by Benjamin Ong Pang Kean

If names like Panday, Angel Ace, Flash Bomba, Lastikman, Darna, and Captain Barbell sound unfamiliar to you, it’s because they’re comic book characters from the Philippines.

In celebration of the 120th anniversary of komiks (that’s the Filipino term for comics), Newsarama.com spoke with komikeros (i.e. cartoonists or comic artists) from the island nation in Southeast Asia.

Incidentally, October is also Filipino American History Month and 2006 marks the 100th year of Filipino migration to the United States.

Also, the second Philippines Komiks Convention, Komikon 2006, is scheduled for Saturday, October 21 in Quezon City.

Just how big is the komiks industry in the Philippines?

According to writer/artist/inker/The Philippine Comics Art Museum webmaster and curator Gerry Alanguilan, komiks in the Philippines has had a very rich history, tracing its roots way back to the late 1800's when national hero Jose Rizal created what would be the very first Filipino made comic strip, "The Monkey and the Tortoise”.

“But it wasn't until 1929 on the pages of Liwayway Magazine that the first regularly published comics character was born: Kenkoy, as created by Tony Velasquez,” Alanguilan explained to Newsarama. “Liwayway Magazine (which is still being published today) is pretty much where the Philippines comics industry was born when the comics section grew to accommodate more short stories and artists. Liwayway is where artists like Fred Carrillo debut.

“1946 saw the very first regularly published "comic book" via the short lived Halakhak, and a year or so later, in 1947, saw birth ACE Publications, which debut several comic books that will see publication for many decades. It is in ACE that artists like Tony DeZuniga, Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, Rudy Florese, Ernie Chan and many other Filipino artists familiar to people abroad, began to work.

“It's an astounding body of work. To see what kinds of comics those Filipinos were able to do, I've put up an online museum which you can find at www.komikero.com/museum/.

“A lot of these artists eventually found work in American comics at the very end of the 1960's, and it was since then and all throughout the 70's did America finally see a huge treasure trove of artists as yet unknown to the western world.”

Alamat Comics founder Budjette Tan concurred that it used to be a thriving industry back in the 1950s and 60s. “Its circulation supposed out-ranked newspapers and had nationwide distribution,” he said. "Back then, komiks was a major source of feature films; and later on became material for TV shows as well.

“Ironically, the 70's also saw the start of the decline of Philippine comics due not only to the mass exodus of artists to America, but also to a number of other factors including the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, where restrictions on creativity forced many artist to leave or retire altogether,” Alanguilan said. “The komiks, as comics are referred to here, were still popular and financially profitable for the companies. But the quality of the comics themselves, specially the artwork, suffered a marked decline. It is a decline that will continue well into the 90's until at last it will collapse soon after.

Alanguilan said that the Filipino artists doing work in the US by this time included Redondo, Alcala, Niño, Florese, ER Cruz, Gerry Talaoc, Rico Rival, Jesse Santos, Teny Henson, Romeo Tanghal, Abel Laxamana, Ading "Adrian" Gonzales and so many more. For a more complete listing, please see Comic Book Artist Magazine Vol. 2 #4, which features an in-depth look at Filipinos who worked in US Comics.

“Rafael Kayanan was probably the very first US based Filipino (not born in the Philippines) to find work there beginning in the 80's and found work on Conan, Spider-Man, Turok, etc. He would signal the start of a new invasion of Filipino artists, the most popular of which was Whilce Portacio.

“It is undeniable that when it was revealed to Filipinos in the Philippines that Whilce Portacio, who was then just coming off X-Factor and has just created Bishop for the X-Men, was in fact Filipino, it served as a kind of trigger that inspired many others to follow in his footsteps. And one of them was me. Many of us never worked in Philippine comics (but I did), and opted to start work directly for US publishers. Among my group were Leinil Francis Yu, Roy Allan Martinez,
Gibert Monsanto, Edgar Tadeo, and Jay Anacleto.

“Another group of artists followed like Wilson Tortosa, Rod Espinosa, Carlo Pagulayan, Philip Tan, Mico Suayan, and Lan Medina (who has actually been around local comics for a while).

“Except for Philip Tan and Rod Espinosa, all of us chose to remain in the Philippines because the Internet allows us to work for American companies but at the same time stay with our families. In the case of Rod, it wasn't until he moved to the US that he was discovered and started to work in comics.

“Concurrently in the US, in the wake of artists like Rafael Kayanan and Whilce Portacio, who both grew up in the US, many other Filipino Americans and Filipino Canadians in comics began appearing like J. Torres, Jonathan Sibal, Cedric Nocon, Mark Pajarillo, Marlo Alquiza,
Noel Tuazon, Ed Tadem, Ronnie Del Carmen, etc.

