love letter to Cynthia in disguise. “She was in the States at the time and I didn’t want to send her the usual things, so I made the comic for her.:

Arnold has an optimistic outlook on the future of Philippine comics; “The manga (Japanese comics) style is really hot right now, but I’m hopeful that artists will in time evolve and develop their own styles. Marketing for local comics may be shaky, because publishers tend to be nervous; but I think that will change when they eventually see that there really is a large reading public. As for ever lacking in talent or variety on the local scene, I’m not worried; we have so many good artists and writers here—they’re just waiting for a revolution.”

Close encounters of the third kind and more

“Homosexual beautician receives a stone from outer space and transforms into this voluptuous gorgeous woman who saves a small town from zombies and extraterrestrial women. He also has a gay assistant and is secretly in love with the village hunk…” is the two-time Palanca-winner writer, graphic designer, former teacher, theater actor and finally comic creator Carlo Vergara’s summary of his original and hilarious work, “Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah” (which was a Manila Critics’ Cricle National Book Awardee). While his first book “One Night in Purgatory” (about the special relationship between two men—one straight and one gay) was also critically acclaimed and well-received by readers, “ZsaZsa” proved to be groundbreaking work in the sense that it was embraced not only by comic fans but by people who have never read comics before.

This independently produced title achieve commercial success and was sought out by a surprisingly large number of people from different age groups and economic backgrounds. “And while a lot of people from the gay community checked out the title, it wasn’t necessarily interpreted as a comic for homosexuals.” Carlo adds, “Many of the readers were straight men and women.” Although the characters, their environment, and the dialogue of ZsaZsa are so real and familiar, perhaps what won over such a diverse audience was the genius of its situation comedy, which Carlo reveals was actually the product of a period of great personal turmoil. “It was one of those years when everything went bad—career, love, my direction in life. My way of dealing with all of that was ZsaZsa… I wanted to amuse myself. It was my escape. Besides, I wanted to try my hand at comedy, because I’m not really a naturally funny person.”

Carlo hopes he can help future comic artists by helping to advance the craft now. “Our mindset is that Pinoy comics are temporary, disposable fare. We’ve had this template of newsprint comics for so long, local publishers are afraid to deviate from it. But obviously the old formulas aren’t working; sales of local newsstand comics have gone down considerably since the early 1980s. I guess you can blame it on the economy or new forms of entertainment, but that’s an old tune I don’t believe in. If an industry knows its audience well enough, it should know how to adapt. Readers have more sophisticated tastes compare to two decades ago. Right now we see a lot of passive imitation; but there are also quite a number of young artists today who are taking upon themselves to do different things, tell new kinds of stories. I hope someday the local comics industry generates the same kind of excitement… in other countries.”

An unbelievable, extraordinary effort has not gone "Wasted"

“It’s not a glamorous job,” admits Gerry Alanguilan. “Ninety percent of the time you’re tied to your desk, with interviews like this as your only chance of sunlight. If prestige is the reason you want to make comics, forget it.” he may sound discouraging, but aspiring comic artists can very well look up to Gerry for inspirations. Arnold Arre cites him as a truly original artist; and remembers being “blown away” when came across Gerry’s “Wasted” series in the early 1990s. The violent, rage-filled comic eventually prompted Warren Ellis (creators of the similarly gritty, critically-acclaimed series “Transmetropolitan”) to urge American readers to hunt down a copy of this “Filipino comics”, raving that Gerry was “potentially brilliant.” Like Carlo Vergara’s “Zsazsa Zaturnnah,” “Wasted” was created during a period of hopelessness; but instead of being an escape, the comic was truly a catharsis; it is all of Gerry’s poisons put on paper.

