Don't Mess With The Talisman Bearer
Monday, Feb 12 2007, The Philippine Chronicle
Karl R. De Mesa

If you're a local comics fan then you've probably read one of Arnold Arre's comic books. Whether it's the modern fantasy trifecta of "The Mythology Class" series or the fanciful romance "After Eden", Arnold has always strived to give us a sense that magic and wonder need not be absent in our everyday 21st century lives.

In 1999, as a fledgling writer trying to cut my teeth on the cultural beat of the metro, I proposed to my editor a feature on "The Mythology Class". A few months thereafter, it was good fortune that Arnold illustrated a short story of mine (about a reluctant magus who uses her most powerful spell to resurrect her roadkill love -- I know, it's complicated) in a music magazine. But instead of drawing the mad and livid sorceress Zodiac Hidalgo, Arnold had drawn me.

Against a backdrop of ragged slums and city lights both inviting and sinister, there I was in place of my character. I even had on the same clothes I had on when we first met. How strange, to say the least, it is to see yourself in the media res of your own fiction. How strange and illuminating.

See, prior to this, I had only felt Zodiac's emotions from a storyteller's aloofness, that second remove that is half-voyeurism and half-pathos so necessary to render tales authentic. After I saw the illustration though, Zodiac's pain, frustration, and helplessness came flooding in.

I understood completely her motivation for such a selfish act. With this understanding, she became more human and thus forgivable. It is this insight into the acts of both monsters and supermen that Arnold gives us with compassion and energy in his latest graphic novel "Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat" (released under his own Tala Comics Publishing house).

Arnold was kind enough to send me his newest creation and I owe him much thanks. With 200-plus pages of black and white comics, "Ang Mundo" is the tale of the title character, an anti-hero in the throes of existential angst battling to save Pinas from a prime evil as antediluvian as they come.

Two things are different here from Arnold's previous works. first, this one is written in Tagalog and second, this book is way more dark than either "After Eden's" adolescent love story or "Mythology Class's" ethnic X-Men gone magickal.

Key to all this is Andong himself (who kind of looks like a cross between Rudy Fernandez circa "Markang Bungo", Zoren Legaspi, and Ramon Revilla with a bit of FPJ thrown in). While the Manila he moves in is certainly fantastic enough in that the superhuman and supernatural arewoven into the fabric of daily life (cult leaders are ghouls of demonic malignos, gangs have impakto members, and goddesses roam the streets selling sampaguitas forgetful of theri true nature), this is the same Third World Country where 60 percent of the population is below the poverty line and crime is rife in the inner city.

Against this atmospheric setting Andong was born and raised, a true thug among thugs. The kind of guy who didn't back down from any fistfight, the kind of bully who grows up, unsurprisingly, into a criminal who kills. While it would give too much away to narrate Andong's transformation from "Most Wanted" to reluctant police asset in the superhuman organized crime division, suffice to say that Andong The Talisman Holder is much like "Hellblazer's" John Constantine. Using his powers for money does not bother him (he has to eat, he readily explains) and to say that his talismanic gifts have brought him no joy would be to see only one side of this complicated character's motives.

Catching gang bangers ensures that Andong can both survive and pay his dues or, literally, his sins. It is both his burden and strength - he wants to stop inflicting violence but it's the only thing he's good at. Plus redemption seems a bit more within reach when he does. Can I convey his catch-22 more clearly?

"Andong was more of a tribute to Classic 70s Pinoy action fantasy heroes," explains Arnold, "with a darker tone to it. it was challenging to write because the superhero genre has been explores so many times so I had to create a story that was fresh and original."

No doubt. The fact that Andong sleeps on overpass stairs, pukes his guts out every morning after a drunken binge and is not above torturing suspects for information is grit par excellence. There is an immediacy and veracity (the kind that would make the young fans of Arnold's previous work flinch) that "Ang Mundo" expresses beyond the sometimes awkward dialogue of the flawed world-building. Then again, Barker's "Imagica" was as prickly in places.

This is the kind of story that is at once social commentary, superb genre work and homage to the komiks of old. I like it better than his other books, to be frank. I could roam the streets of Andong's world in rapture for days, the danger and poetry of it exquisite, the taste of dust and gunpowder in the air an aphrodisiac -- like a homecoming.

Read "Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat" and experience a radically different gloom-tinged Arnold Arre still mining the raw gems of Philippine folklore and Lower Mythology to turn them into an obsidian obra of the dark fanatic.

"Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat" is available at all major book stores.