“Back here in the Philippines, the old local comics industry has all but died towards the end of the 90's and early 2000s. No more comics from those old companies are being published, except for Liwayway Magazine, which still features comics on its pages along with showbiz news,
prose, poetry and opinion.

“However, in the wake of the decline of the comics industry in the 90's, many young Filipino artists looking for venues in which to work didn't find any. So they created their own little companies and published their own comics. I was a part of this "new" industry as well, publishing my own titles like Wasted, Dead Heart, Crest Hut Butt Shop and Timawa, while I inked American comics. I still continue to do so today with my own Elmer, The Adventures of Miko and Jec-Jec, Johnny Balbona, and Humanis Rex!”

Tan said that it was in 1993-1994 when things started to get “interesting with the entry of “indie creators” and self-published comic books. These individual creators and groups eventually formed Alamat Comics. The past ten years have not been as glorious and as profitable, but it has been very active and exciting.”

Additionally, we asked some of today’s pros about their knowledge of the komiks in the Philippines and the industry’s legends.

Newsarama: How much do you know about the history of komiks and the industry’s legends?

Whilce Portacio (Wetworks, Batman: Confidential, Stone, Iron Man): Having grown up in the States, I have very little first hand knowledge of our komiks greats. And having been reading American comics only in the 1970s and 80s was only exposed to Alfredo Alcala and Rudy Nebres through their work on Conan and Iron Fist. Although, somehow (I cannot remember now how it happened) I was exposed to Alex Nino’s super stylized artwork and that had a major influence on me. The design sense and the limitless imagination of Alex Nino really got me inspired to let my creative side imagine new worlds and characters.

I lived in the Philippines while a teenager and there I was exposed to artist like Hal Santiago. His work especially attracted me because of its simple but bold lines. He taught me how to refine my structure.

Other than that I knew there was a large exodus of Filipino talent to DC Comics in the 1970s. During the time I was in the Philippines I started to see the downfall of quality in local komiks that would shut down the local companies one by one.

J. Torres (Copybook Tales, Love as a Foreign Language, Teen Titans Go!, Degrassi: Extra Credit): I know enough to understand and appreciate the impact that Filipino creators have had on the North American comic art aesthetic and the industry overall. I have various comics by Alex Nino, Alfredo Alcala, Romeo Tanghal, etc. in my collection and as a child when I discovered that these guys were Filipino like me, I found it very inspiring and kind of took pride in that. These guys paved a way for the rest of us...

Leinil Francis Yu (High Roads, New Avengers, Superman: Birthright, Ultimate Hulk/Wolverine, Wolverine, X-Men): Very little to be honest. I greatly admire the greats such as Coching, Redondo and Nino as well as the rest. I knew about the 70s Filipino American comics impact. I think Filipino artists from the 70s are among the best in the world better than most and comparable to Moebius, Frazetta and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez.

I seriously think that technically, they were the best at the time.

Philip Tan (Spawn, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Taleweaver, Mutant Earth, Trakk): Quite honestly it was not until Gerry Alanguilan showed me stuff by Francisco Coching that I started to ask around and research on the amazing works done by legendary Filipino artists. So no, I do not have a wide knowledge about it, but I definitely have my share of countless hours studying and drooling over the works of these masters!

Francis Manapul (Witchblade, Love In Tights, Necromancer, Iron and the Maiden, Seven Sarmate): I feel embarrased to admit it but I'm not very knowledgeable of Filipino comic history. Although names that I do recall is Alcala, Coching and Nino. I remember looking through their art and just being in awe of the intricate line work and the amount of detail put in each panel. Not only were they amazing comic book artist they were also fantastic illustrators.

Rod Espinosa (Courageous Princess, Neotopia, New Alice in Wonderland, The Alamo, Dinowars): I absolutely admire the old timers! Because they grew up in a less complicated time, they had a lot of practice in their craft. Their work is refined and their compositions and layouts, impeccable.

Carlo Pagulayan (Incredible Hulk): Not much honestly, all the information I get are all thanks to the efforts of Gerry Alanguilan and his Museum, and Dennis Villegas of http://pilipinokomiks.blogspot.com/
I actually thought that Whilce was the first Filipino to break into western comics... that is to the fault of irresponsible reporting of some networks here. I've seen Alcala's artwork in a Conan Magazine and Ernie Chan's, but never knew they were Filipinos.

Jennyson Rosero (No Man’s Land): I am actually the last person you'd ask about the history of komiks and it's legends. I started working professionally at a young age. Therefore, never having any interest on the industry's history and stuff. And when I became interested, I never had time.

