The little comic book that could
By SUSAN DE GUZMAN
CARLO Vergara didn’t set out to make the Great Philippine Comic Book when he created "Ang Kagila-Gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah". He did secretly nurture hopes that his work could contribute in making Philippine comics great again. But not even the 35 year- old Vergara — with his fanciful imagination and penchant for the absurd — could have expected the reaction his gay superhero would generate.
Zsazsa Zaturnnah, the long-tressed bombshell alter-ego of the beautician Ada, has so penetrated Pinoy pop culture consciousness that "she" has leapt from the pages of the comic book to a stage musical and, in this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, to a movie headlining some of the country’s top stars. Given such phenomenal popularity, Carlo Vergara could very well be the Mars Ravelo of his generation — or at least, Zaturnnah today’s Darna.
"I was very surprised by the kind of reception it got," admits Vergara who has a day job as art director of Real Living magazine. "It spread without any kind of publicity, talagang word of mouth lang."
The turning point probably came when the comic book received a National Book Award in 2003, with the Manila Critics’ Circle citing Vergara both for his "intricately realistic black-and-white lines" and his "rousingly funny story about planet women, giant frogs, zombies and, well, the battle for good and perfect perms, all with sharp, comfortable self-aware dialogue".
Since then, the "underground" Zaturnnah — previously available only in comic book shops — enjoyed a subsequent healthy print run from a "legit" publishing house (no longer just self-published) and found itself on the shelves of mainstream outlets like National Bookstore.
Not much later, Vergara awarded the movie adaptation rights to Regal Films, although it is only now that it has been produced — ostensibly because of the runaway success of the musical version earlier this year (and which, by the way, will have another staging in January at the Cultural Center of the Philippines).
Last Thursday, Vergara sat in the darkened theater as "Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Movie" had its premiere presentation at SM Megamall. Watching his characters come to life on the big screen, he confesses to having "the strangest feeling. I’m not a hypocrite to say that I’m not excited, but it’s not a euphoric level of excitement. Maybe because, like the musical, it’s the work of other people. It may have been my idea, but sila ‘yung naghirap to make these productions happen. Kung baga, ‘tsuwariwap’ na lang ako diyan eh." (Or could Vergara’s enthusiasm perhaps have been diluted by the fact that the screening started, as wags at the premiere complained, at an unbelievable four hours[!] late?)
In any case, the graphic designer is grateful that Zaturnnah has gone this far.
"For me, it all boils down to the comics. When I wrote it, I didn’t have a grand plan, na sana maging musical ito o pelikula. Ang gusto ko lang, sana magkaroon ng konting readership. If there was a grand plan, it was really to help Philippine comics. I wanted to make something that readers would keep and put on their bookshelves, at di lang gagawing pambalot ng tinapa pagkabasa."
Quality in illustrations and story was uppermost in Vergara’s mind, with his work requiring many revisions, from the characters’ names (Ada used to be Lea, while Dodong was Zandro) to the villains’ costumes (Queen Femina and her Amazonista warriors were initially clothed in a "sci-fi with Spice Girls theme" wardrobe before Vergara settled on the haute couture treatment).
Vergara stresses that while the story was partly inspired by his own personal experiences, he did not have a "gay agenda" for Zaturnnah as some readers have perceived.
"I hate propaganda. I hate aggressive salespeople. I don’t like people hammering ideas into my head. Let me decide what I want to believe in or not. It was all in the context of the characters, and not because of any message I wanted to put forward," he explains.
But again, Vergara is thankful that gay readers in particular seem to have found a champion in Zaturnnah and that others — straight or homosexual — have been analyzing the characters and their own reactions to them to death.
In a chat forum, for example, he saw a question that he hardly had an answer to — How does Zsazsa Zaturnnah depict modernism? He has also heard from straight guys who have grappled with existentialist questions after reading the comic book. Apparently because they got the joke, they started wondering, "Bading ba ako?"
All these reactions have reassured Vergara that what he created is not disposable entertainment. Because of the unexpected surge of interest in Zaturnnah (and the additional buzz bound to be spawned by the movie), he has re-thought things. Originally, he only wanted Zaturnnah to be a two-parter comic book (compiled into one in succeeding releases) — the reason why he had put a very definite "Wakas" at the end of his work. He had wanted to tackle a totally different theme for his next graphic novel, but now, a whole avenue of possibilities has opened up.