In the early 1990s, when the newspapers announced that Whilce Portacio was coming to the Philippines, Gerry was an architect by profession who did comic as a hobby. “I’ve always admired Whilce’s (Portacio’s) work, but I didn’t know he was Filipino. When I saw him it was like a slap in the face. I realized it was possible for Pinoys to do work of that caliber in the States.” Gerry locked himself up in his room and started drawing, consumed by tunnel vision to break into the international comics scene. His saving dwindled and his then-girlfriend eventually left him. “It was devastating. You have to understand, until that point I had been doing everything for her. I was working so hard in comics because I believed that it was that, not architecture, that would allow me to follow her to the States.” After a year, he finally did “Wasted”, which started as a “Xerox and staple” comic, and was eventually published by Pulp Magazine’s Comics 101 by Budjette Tan, [Erratum: Comics 101 was published by Cheap Thrills Studio.] then as a complete book by Alamat Comics in 1998, and as a “Final Edition” by Pulp in 2001. “I didn’t want it published at first; it was such a personal thing. I was afraid people would see me differently—just the first eight pages are full of violence, sex and profanity.” But the positive response was enormous.

His confidence returned, he was able to meet Whilce Portacio again, and one thing led to another. He has worked for many local and foreign titles, including Image, Marvel, and DC. Aside from many local projects, he has a new obsession: to track down old Filipino komiks artists and collect their original artwork; hoping to publish a book and open an exhibit. “Many of us are unaware we have such a rich history… local comic artists are influenced by Japanese and American styles, but if they were given the opportunity to see the artwork from the Philippine golden age of comics (1950s to 1970s), maiiyak sila sa ganda ng art ng Pinoy artists.”

As for his ex, he says he’s emailed her to check out “Wasted” but has received no comment. “She wasn’t the type who really read comics,” he says, unlike his wife, daughter of an artist who drew the old Filipino “Tarzan.” Gerry tracked the comic artist down (who coincidentally lived in San Pablo. Gerry’s beloved hometown) and his future wife answered the door (ironically, in her youth, she swore never to marry a comic artist). He has many epic projects he plans to tackle next, which aim to spur people’s interests in their local heritage. “If you really want something desperately enough you’ll get it. The bigger the risk, the bigger the returns.”

With these guys, Darna flies again.

“Sequential art” is what they like to call comics over at Mango Comics, the Tagaytay-based comic book company (headed by editor-in-chief Zach Yonzon) that released the much-publicized update of “Darna” in 2003, as part of the classic characters golden anniversary. Mars Ravel and Nestor Redondo’s classic super heroine was named after the mythological Adarna bird; whose adventures against her arch-nemesis, the snake goddess Valentina, were first serialized in the pages of “Pilipino Comics” in the 1950s and went on to be reintroduced in the following decades in several different movie versions.

The three-issue story arc of the updated version featured the artists talents of Gilbert Monstano, Ryan Orsoco, and Lan Medina, young but already veteran members of the local comics scene. Gilbert, who did pencil sketches for Image’s “Hellcop,” trained under Whilce Portacio and was chief instructor for Portacio’s comic art school; Ryan trained in the same school and also works with Culture Crash, Lan has gone on to work in titles for Marvel and DC.

Despite the new “Darna” being far more visually appealing to the modern comics audience, the response to Magno’s rendition was mixed. “From the readers, we got a good response. But from the other people in the industry, we got some criticism,” says Gilbert, who also acted as art director for the project. He’d long been interested in doing a “Darna” update and was the one who pitched the idea to the people who owned the rights. “One of the reasons was that we didn’t really mess with her character design. I’ve heard other artists say that if it were their project, they would have done thing a little differently—but personally I found it unnecessary to modify Darna’s costume, add stars, whatever. Basically what we did was just (to) innovate and define the look… to reintroduce her to a younger reading public. And aside from a few changes, we were pretty local to the story. I’m pretty satisfied.” However, Ryan says he wishes he could have spent more time on the art. “At the time I was working eight hours at the office and doing `Darna` when I got home!”

Mango hopes to raise literacy through comics. “Their lines include Mango Classics (updated of Pinoy classes like `Darna`) Mango Neo (their superhero line) and Mango Manga,” says Gilbert. The company also hopes to draw attention to the wealth of Filipino talent. “It’s nice because in the past there was no importance placed on the artist, and most of their original work was shredded after publication. Nakakapanghina. I totally support efforts to save work by the old masters but I think it may be too late, so the industry should look towards taking care of talent in the next generation.”

A group obsession and gung-ho attitude gives birth to this independent comic

A testament to the growing love for comics in the Philippines is the number of locally-produced independent titles seen on the racks of bookstores and comic books; produced not just by serious writers/artists with the urge to share their eventually award-winning stories, but by groups of enthusiastic comic fans who write and draw stories just for the sheer fun of it, and with no other aim but to see their work in print and entertain fellow comic fans.

