Aug 15, 2011

Filipino Komiks and History

I've recently been reading 1953's LAPU-LAPU by Francisco V. Coching, which was reissued by Atlas Publications back in 2009.


Combined with the Filipino Invasion panel from SDCC (mp3 here), I started wondering how Filipino komiks impacted and was impacted by local culture and history.

I'm still a novice when it comes to Filipino comics, to be honest, but I found certain connections fascinating, so I'm going to try outlining them here. I hope that anyone who spots mistakes in this article will feel free to correct me.


The first Filipino komik, as the Comics Cube! has pointed out, was Jose Rizal's "Ang Matsing at Ang Pagong" ("The Monkey and the Turtle"). In summary, Jose Rizal, our national hero who fought against the Spanish oppressors of the time, crafted a tale about how a turtle outwits a monkey, even though he still loses the prize they fight for. The only thing the monkey loses is face — and this is important. At the time (heck, even now, I'd say), being oppressed by a bunch of foreigners leaves the locals really with very little apart from their dignity and their sense of humor. The prideful tyrants during the time of colonial rule really placed a lot of stock in their demeanor, so to embarrass them, even in the face of defeat, is considered a victory by the little guys.

Jose Rizal, the Philippines' national hero,
and also our first komikero.

That was1884, and the first instance of words and pictures being used in sequence in the Philippines that has been recorded. It does seem to offer some social and political commentary by way of a fable.

Fast forward to 1929, and the Spaniards have been driven out by Americans right after the Spanish-American War. Most history books will mention this war but never mention the Philippines, but yes, we were involved and we became an American territory right after. It makes sense that we got a lot of stuff from American culture then, including commercial comic strips. In the pages of Liwayway magazine, Tony Velasquez created the recurring character Kenkoy, in the strip ANG KABALBALAN NI KENKOY (THE MISADVENTURES OF KENKOY).


Kenkoy is a pop icon, and was our first recurring comic character. He was a satirical portrait of a Filipino always trying to keep up with the Americans, going with the latest fashions, slang, and all the other aspects of American culture that were working their way into our society at the time. This started his version of pidgin English. Just note some of his dialogue in that example up there — "Is beri nesesari..." ("It's very necessary...") and "Gud moning, Mis Biyutipul." ("Good morning, Miss Beautiful."). This kind of language mixing and mangling has stuck with us since then and can be seen even in the titles of our comedy shows (Show Me Da Manny starring Manny Pacquiao, for instance). "Kenkoy" has also become part of our language, and is defined simply as "a funny person." (I myself have been called a kenkoy a few times.)

Then the Japanese invaded us in World War II, and I wish I could find out what happened to the komiks then, but I have no idea. I can only assume that all the komikeros went to war, and according to this article by Gerry Alanguilan, the end of World War II saw the American GIs introducing the serialized comic book format, giving way to HALAKHAK KOMIKS in 1946.  The new breed of Filipino komiks showcased a lot of American influence, from characters such as the detective D.I. Trece (I'll let you figure out the American comic he was based on) to Mars Ravelo's characters, the most notable of which is Darna.


Co-created by Nestor Redondo, Darna is Superman, Wonder Woman, and most prominently, Captain Marvel, all rolled into one package. She's our premiere superhero, and she's a little girl named Narda who swallows a magic stone, enabling her to switch to the superpowered form of Darna. You can read her origin here. (I like how when Narda first switched to Darna, her grandma and brother just yell in fear.)

Darna has been the subject of multiple movies and TV adaptations. In addition to her and Captain Barbell, the second most successful of Ravelo's co-creations, Ravelo also co-created a bunch of other Filipino superheroes, thus showing the feeling of freedom and escapism that was in the air at the time, having just driven the Japanese out and gaining our independence even as an American territory. For the first time in centuries, we were an autonomous country.


As an aside, I want to point out two characters in this spread. The first one is Dyesebel, the mermaid, who has also been adapted into multiple TV shows and movies.


The other one is Flash Bomba, who hasn't been adapted as much (though he has been adapted), but I'm just mentioning him because I think he's awesome. He was cursed by a tikbalang (to be short, that's a horse that walks like a man) to have big hands and feet. And so he fights crime, with his big hands (capable of creating thunderclaps) and feet (capable of climbing up walls)!



All this time, Kenkoy was still having misadventures, and Ravelo wouldn't be outdone. Not content with mythological superheroes, offbeat superheroes, and fantastical mermaids, Ravelo, like many of his contemporaries, was also very versatile, and he released Bondying in 1951.


Bondying is a grown man who still dresses and behaves like a baby, playing on the Filipino predilection for such a kind of comedy. Like Kenkoy, not only has Bondying been the subject of multiple adaptations, but the word "bondying" has entered our language to mean "a big person who is still considered a baby."