"It made me rethink about how far the modern Filipino comic book could go, that it’s possible pala to achieve such heights that it achieved in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That even with the prevalence of DVDs, video games and other forms of entertainment, meron pa rin palang mapapasukan ang komiks," notes Vergara.
He is, in fact, in the thick of preparing a sequel. He already has a plot in place, fragments of script and character studies and sketches. Avid Zaturnnah followers will be thrilled to know that the heroine’s adventures will continue, with the title still a toss-up though — either "Ang Kagila-Gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Manila" or simply "Zsazsa Zaturnnah in Manila", whichever will fit, says Vergara.
In the upcoming installment, readers will get to meet Gwyneth (Miss Gay Arruba 2001 who supplied Zaturnnah’s skimpy costume). Mirroring the big place that is Manila, the complications will also be bigger — with the enemies that she will have to face, with the issues in the relationship between Ada and Dodong, with her own powers which will further develop. On an emotional level, Ada will confront the same challenges baffling other superheroes — specifically the wish to just lead a normal life.
For Vergara, life is imitating art now.
"I just wanted to have a job and make comics. In my desire to lead a normal life, nagkaroon ng musical, nagkaroon ng movie. It has been a very surreal year. Ang kulang na lang ang isang Dodong," Vergara guffaws.
He acknowledges that there is naturally the pressure to produce a worthy sequel, especially when the forerunner produced laugh-a-minute zingers and repartee. But unlike say a teledrama that can unspool for years because it has a team of writers behind it, Vergara only has himself to rely on. "It has to be fresh for me. It should be an idea that I consider unique. What I do is I just go with the flow of the story and the intention, then the scene construction follows."
This tack is influenced by Vergara’s stage experience, particularly in improvisational theater. Given a certain situation, for example, he lets his mind wander as to what could possibly happen and how the characters would react. He admits to having "schizo" moments when he suddenly laughs out loud on his own, just thinking about the possibilities.
The additional challenge for him is that he is now in a happier frame of mind, a stark contrast to the time of Zaturnnah’s creation when his life was in turmoil. His depressed state then actually helped bring out the humor in his characters. So now, he has to go through what he calls an immersive experience. This involves capturing what it felt like the first time around, coupled with reliving his exposure to "mainstream" entertainment. Thus, he has been listening again to a lot of AM radio and watching entire episodes of "Wowowee" (with its mind-numbing "boom-tarararat" refrain). He finds that this kind of exposure helps spark his thoughts and ideas.
With the unforeseen mass appeal of Zaturnnah, Vergara is also considering eventually completing a five-book series devoted to the character. The series would explore the evolution of a hero "who just happens to be homosexual" — testing his resilience as he contends with overwhelming situations, with the adventure growing bigger in each installment.
Vergara has gone as far as plotting out the remaining books. "Parang Tolkien at J.K. Rowling—without the money," he wisecracks. In the midst of the various capers, which will run the gamut from psycho-horror adventures to intergalactic hi-jinks, Ada/Zaturnnah will struggle with the question, "What is my place in all these?"
Vergara wonders if any of these future editions will again capture the fancy of Zaturnnah fans, especially since some of the stories will admittedly be darker and more serious. While one might be tempted to stay in what’s been tried and tested, Vergara wants to go beyond the comfort zone. "I care so much about this character that I would like him to grow as much as I would like myself to grow. There is a fine line between satisfying yourself and satisfying your readers. But as my friend (and fellow graphic novelist) Arnold Arre has told me, I should go back to the reason why I did the first one — which was, I wanted to tell an interesting story, that hopefully others would enjoy."
In the end, Vergara can only wish that the forthcoming Zaturnnah sequel (possibly to be released end of 2007) and other episodes in the coming years will appeal to readers just like the first one inexplicably did. "The comic book may entertain them, it may make them smile or laugh a bit. But if they find themselves thinking about the characters’ purpose and motivations — what they’re all about — then I’d say that I’ve succeeded in what I set out to do. Which is to help make Pinoy comic books engaging again."