The Writer's Life : Casting A Comic Book From High School Memories
First posted 10:42am (Mla time) June 19, 2005
By Ruel S. de Vera
Inquirer News Service
Editor's Note: Published on page Q5 of the June 19, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
IF YOU could mold characters out of lines and into life, if you could write the dialogue of your dreams, what story would you tell? If you're Jamie Bautista and Elbert Or, you'd tell the story of all Filipino teenagers, their high school life and your own. You'd breathe life into "Cast."
"Cast" is the charming hit comic book from Nautilus Comics. But it isn't about flying super-beings-the Spandex set-or outlandish anthromorphic protagonists. "Cast" is a vibrantly full-color story of young love and high school life juxtaposed with the staging of a play about King Arthur. It's a brave tale told with a welcome earnestness and winning humor from Jamie and Elbert, both exceptional comic book talents. It's also a tale of pursuing their own personal production despite the odds.
The 28-year-old Jamie is line publisher of Nautilus Comics and holds a Communication degree from the Ateneo. Jamie was teaching at the Ateneo when Elbert suggested that they pitch an idea to publishers early in 2003; Jamie was to write and Elbert was to illustrate. They eventually decided to put it out on their own.
"When we made that decision, I approached my uncle who became one of our financiers," Jamie says. His uncle had an idle company name that existed only on paper.
"We took that and became Nautilus Comics." And in due time, their idea-high school life, oh my high school life-was hit with a million volts and nailed with a lightning bolt, to quote two ancient pop songs.
"One of the ideas I had floating around was a semi-autobiographical story, of imagining what it would be to be part of a school play," Jamie explains. He had gone to Xavier for high school, and was a shy, introverted teen. "I think I was the well-liked geek." Participating in a high school production of the musical "Camelot" was a fond memory for him. "In an all-boys' school, this was the first time for me to be able to work with girls." Thus, "Cast's" all-boys' St. Christian is a stand-in for Xavier, while all-girls' Mary the Immaculate is a thinly-veiled nod to Immaculate Conception Academy. Jamie rolled several experiences into the King Arthur play of "Cast," fictionalized and then kept going. "There are some what-ifs, some looking back and some purely fictional," Jamie says of the comic's twists and turns. Elbert designed the characters, deliberately deciding to meld Eastern and Western illustration styles.
Elbert settled in as editor, tweaking Jamie's story and art direction and working with a group of artists to get "Cast's" look just right. "Jamie wanted his vision to be very pure and I had the task of making sure the comic was financially viable as a serial."
That serial follows callow Will Flores, a shy talented kid, who is cast, much to his surprise, as Lancelot in the school play. As the play begins to gain solidity, Will finds himself falling for his Guinevere, Ces Cheng. Problem is, Ces happens to be girlfriend to Manny David, Will's friend, acting mentor and, it just so happens, the play's King Arthur. While that situations percolates, "Cast" surrounds them with other ongoing dramas and comedies that have to do with overcaffeinated drama teacher Mr. McCready, parents and the gang of Lex, Jiggs, Maita, Mons, Elmo, Erika, Cid, Janina, Lel and Joe, among others. It's high school in full color.
The 21-year-old Elbert is the editor-in-chief of Nautilus. He graduated from the Ateneo in 2004 with an Interdisciplinary Studies degree. He went to high school at the coed Chang Kai Shiek Academy. "My time in high school was the time that I made most of the mistakes I learned from. Rebelde ako noon. I was the one always pushing the envelope in terms of disciplinary measures and in the causes I took on. In the arts, I tried to make geeks look cool. Boring na ako ngayon. I put most of my past experience in 'Cast.'
"I was experiencing angst this summer because I suddenly realized that my hobbies were also all about comics," Elbert says, adding that he also helps out with NGOs and likes teaching kids at the Nautilus comics workshops, which has brought the two to different parts of the country preaching comics. Unlike Elbert, Jamie has what he calls his "day job," which involves graphic design and the family business, a printing press. Aside from his Ateneo stint, Jamie also teaches at Assumption College. But what really takes up their time now is "Cast."
There was a lot of tinkering and testing as "Cast" slowly evolved into finished form. A prologue issue, called "Cast Pre-production," came out first, almost as a test sample. "It was our first attempt at publishing on our own. Everything that could go wrong with a first issue did go wrong," Elbert recalls, adding that they were doing press work on that issue all the way from January up to June 2004.
"What we realized with earlier incarnations of 'Cast' is that a lot of the sensibilities of Western comics and fiction don't actually apply here," Elbert says. "For example, there's a more individualistic sense in Western literature whereas we're more communal here. That's why we would naturally gravitate towards a larger, ensemble cast."
Slice of life
"Even back in high school, the short stories I used to write were relationship-and romance-oriented, sort of slice-of-life," Jamie explains. "It started out as a very Will-centric story and we later decided to focus on the supporting characters as well," Elbert adds. The characters are based more on different relationships than anything else-the long-standing twosome and the budding romance, for example. Though both Jamie and Elbert have girlfriends, Jamie notes "we still remember what it was like to be in that unsure, 'what is real love?' place."
After more tweaking and two more months, "Cast" # 1 came out and the response was indeed quite heartening-"it sold very well," Elbert says. "We were happy with the feedback. People were writing in." The comic book found its audience and then some.
"Our target audience initially was high school, but then we found out that college people liked it for the stories, for the nostalgia factor." Jamie adds that many of the elements in their high school stories still apply to college life here.
With its format of a long, main story (focusing on Will, Ces and the play) supported by shorter backup stories (usually featuring supporting characters), "Cast" is able to cast its own creative web wider, covering more plot twists and issues, as well as try different storytelling approaches.
The two make a rather unique complementary set of colleagues. The more laid-back Jamie (he would describe himself as "phlegmatic") is more prone to whimsy, while the manic Elbert is more prone to rants.
Now sponsors are approaching them (instead of the other way around) and "Cast" is now available pretty much everywhere. "Cast" has settled into a comfortable quarterly publishing schedule and Nautilus is on surer ground. "We aren't a fly-by-night company," Elbert says. "If we have trouble, there's a Plan Z we can go to. The mission of Nautilus ultimately is be able to prove that you can work on comics here in the Philippines and make a decent living out of it."
The fifth issue just came out, but Elbert is already at work on # 8 while Jamie's writing # 9, so fans can rest assured "Cast" is moving along briskly. Fulfilling a long-time dream, "Cast" is available and has found dealers in the United States-and there's even interest from as far away as Norway.
Even though it's already five issues old, there's lots still about to happen: There's opening night and even an action sequence. "Once we get past the issue 10 mark, we have ideas that would push the boundaries a bit more," Jamie says. "Our immediate goal is to really make 'Cast' a monthly," Elbert says, and "to get the art the way we want it."
"Cast" has become their own ongoing story, of a friendship that has given concrete fulfillment to a dream, a story that's flung itself across the void and found sympathetic roots in the imagination of a young audience. "I'm more of a fulfilled mind, because this is really more my story," read the words in Jamie Bautista's word balloon. Elbert Or adds his own: "Now that I'm doing 'Cast,' every time I wake up in the morning, I think of the next thing I have to dream of."