So what have we learned so far? Throughout the entire history of Filipino komiks, we have retained a sense of humor, and after the war, there was a prevailing sense of hope and  But before you think that it's all escapism and comedy, let's go to Francisco V. Coching, who was also a versatile artist, doing comedy strips like BING BIGOTILYO and adventure strips like EL INDIO, which chronicles the adventures of a young man who joins a rebel group in the Philippines. For the sake of this article, we'll focus on the one I mentioned at the start of this article, which is Coching's LAPU-LAPU.


For those to whom the name is not familiar, Lapu-Lapu is the name of the first recognized Filipino hero. He stood up to the forces of Ferdinand Magellan (or, as he's known in the story, Fernando Magallanes) in 1521 and refused to surrender to Spanish colonial rule and embrace Roman Catholicism, even when the other rulers of the surrounding islands and areas were conceding. Lapu-Lapu's army is the army that was responsible for the death of Magellan, and it should be noted that Magellan never finished his trek around the world, and he died in the island of Mactan in the Philippines.

But very little is actually known of Lapu-Lapu or his life, so much of Coching's work is indeed just historical fiction. And it's interesting to me how the very telling of it seems to have been impacted by our own views on certain issues and our history and culture. For example, every panel in LAPU-LAPU is compressed with dialogue. I would wager that this is because it appeared in 5-page installments in PILIPINO KOMIKS and the compression was necessary to make readers feel like they were getting their money's worth in terms of price to time ratio. Keep in mind that TV wasn't around then yet, and komiks were seen as cheap entertainment — tragically, production qualities probably never let any more than a select few really see the artistic potential in the medium. But as seen in the first page of the book alone, Coching obviously did.


Another thing I notice here is that despite the fact that this (obviously) tells the story of the time the Spanish came here to the Philippines, and yet, the leading lady, Yumina, Lapu-Lapu's sister, clearly looks like she has Spanish blood. Even in the 50s, our standards for beauty was heavily based in that Spanish "mestiza" look. Which, I think, is a shame. There are so many kinds of beauty that sticking with the generic look even when it makes no sense is kind of a sad commentary on either the audience or how the creator views the audience, I think.


Read all that dialogue as well, and if you understand it, you can probably tell one thing: that is some deep Tagalog right there. For the first quarter of the book, I actually sat with a Tagalog-English dictionary by my side, wondering if people actually spoke like this. I lent it to some co-workers and friends who speak the language more deeply than I do, and they had a hard time with it as well. I even showed it to my mom, who herself said that that's not the way they talked when she was growing up in the 50s and 60s. So the only thing I can really come up with is this: we had just driven out the Japanese and we had just told the Americans that we can handle ourselves, so there's an overwhelming sense of pride right there. Why speak in English? Let's prove that we can express ourselves in our own language! After all, isn't Kenkoy's entire point that trying to keep up with the Joneses makes us look stupid?

There's also another balancing act at play here: if you look at the history books in the Philippines, it's easy to view Magellan as the oppressive villain who was trying to take over that which wasn't his, and Lapu-Lapu as the hero who fended these oppressors off. But when you try to go in-depth with it, that's an issue. See, some Filipinos sided with Magellan. Not only that, but Magellan was on a mission to spread Christianity and Roman Catholicism, so when you're in the 1950s in a Roman Catholic country, it's hard to call that an evil goal. There are times in the story when Lapu-Lapu looks genuinely xenophobic (there's even a panel where he laughs a stereotypical villain's laugh), and Coching manages to work through the issue via the use of intermediary characters (a Spaniard who is clearly evil, a Spaniard who sides with the natives). Everything is affected by how we view ourselves.

And so it went. In 1969, LA-based Tony DeZuniga, co-creator of Jonah Hex, was looking for some Filipino artists to work for American comics. There was a mass exodus of komiks artists from the Philippines to the States (Coching just retired) at around this time. One of them was Alfredo Alcala, who wrote and drew the komik VOLTAR.

Thanks to Gerry Alanguilan for this.

VOLTAR was so acclaimed that Warren Publishing got Alcala to create a new version in English — not a translated version; a new version of the same premise.



Alcala moved to American comics in 1972. With him went a lot of other artists. Nestor Redondo. Ernie Chan. Steve Gan. Alex Nino. Rudy Nebres. And more.

What could have caused such a massive exodus? What happened in 1972?

