THE WRITER’S LIFE
The art of asthma gave these super sisters comic-book cred
By Ruel S. De Vera / Inquirer / Last updated 03:26am (Mla time) 07/23/2006
Published on page Q3 of the July 23, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
LIKE many of the creatures, imagined or otherwise, which inhabit a child’s memory, severe asthma seems to lie in wait before pouncing at the most opportune—or inopportune—moment.
Maria “Waya” Gallardo has experienced the respiratory burden of asthma since she was a child. “I was first hospitalized for asthma when I was very young, like 2 years old,” Waya remembers. “Asthma kind of made me feel special, in a weird, miserable way. They put me in a big oxygen tent, and people came and visited and brought flowers and said soothing things to me. What’s a little girl to think? It was like I was being worshipped and offered pretty flowers to appease my wrath!”
But it wasn’t all that easy, either. “I did have to drink 10 different kinds of syrup in the morning, and that always meant a drama. And not being able to breathe is never ever fun,” she says.
Younger sister Clara “Lala” Gallardo saw how Waya had to deal with it. And together, the sisters have produced a distinctive comic-book tale about those times.
“The Mad, Sad, Incredible but True Adventures of ‘Hika Girl’” received the Alex Niño Award at the 1st Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards last Saturday. “Hika Girl,” written by Waya and illustrated by Lala, topped the comics category in the pioneering contest sponsored by Fully Booked and British comic-book superstar Neil Gaiman.
The tale’s protagonist is a young girl who had rats living inside her, hence the asthma. “Hika Girl” then has to deal with the eclectic monsters living in Hell, which is literally located right under her bed. But all is not as it seems because, as the story goes, “the monsters are no one’s friends.” It’s like a child’s beguiling fever dream in word and form, a perfect melding of the Gallardos’ style and sensibility.
The Gallardos shared many things aside from their current age (29, though Waya is 11 months older). Yet their differences make them a formidable tandem, as Waya is the freelance writer and Lala the freelance graphic artist/illustrator.
The Gallardo sisters come from a creative background, all right. Their father Dominador “Nonoy” Gallardo, runs his own advertising agency, Gallardo and Associates, while mother Celeste Legaspi Gallardo is, well, that Celeste Legaspi, who sang that memorable song, “Saranggola ni Pepe,” penned by husband Nonoy himself. Grandpa is the late National Artist for Painting Cesar Legaspi. The sisters have an older brother, Miguel or “Ige,” who works in advertising and is also a musician.
Waya liked writing but “wrote strictly Sweet Valley High fare back in the day, or pretty princess and her pet unicorn little fantasies that never got finished.” She eventually attended the University of the Philippines to study Creative Writing.
Lala took a liking to art early as well. “I used to consume boxes and boxes of Mongol pencils and reams and reams of brown paper,” she recalls. “I used to draw on the walls of our house, and I’d get into trouble in school because instead of listening to my teachers I’d be doodling in my notebooks.” Lala wanted a career in art and earned a degree in Fine Arts from the University of the Philippines with a major in Art History.
The sisters’ differences led to some epic tiffs. “We do get along better now that we’re older and live apart, but we used to have great big dramatic blow-ups. We used to throw the World Book encyclopedias at each other when we were kids,” Waya remembers. Lala says they also share a weird sense of humor. If “Hika Girl” were any indication, it’s a very weird sense of humor.
The sisters discovered comic books when they dared venture into “the forbidden zone”—their brother Ige’s room, where they would clandestinely read his issues of “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and “Superman.” Later on, award-winning writer Luis Katigbak, who was a common friend, led them to Gaiman’s superlatively enchanting “The Sandman” series, which fired up the girls’ imagination.
Flip forward a few pages and the Gallardos have made quite a name for themselves. Waya had just written and directed a children’s musical theater version of “Saranggola ni Pepe,” sings in a band called Hong Kong Holiday and runs a home-based baking venture called Taimis Deluxe Cakes and Cookies. “I have delusions of multi-tasking grandeur, as you can see,” she admits.