Hai (Blade For Barter, Death Jr Manga): Although I pretty much grew up on a varied diet of locally produced comics, my knowledge of the industry and its people is pretty much limited to the stories I'm interested in. Back in the late 70s and 80s, my mom would buy me and my brothers a weekly anthology comic book called Funny Komiks. It has several stories ranging from super-powered furries "Supercat" and "Superdog", Dennis the Menace-type mischief makers "Batute" and "Niknok", and pure adventure and science fiction stories like "Darmo't Adarna" (translates as "Darmo and Adarna") and "Vitro".

Despite the book being printed on rather cheap paper, I remember the stories to be quite vivid with imagination and creativity and the illustrations were very detailed and dynamic. Unfortunately, I pretty much only just remember the art and how good they were. The names of those amazing artists sadly escape me. But to name one that I do remember and deeply influenced my love for illustrating crowds is Larry Alcala whose crowded page spreads remind me of the chaotic genius of Sergio Aragones of Groo.

Marco Dimaano (Angel Ace): I myself am not much of a historian; I like to live in the now and the tomorrow. However, I am aware of the classic Filipino komik styles, which sadly are hard to find these days.

Andrew Drilon (Siglo: Freedom, Ran Online, Project: Hero, Caraboy, Kare-Kare Komiks): I know quite a bit, but my knowledge isn't nearly as extensive as Gerry Alanguilan's or Reno Maniquis'. You'll have to ask them. [laughs] What I know of past masters to look up to: Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo and Alex Nino. Modern-day successes from here: Leinil Francis Yu, Wilson Tortosa, Eric Canete and Whilce Portacio.

When I look at the stuff that was published back then—Darna, Captain Barbell, Lastikman, Dyesebel--I'm floored by this pure romantic vibe that seems to pour out of the pages. And the art was fantastic too, very detailed, very classic, very well-composed. Makes me wonder why there weren't more Filipinos doing komiks internationally back then What really grabs me about the history of komiks here in the Philippines is the work ethic that seems to be consistent when you look at all the creators. I'm thinking that's the Filipino thing—when you look at past Pinoy komiks, you get this sense that these creators put their all into their work, 100% plus--that's something I look up to and try to channel into my current work, creeping deadlines aside.

Randy Valiente (Pambalot ng Tinapa (Isang Pagtanaw sa Komiks ng Pilipino) (Smoked Fish Wrapper-An Insight About The Philippine Comics Industry): After the decline of our local industry in the late 90s, many of our artists went to animation studios and advertising, even travel abroad just to have a decent salary. But before that, would you believe that for almost twenty years (I worked in local komiks for about 17 years), the page rate of our artists here is just Php75 per page, that's $1.50. That's one of the main reason local komiks suffered a great loss of talented people.

Good thing, there are agents, just 2 of them actually (as far as I know), that helps our local artists to penetrate 'again' (after 'Filipino invasion' of the 70s) international comics. Without them, working comics abroad is unreachable for our local artists. But there are still other artists that are still undiscovered. We need more events and conventions and agents. [laughs]

Carlo Vergara (One Night In Purgatory, The Spectacular Adventures of Zsazsa Zaturnnah, Pantheon, Siglo: Passion): I confess that I don't know much about Philippine comics history, but I was an avid reader of the weekly newsprint comics when I was growing up. I recall admiring the artwork of a few of the artists, but I don't remember their names, save Mar Santana. That's why going through Gerry Alanguilan's website is such a joy. The things those legends could do with a brush!

It's sad that the craft behind the Filipino comics style hasn't been passed on. While that style can be said to be "retro," it's a foundation that can be artistically explored and updated without compromising the Filipino flavor. I admit that most of my influences are non-Filipino artists, though those who know my work describe my stuff as "very FIlipino."

Joel Chua (Robotika, Yun, Siglo: Passion): I don't know all the popular titles and artists during the golden age of Filipino komiks. Their works look the same to me, unfortunately. I do however have knowledge of the industry's growth, its degeneration, and its present state of resuscitation. Nonetheless I am certain my knowledge of it is quite poor - having been brought up in a Chinese family which collected no Filipino komiks at all.

Gilbert Monsanto (Hellcop, Houdini: The Man from Beyond, The Saints, Tropa, Rambol Komiks): I can still be considered a puppy inside this business. I’ve started doing komiks during the early 90’s and those were the hard times in the industry, so to speak. There was even a time that a group of artists challenged the management and boycotted Gasi, one of the country’s top 2 publications. The artists in the end failed to get their demands for royalties and settled with a minimum per page rate raised. A few more years later, more and more artists stopped working with them and went on doing other stuff like animation, pocketbooks and some even worked on movies.