A representative of the latter category is a group called Night Shift, founded by Paolo Aguasin, Rafael Ortiz and Abbery Gail Meneses (who happens to be a guy) in late 2001, “in a humble makeshift studio in Las Pinas.” They relate having met in a video shop in Paranaque and being later joined by Jan Michael “Mikko” Aldeguer (they also have contributors outside the main groups: namely Shaun Zabale, Emman Marinda, and Antonio Aguasin). This ragtag young crew of mostly students (who hold multiple staff positions, which they rattle off with added tongue-in-cheek descriptions such as “editor, writer, artist, layout, coloring, dialogue finalizations, finders-of-inspiration and loser-of-sleep”) produce a comic magazine called “CHIPS,” each issue containing several one-shot stories and two ongoing series: “Cascades” (Set in a fictional Filipino high school) and “Neodreamer” (a sci-fi series).

Like many young artists, the black-and-white line art of “CHIPS” is in the manga style, despite the decidedly Filipino flavor of the stories. “I think a lot of young people have taken to Japanese comics because of the variety of subject matter. Whereas many mainstream Japanese comics are really able to be out of the box in terms of stories,” says Mikko. “They’re not afraid to tackle ideas which maybe taboo for others. There is religion, sex, politics, slices-of-life.” The group says they put out their magazine out of love for the medium and ”… just to show that we’re capable to do the art and tell these stories. Of course we’re practicing so that we can keep doing better and maybe someday turn this into a more serious, regular thing. Right now what’s important is that we’re enjoying ourselves and we’re not afraid to experiment.”

Suggested for immature (yet highly intelligent) readers only.

Coming from a generation weaned on “Voltes V,” “Astroboy,” “Daimos” and other anime [Japanese animation] classics and also on Filipino interest in anime and manga in the 1990s, several local artists/writers banded together in 2000 (filled with a good deal of uncertainty but with fire in the bellies) to come up with the aptly named “Culture Crash;” a comic anthology magazine featuring four ongoing stories written by colloquial Tagalog and mostly set in the Philippines, but rendered in art heavily influenced by the manga style.

While the high quality of the magazine’s art and technical production has eventually led it to be cited as “the best locally published comic book” by a number of local publications, its writers, artists and creators Jescie James Palabay, Elmer Damaso, Michael David, Ryan Orsoco, Frances Tampinco, Robby Villagarcia, John Zamar and someone who’s rather be known as “Taga-Ilog”—(he likes to appear with a metal bucket over his head) are also used to fielding criticism for using art so widely associated wither another country. “It’s like telling a painted be can’t pain in the Impressionist style if he wasn’t born in Europe,” says Jescie Palabay. “Manga is at least an Asian influence. It’s strange that local comics that emulate western comic art don’t raise the same questions. If would notice the art of `Kubori Kikiam` (one of the four anthologized stories), it’s already veering away from the manga style… the point is, as an artist, you can evolve—but you can’t help but start with a style that you like. Personally I like manga because of the way the Japanese pace their stories—they really have a beginning, middle, and end; unlike many American comics where characters go on indefinitely and just keep being given new plot lines.” Mike David jumps in, “Making comic is like problem solving. You have to assemble a team of right people to produce an appropriate art style for what a story needs. People should also consider the stories we’re telling and not judge us based on the aesthetics that we chose alone.”

And how is Culture Crash doing marketing wise? “Our first ten issues didn’t have sponsors,” laughs Taga-Ilog. “Things are improving, but right now we survive on readership.” Not surprising since “Culture Crash” is a two-way thing: they give back to their readers, aside from an entertaining/informative “how to Draw” sections and articles that often touch local comics and gaming, the magazine has an eight-page “Fan Feature” section reserved for comics sent in by readers (a great find is Red De Leon’s beautiful “A Fishy Tale” in issue 14). The group proudly says their circulation grow every issue. Jescie adds, “We hope that (we would not only) help bring (back) interest in the local comic industry… but that Filipinos will starts to see comics as an art form which can help teach other people about our culture, just like (what) manga has done for Japan.” *