Lala, on the other hand, has decorated theater sets, done illustrations for children and taken part in exhibits. “I’m still on the gradual, progressive road to establishing myself as an artist. I’ve had a few exhibits and I consider each one to be a small victory in itself,” she explains.
The Alex Niño Award, named after the Filipino comics luminary, was a perfect opportunity for them to join forces. Lala had drawn some comics on her own but nothing serious so far. The Gallardos had never collaborated on a comic book before, and this seemed the right chance. “Hika Girl” was Waya, of course, and the younger sister in the story is Lala. “I was a sungit (grouchy), arte (bratty) kid and she was a bit of a tomboy,” Waya says. “Actually, I don’t think that dynamics have changed much over the years.”
Waya explains: “All her little strange ticks and idiosyncrasies were all the things I used to believe in as a child. I did think mice ran my body, that hell existed right under my house, and if you weren’t completely covered up at night, monsters would get you.”
But putting the story together proved difficult. “It was taking forever to put down, and Lala was bugging me and pleading that I finish it. We almost didn’t do it,” Waya says. The deadline was looming when the Gallardos’ mother sat them down and, according to Waya, gave them a “St. Crispin’s Day sort of speech.” The sisters sprung into action, working non-stop for three days. And they made it—30 minutes before the deadline. Lala was so stressed she threw up afterwards.
In the end, the resulting product was meaningful. “I just wanted to make something that was genuine,” says Lala. “My style isn’t exactly your mainstream, DC-Marvel style of comics illustration. Initially I tried to go for that genre but it seemed stilted, and eventually I chose to draw in a style that was more spontaneous and fun. I naturally draw weird I guess.”
For Waya, the project was linked to her admiration for Gaiman: “I really did this because of that crazy Neil Gaiman weekend Fully Booked put up last year. It was just so intense and special an experience, I felt I had to do something, make something in commemoration of those three days of screaming and waiting and worshipping and weeping.”
So it was a delirious thrill for them to hear Gaiman announce “Hika Girl” as the winner, with Gaiman speaking on video from the United Kingdom, where the movie adaptation of his novel “Stardust” is being shot. “A marvelous, haunting, odd little story about a little girl who goes to hell, and her sister, and asthma, and all sorts of other strange things,” Gaiman had said of “Hika Girl.”
For their win, the Gallardos took home P100,000 with “Hika Girl” to be published in an anthology by Fully Booked at the end of the year; Gaiman will provide the foreword. The Gregorio Brillantes Award, which is given to the winner of the Graphic/Fiction short story category was shared by Michael Co and Ian Rosales Casocot, whose stories will be included in the anthology along with those of the other finalists’ as well.
Though Waya is still somewhat in shock, she already plans to use part of the prize money on more books. The sisters might treat their mother to a diamond peel. Lala, who had just moved out of their Gallardo home, might save her share for later.
In the meantime, they tend to their divergent and yet tangential lives: Waya boxing, listening to David Bowie, watching the classic Star Trek series and “planning my dream library in my head,” while Lala takes care of her kitten Boris, embroiders and dreams of the beach. Apparently, Waya is the more outgoing entertainer between the two while Lala is the more introverted, shy one. “But when we’re all together with my brother in karaoke we’re all nuts,” Lala adds.
And the busy sisters have plans galore. Lala has an exhibit in Baguio City’s Bliss Cafe this coming November and perhaps one at Big Sky Mind as well.
But what’s really fueling their ideas is the possible return of Hika Girl. “Most definitely,” Lala says.
“We’re thinking of making a short animated feature, of course completely ignorant of the actual labor, drama, and spitting cat fights that will inevitably take place when we do make it,” Waya says.
Siblings and comic books, after all, are exercises in dreaming things into reality, as the Gallardo sisters are proof of. “I need a certain level of ignorance to attempt seemingly impossible scary things, or else I just won’t do them,” Waya Gallardo concludes. “And Lala and I will probably kill each other in the process, but we’re kinda used to that at this point.”
For more information about the 1st Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, log on to www.fullbookedonline.com