Arnold Arre showcases his best work yet in the powerfully personal graphic novel "Martial Law Babies"
By Ruel S. De Vera (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Saturday Nov. 15 2008 – Super, page E3)
Sometimes, approached like a lost tribe, a “martial law baby” is more a state of mind than a general distinction.
These are people, once young, now not so, who were disenfranchised by the abrupt disappearance of the Japanese robot anime shows “Voltes V” most notoriously, among other artifacts.
Having grown up under the Marcos regime’s gloved gauntlet, these babies carried it’s shadow with them long after the Marcoses were out of power. Having once lost their heroes, the ystruggle to save others and themselves.
This is literary territory mined magnificently by Katrina Tuvera (in fiction) and Jessica Zafra (in essays) among others. Now, award-winning comic book creator Arnold Arre (“The Mythology Class”) explores this precious space in his new, substantial graphic novel “Martial Law babies” (Nautilus Comics, Mandaluyong City, 2008, 286 pages).
“We’re hopeless romantics,” Arre’s characters state. “We’re expert daydreamers.”
In a love letter to his generation, Arre distills that treacherous journey through the eyes of narrator Allan, poetic and put-upon, and his barkada – acerbic Rebecca, fun-loving Francis and privileged Carol – from their short pants days in the 70s to the interminable future.
A seemingly innocuous appearance on the “Uncle Bobby Lucky Club” TV show leads to divergent paths for the friends, all the way to college in the University of the Philippines, where their circle grows and their worlds grow complicated.
Allan bears witness as grownup life threatens to stealthily overcome them, even as he attempts to come to grips with a childhood crush on the campus heartthrob that relentlessly haunts him. Then things get worse.
Loss, departures, and other traps are sprung as the friends drift inexorably apart, a tribe forced to become nomadic. Allan drifts as well, into disaffected adulthood, until one day, when his world contracts into dizzying focus.
“Martial Law Babies” hurtles towards its end as Allan comes to what may be a realization too late; the world expands again to an uncertain future.
There are no easy answers in “Martial Law Babies” even if paths cross dramatically. Arre, who himself did go to UP and is a martial law baby, tinkers adroitly with autobiographical flourish with “Martial Law Babies,” displaying the kind of thoughtful, bittersweet reminiscing championed by Alex Robinson (“Box Office Poison”) and C.B. Cebulski (“Wonderlost”).
The book is funny, sometimes naughty and always truthful; the snappy dialogue helps make it a solid read.
“Martial Law Babies” may have a target audience, but despite the dated references, the graphic novel will work for any sophisticated reader; the bittersweet, after all, is universal.
Employing his trademark whimsy and a concentrated poignancy, Arre gets all the details right, either in homage or in direct reference. Whether it’s a death-defying tricycle ride, a fateful Sting concert or ROTC in the afternoon.
This is clearly Arre’s best work to date, employing a powerful range of techniques to push his story forward , using different pencil styles to evoke different moods with such nuance that the black and white art almost seems to burst into color, injecting blogs, newspaper columns, e-mails, even dream sequences into the mix. His facial work is particularly exquisite.
“We refuse to grow up,” the babies say. “We refuse to wake up.” By revealing how those childhood revenants are both comforting and haunting, Arre has done for comics what the Eraserheads did for music with “Ultraelectromagneticpop”: catch, in an addictive, accessible package, the zeitgeist of an elusive era that has now come of age and yet to come to terms with the Bozania of a world they’ve unwittingly grown up in.
With Arnold Arre’s “Martial Law Babies,” the lost tribe gains an invaluable clue to finding themselves in a world both heartbreaking and breathtaking.Available in paperback from Comic Quest. For more information, log on to www.martiallawbabies.com