Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Martial Law Babies in Manila Bulletin

Growing Up, Getting Down:
Arnold Arre’s latest graphic novel Martial Law Babies is about the Voltes V generation
by Luis Katigbak, Manila Bulletin (Nov. 19, 2008)

Martial Law Babies, in case you were wondering, isn’t just for martial law babies. Arnold Arre’s latest graphic novel—his follow-up to the Pinoy urban superhero epic Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat—is here, and it is 286 pages’ worth of vivid characters, class issues, pop-cultural archeology, unfiltered outbursts, heart-melting affections, self-destructive obsessions, flights of fancy, and sheer storytelling bravado. Martial Law Babies is sprawling and flawed and yet deeply satisfying; it is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. (Note that I did not modify “novel” with “Philippine” or “graphic”though both those words certainly apply.)

Those who are looking for the mythological creatures or supernatural meddlers or science-fiction settings of Arre’s earlier work won’t find them here. This is a story of "living, loving and leaving," as it says on the back of the book, about a group of Pinoy middle-class thirtysomethings who grew up in the ‘80s—their friendships and love affairs, their responsibilities and distractions. There are flashbacks to the early lessons and frustrations of childhood—to days of cartoons, toys, junk food and friendships. The story follows the friends through college days of starry-eyed daydreaming and pointless military training, and the trials and ambitions of young adulthood. In the present day, these martial law babies write in their blogs, argue with clients, come together, fall apart, fly off to work in other countries, and wonder: What should I be doing? Where do we belong?

I don’t want to discuss specific moments in MLB, because I don’t want to give anything away, not that it’s a story that relies on gimmicky plotting or last-minute revelations. Let’s just say that Arnold Arre isn’t asking you to take the side of his hapless protagonists, nor is he condemning them; he presents different points of view, but avoids easy judgments. And, yes, easy answers as well—this is not a call to arms, nor is it a meaningless wallow. It’s a chronicle of a handful of lives that, depending on your age and upbringing, may be almost uncomfortably familiar. Sweet but often misguided Allan, smart and sarcastic Rebecca, incorrigible Carol, and the rest—Arnold resists the lure to portray them as relentlessly cool and glib, and instead leaves in all of the awkward and embarrassing incidents and opinions alongside all the little triumphs and tragedies. The honesty will make you smile, and then make you flinch.

MLB uses a number of interesting devices to tell its tale: aside from the flashbacks, there are blog entries, excerpts from essays and columns, snippets of made-up ads and TV shows, and best of all, odd but illuminating dream sequences. But these never feel tacked-on or pointless; rather, they serve to flesh the story out, to draw us in deeper. The artwork here is looser, "faster" compared to some of Arre’s older material—particularly the gritty, detailed Andong Agimat and the future-depicting Trip to Tagaytay—but this approach is more appropriate to MLB, and just underscores that Arre can accomplish in a few lines what most people can’t accomplish at all: a world of expression in the squiggle of a half-smile, the arc of an eyebrow.

MLB doesn’t give us hopeful heroes or vile villains: no paragons, just people. They are people who may occasionally annoy you with their middle-class blues, but stick with the story, and Arre will reward you with a remarkably affecting experience.

And, yes, it’s partially a nostalgia trip for those of us who grew up in the shadow of Martial Law, those of us who can remember that Sting concert or Uncle Bob’s Lucky 7 Club or giant Japanese robot cartoons or A-ha’s Scoundrel Days or even that apple coin bank toy. Do I love it because I’m a MLB myself? Sure, that’s one of the reasons: recognition, identification. I have to admit, when I first read it, I wanted to buy a stack of copies then and there, to give to fellow MLBs who I knew would appreciate all the references. But beyond that, Martial Law Babies is an honest, compulsively readable account of a group of people growing up in the Philippines, dealing with the good times and bad times and sheer madness. Like you and your friends, it’s funny and sad and awkward and astonishing.

Martial Law Babies should be in bookstores and comics shops now. Visit the official site at www.martiallawbabies.com (lots of behind-the-scenes notes and extras!). Send comments and questions to Luis at thekingofnothingtodo@yahoo.com.

No comments:

LinkWithin

Blog Widget by LinkWithin