The answer is something that any Filipino can tell you: Martial law was declared in 1972. Martial law was declared supposedly because of communist insurgency, but we all know martial law was declared because the then-president wanted to stay in power right when his term was near its end, and he wanted to stay in power so he can steal more money so he can buy his wife more shoes. This guy gets a lot of apologists now, mostly kids who weren't there for martial law, or kids who don't know the horror stories, or who blame the subsequent administration for screwing up the economy, unaware that the economy takes years to screw up and that everything happened under the dictator anyway. Apologists tend to now know how corruption works, how it affects the poverty line. And most of all, they tend to ignore the basic concept of a lack of freedom. Under martial law, you could not talk smack about the government — period. People who disagreed with the government actually ran to the mountains and hid there until it was over, no one could be out past midnight, and a lot of really oppressive laws were put into place. We'll never really have accurate documentation about the extent of it, because there was a media blackout and, like I said, you couldn't badmouth the government, ever, under penalty of the law.

As part of their efforts to control the media, the government made it difficult for newspapers to stay in business, and they hoarded newsprint. Newsprint, the cheapest paper to get, was all of a sudden being sold in the black market. So anything involving newsprint was no longer cost-efficient.

I can't say for sure that that was the main reason that drove Filipino artists to American comics, but I'm sure it was a reason. And why not? Martial law caused a lot of people to leave the country, period, so why should comics artists be any different? In addition, I asked Budjette Tan, writer of TRESE, if he thinks there was a causation there. He said to me:

From what I remember, the local komiks companies set up their own Comics Code (but they were a self-governing body), just so that the government won't get involved and censor all their works. But just like the Comics Code, they did restrict stories that showed too much horror, sex, and violence. Which, could be, partly the reason why our horror komiks artists looked for greener pastures and found it in the US market.


And that blew my mind, because even a cursory glance at The Philippine Comics Art Museum shows a list of people who worked on titles like THE PHANTOM STRANGER, VAMPIRELLA, SWAMP THING, and DRACULA. So there is great credence to Budjette's observation, even with the fact that they also specialized in sword & fantasy stuff as well as sci-fi stuff! The Filipinos were so prolific back then that the whole movement was, in retrospect, referred to as "The Filipino Invasion," and they were so happy to get work done. I share with you this story Mark Evanier tells about Alfredo Alcala's first meeting with Joe Orlando, which people may doubt, but when you consider how prolific Alcala was, it's hard to call BS on his claim of being able to do 80 pages a week. In fact, if you look at Filipino komiks back then, there was indeed more detail than in the standard American comic, so it shouldn't be very surprising. (Curt Swan is not that detailed an artist, after all.)

Martial law was lifted in the early 80s and we went through a revolution in 1986 (I was there). The Philippine comic industry got a bit of a shot in the arm, but with globalization and the proliferation of comics stores, as well as the widespread use of TV back then, it was no longer the big form of entertainment that it used to be. These days, local artists work for the conventions. They put out a small print run of komiks that they made and replicated with a photocopy machine, on regular-sized paper that's folded in half and stapled in the middle. With enough success, they can use the sales on those to pitch a collected edition to book publishers. Probably the most famous Filipino komik right now is Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo's TRESE, my review of which you can find here.



You'll notice that there is now a proliferation of English in the Filipino komiks, and part of that is just that some people, like Budjette, or I think David Hontiveros of BATHALA: APOKALYPSIS are more comfortable with English, like I am. Another reason is that comics readers would probably be able to read English anyway, and so it makes it easier to pitch it to a wider, non-Filipino audience, and thus to foreign publishers, which is how Slave Labor Graphics published the Eisner-nominated ELMER, by Gerry Alanguilan.


This hasn't stopped Filipinos from working in American comics. The most famous is probably Leinil Francis Yu (SECRET INVASION), who used to play StarCraft with some of my friends about 10 years ago.



There, that's it, pretty much. My entire article on how Filipino art and comics was impacted by culture and history. We have some talented people working right now, but sadly, I wouldn't put many artists beside the likes of Alcala, Redondo, and Coching — and I doubt many would, since that's pretty much the local equivalent of putting someone next to Jack Kirby. It would be nice to see the works from that Golden Age of Pinoy Komiks ("Pinoy," by the way, is another word for "Filipino," popularized by another komik!) restored and reprinted, but unfortunately, much of that no longer exists, save for battered up newsprint copies. It'd be nice to make that a project. For those who want to read some Filipino comics or learn more about them, I'd recommend the following links and books:


Thanks for reading, and like I said, if I got anything wrong, I'd appreciate being corrected.

4 comments:

Budjette said...

Hey Duy!

Some additional links that might be interesting for you and your readers:

1
"Komikeros: The Filipino Contribution to the Comic Book Medium"
Part 1: 1970s-1980s
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=14556

2
"Komikeros: The Filipino Contribution to the Comic Book Medium"
Part 2: 1990s-present
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=14560

3
J.Torres chats with Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and me :-)
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=14565

--budjette

Duy said...

Thanks, Budj!

pj said...

The Voltar art looks gorgeous.

Kilawinguwak said...

his name is flash.

flash....


BOMBA!!

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