In honor of the Philippines's Independence Day today, I decided to discuss a couple of events that took place in Marvel Comics in the last couple of years.
In The Invincible Iron Man #4 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca, we are introduced to the Triumph Division, Marvel's faction of Filipino superheroes. These people then get blown up by a bunch of Buddhist monks, just so Matt Fraction can create a new version of the team in a couple of issues.
Getting the horrendously photorealistic art out of the way - has anyone noticed how these days, "photorealism" means that the colorist does most of the work? If this were in black and white, the art would be horrible. - it is, I will admit, a nice thing to even have an attempt at being represented. As the world gets smaller, the Philippines has gotten bigger (the world's number one boxer is a Filipino, folks, remember that). And more importantly, due to the sheer number of incredibly talented Filipino artists who have worked in the American comics industry since the 1970s, it's nice to get some acknowledgment.
But that's gone quickly, because this is one of the stupidest and most ridiculous scenes I could imagine being set in the Philippines.
First of all, the Great Mongoose? What? Mongooses aren't indigenous to the Philippines. They do exist, but the majority of the Filipino masses don't even know about it.
Next of all, Buddhist Monks? What? And they just approach the stage without security stopping them? I've lived in the Philippines for 22 of my 27 years, and I've seen Muslims, I've seen Protestants, and I've even seen Hasidic Jews, but I've never, not once, ever, laid eyes on a Buddhist monk, especially not in Makati, the city that I live next to and the city in which I work every day.
Also, yes, a lot of Filipinos are middle-aged brown-skinned women. But not all Filipinos are middle-aged brown-skinned women.
Honestly, that looks more like a group shot of the old people on my street than it does a representative view of people who would actually go to official events.
And look at that "realism." UGH. That art is horrible. I don't even care that they look like the middle-aged people from my neighborhood, and therefore distinctly Filipino, it's this kind of art that kills comics. All the gesture is gone. Why don't we just take pictures and put them together as panels? I mean look at Thor! SHEESH. Alex Toth must be rolling around in his grave.
Getting back to the issue of accurate representation. Why does this matter to me? Because I believe that when you're representing minorities, you should accurately represent them. We are almost all guilty of the fact that we form impressions of a place based on what little we see in stories and movies. I can't count the number of Americans and Filipinos I've met who were surprised to hear that South Korea is a first-world country - somehow, they base it on what they think is Asia, they don't hear about it much on the news, and to them, it's a third-world country. I can't count the number of Americans I've met who think I speak Spanish all on account of my name being Hispanic. We do not have the time, none of us, to fully research on every culture and every country. It is the responsibility of the writer to accurately depict what is going on in the country he chooses to portray, because people will be reading these things, and for a lot of them, it will be the first exposure they have to such a culture.
Here's how Matt Fraction defended the whole thing, with my comments after each paragraph:
"Respectfully, I disagree. It wasn't poorly researched; I promise-- but it was written for a predominantly American comics audience, which resulted in me making some choices for ease-of-reading rather than absolute cultural accuracy. I made that call because I felt if I had to explain and contextualize things for every reader, it would've slowed the story to a halt. Were I writing a Filipino team for a Filipino audience it would have been different. "
This is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Writing something for ease-of-reading of a predominantly American comics audience disregards and overlooks the considerable audience you have in other places -- like here in the Philippines, where off the top of my head, I can name eight big comic book shops and five bookstores with profitable comic book sections in the same Metro area.
Even then, your writing it for an audience that is not of the culture that you are portraying is even more reason to do it accurately. You're the writer, you have the power to affect knowledge, and you have the responsibility to make sure that people come out of it with the right knowledge.
Whether or not you realize it, you as a writer have great power. And we know what that brings with it.
"I know Mongoose aren't indiginous to the Philippines, but they ARE there, and had i time and space to talk about the character, I would've and i think it would've made sense (it's a reference to his kung fu fighting style, but how do you casually bring that up at a ceremony like that?). St. George I disagree with-- as a judeo-christian and catholic icon, I think that's an appropropriate name, especially for the religious makeup of the country."
First of all, I want you to find 100 random Filipinos, and then see how many of them know the story of St. George. You'll be lucky if you get 15.
Second of all, you as a writer have a responsibility to not mislead the audience when it comes to things like culture and national facts. When you come up with an American hero named, for example, "Tiger Mask," for your "primarily American comics audience," you are saying that it's just a name. But when you come up with a Filipino hero named "The Great Mongoose" for your "primarily American comics audience," you are actually leading them to believe that mongooses are native to the Philippines. Which they are not.
The rest of the world - minority, third-world countries, especially - do not work in the same way that America does.
"I know there's been issue with the use of the faux-Buddhist/Krishna-ish monks in the scene, but as the Philippines is mostly Roman-Catholic, I wanted to pick a visual signifier for a religion and a religous group and its practitioners that, in both countries (the US and the Philippines), indicated a signifigantly small minority. To dress the bombers in a way that immediately suggested a devout religious group, and a somewhat.... not necessarily mysterious, but an exotic one. they were SUPPOSED to a startling and rare group of people, which is exactly what they were."
FILIPINOS! Quick! Raise your hands if you think that seeing a group of Buddhist monks in ROBES at a government function is mysterious? Yes? I thought so.
And again, when you do this in America for your "predominantly American comics audience," you are showing that it's a "significantly small minority." When you do it in the Philippines for your "predominantly American comics audience," and not even say in the running text that the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, you are giving off the impression to people who don't know any better that Buddhist monks are common in the Philippines.
And I lived in the US and have a lot of American friends, sir. I know the effect of these things.
"(this issue saw the first real editorial content note I've ever received: in the inital drafts of the script, the monks were children. the bombers were supposed to be nearly a-religious...)"
That would have been better. No one's going to actually think any country is full of children who go around bombing people. I hope.
"I talked to a couple Pinoy friends, both here and in the Philippines (at one point even toyed with doing the whole scene in Tagalog) about the characters and the scene and felt comfortable with the way it ran. The mongoose was the one issue that came up and it was one that I chose to make (ultimately, it's a name, and just struck me as-- well, a name. Is "Green Lantern" too American a name? Etc. etc.). The rest I'd argue with similar to how I have here on the basis factual or artistic decisions."
A lantern is an inanimate object that can be found anywhere in the world. A mongoose is an animal that is not native to the Philippines and is not an animal associated with the Philippines. There is a huge difference. That's on the same line of reasoning (though not the same level) as Ian Sattler addressing the question of racism in DC Comics with "we have green, pink, and blue characters."
I wonder how many kids are now going to grow up thinking that the Philippines is that place where the mongooses and Buddhist monks are abundant.
Now, a few months ago, Marvel released a handbook of the various mythologies in the Marvel Universe. Among them were the Diwatas, its new (yet to debut) pantheon of Filipino deities:
This treatment is rather excellent reworking of our old myths. I particularly like how they made Kaluwalhatian (meaning eternity, or heaven) the dimension from whence these gods come. Everything else seems to be a nice, contemporary rendition of our old myths. Quite excellent. I can't wait to see it in an actual story.