FILIPINOS’ COMIC BOOK LEGACY
by PEPPER MARCELO
The film Spider-Man 2 has become one of the biggest grossing hits of the summer, earning close to $400 million, a testament to the character's popularity and the comic book medium's ability to attract audiences. What might not be known to many is that a Filipino named Floro Dery once illustrated the wall-crawler's adventures, not in the comic books read by fans, but in the syndicated comic strip, read by millions and written by Spider-Man's co-creator himself, Stan Lee.
Previous to the success of the Spider-Man franchise, was the X-Men films' box-office bonanza, and did you know that currently doing art chores in the monthly comic is a Filipino, Philip Tan, and previous to him was another Filipino, Whilce Portacio? What about the greatest of all superhero icons, who's faster than speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? Two local artists, Leinil Yu and Gerry Alanguilan, are handling Superman's visual adventures against the forces of tyranny, much to the acclaim of fans and critics. Unbeknownst to many, Filipinos have been an integral part of the overseas comic book industry for several decades now, handling a wide assortment of characters and trademarks which are read and admired by millions all over the world.
"Marami ng Filipinos na nag -work sa US comics, since early 60's pa," says Alanguilan, a professional who's also well-versed in local "komiks" history. "Actually, the first Filipino to work on "X-Men" was in the 70's pa. Nagkaroon ng surge ng Filipino comics illustrators ng late 60's, early 70's, kasi maraming Filipinos talaga na magaling sa comics. Parang third generation na kami na sumusunod sa kanila."
In the Philippines, national hero Jose Rizal was the first known to write and illustrate the first Filipino comic strip, "The Monkey and the Tortoise" in the late 19th century. The next significant wave came in the 20's, with Tony Velasquez's "Kenkoy" (the collected strips of which was considered the first comic book), and Francisco Reyes's "Kulafu."
It was in the 50's that the industry reached a creative peak, a "golden age" in terms of creators crafting and synthesizing gorgeous artwork with engrossing story-telling. In the late 60's and the early 70's, the foreign companies finally took notice, with DC Comics (the home of Superman, Batman, the Justice League, etc.) executives Carmine Infantino and Joe Orlando, along with Filipino artist Tony de Zuniga (who already had a career abroad and opened an agency for local artists) coming to the Philippines to scout for local talent. Among the local artists that were "pirated" to work abroad were Rudy Florese, who would illustrate "Tarzan," Alex Nino, who drew the horror title "House of Mystery," and Nestor Redondo, one of the greatest Filipino illustrators ever, who did artwork for "Swamp Thing."
What attracted foreigners to enlist Filipinos was their distinctive art style, impressive that it came from a depressed, Third World culture with limited resources, but at the same time, unequaled in comparison to the artwork of other countries. "I think very illustrative ang quality ng art ng mga Filipinos," says Alanguilan. "What I mean is, parang medyo fine art ang dating ng artwork natin, lalo na noong araw, kasi mas medyo meron attention to detail. Pati naman ngayon, keso lang, yung mga artist ngayon, mas marami nang influence kesa before, meron ng western influence. Kahit merong western influence, may Japanese influence, na -create pa rin ng Filipino na unique sa kanya ."
It was also the work ethic of the Filipinos which impressed the foreign companies. One popular anecdote involved Alfredo Alcala, another legendary local artist (he even published a book about his craft, titled Teachings of a Comic Book Master ), who was approached by talent scout Joe Orlando, and, interested in hiring him, asked the young artist how many pages he can complete in a week. "40," Alcala replied. The executive didn't believe him, since most artists were only able to do 7 or 8 pages a week. So, Orlando proceeded to show him artwork from the States. "You want me to draw in this style?" Alcala asked him. Yes, he replied, and asked again how many pages he'd be able to do in a week. "This style? 80 pages," Alcala said. Orlando, still skeptical, put him down for 40 pages. By the end of his first trial week, Alcala was able to complete an astounding 100 pages of artwork.
Many Filipinos continued to work abroad through the decades, but for many that relocated there, especially Alcala and Nino, felt there was a prejudice against Filipino artists, who were sometimes paid lower than their American counterparts. Also, oftentimes their assignments and subsequent payments were few and far between, as American editors "didn't know what to do with them" as far as which comics to place their uniquely stylistic talents, so many of them had to work minor jobs as waiters and guards to make ends meet.
It wasn't until the late 80's that the climate changed, in particular with the ascent of Whilce Portacio, who first shot to fame as a fan favorite artist of the Marvel's popular "Punisher" and "X-Men" titles. Afterward, Portacio became one of the founders of Image Comics (home of "Spawn"), further earning heaps of wealth and notoriety for his and the members' creator-owned properties. Years later, Portacio came back to the Philippines to mentor, guide, and recommend artists to the foreign companies. The most prominent names to have come through Portacio's tutelage include Yu, Alanguilan, and colorist extraordinaire Edgar Tadeo, making up what is classified as the "third generation" to draw comics abroad.
Now more than ever, Filipinos are a ubiquitous presence on the comic book landscape. Along with Portacio and his group, some creators worth mentioning include Jay Anacleto, who's set to explode at Marvel, with his luscious, painterly style; Wilson Tortosa, who's earning raves drawing the comic book adaptation of the anime series "Battle of the Planets" (better known to us in the Philippines as "G-Force"); Arthur de la Cruz, an artist and writer, whose book "Kissing Chaos" was nominated for a 2002 Eisner Award (the industry's highest achievement); and Lan Medina, also nominated for an Eisner, who's currently drawing the "Sliver Surfer."
Perhaps one of the more significant achievements is the first Filipino art team drawing the original, most recognized superhero. On "Superman: Birthright," a mini-series which re-tells his origin for modern audiences, Yu and Alanguilan both say drawing the man-of-steel is a dream come true. "I worked with X-Men before, but this is the biggest so far," says Yu. "It's hard to believe. I think this the height of my career. I'm not sure it gets much better than this in comics." Says Alanguilan: " Hindi ko ma -describe. It did not occur to me na I'd work on Superman. Para sa akin , unreachable siya, e . Impossible dream. Pero noon na nabigyan kami ng opportunity to work, hindi ako makapaniwala , so tuwa ako, kasi favorite character ko si Superman - favorite ko sa comics, favorite ko sa comic book movies."
Continuing the tradition started by their forbears, from Nestor Redondo to Alfredo Alcala, leading to Whilce Portacio and now to them, they can only see more and more Filipinos becoming involved in mainstream comics. "Filipinos are getting discovered every year," says Yu. "Before, we didn't think there was going to be anymore of us, but agents come here and look for new artists. A lot of them will be emerging in the next few years." For aspiring artists, Yu gives some friendly advice: "Believe in what you're doing, but listen to other people, too. If they think you suck, you have to face reality, but at the same time, just believe in yourself, stick to your studies. It's possible to get in."