Oct 23, 2012
Filipino Heroes League: An Interview with Paolo Fabregas
Invisiboy also kinda looks like FHL creator Paolo Fabregas. What's up with that? I sat down with Paolo and decided to ask him this and other hard-hitting question, including the status of his application to Marvel Comics (Paolo was one of several Filipino artists shortlisted by CB Cebulski back in February).
Paolo shows up with what looks like a sword, so naturally, my first question is...
Me: So what's with the sword?
Paolo Fabregas: The sword. I've always wanted one of those umbrella things with the sword. It was either the sword or the lightsaber. So I told my wife, "Get me a samurai sword." The thing is, I only started using this because my car broke down. The engine totally seized. As you can see, I have other interests than car maintenance. (laughs) I wish someone would just invent a car that wasn't a hassle and would take care of itself. So I've been commuting, and as a professional commuter, you need an umbrella.
What was the spark for the idea of the Filipino Heroes League? Where did that come from?
It's gonna sound kind of selfish, but I wanted to read a Filipino comic book or a Filipino superhero comic book that dealt with the issues that the country was facing at the time. When the idea popped into my head, it was the time during GMA's... uh... dominion?
That's a long time.
Yeah, that's a long time, so it's been brewing for a long time, the idea of this comic book. There were lots of things that were just disturbing me. And I wanted to read a comic book that was about all the disturbing things that were going on. I thought it would be so apt, and I wasn't seeing it, so I thought "Well, why don't I just write it?" (laughs) Kind of out of the blue—I had no idea what I was doing!
That leads me to my next question. How planned out was the book ahead of time?
Extremely planned out. So before I even started writing, I had a very detailed plot outline from book 1 to book 3. So there's a very clear direction of where I wanted to take the story from the get-go. It took a lot of backstory and thinking. I kind of treated it a little bit like the way—you know, I'm not Tolkien, but a miniscule version of what Tolkien did. Where, before he wrote Lord of the Rings, he created the whole history of this world, and he took the most interesting thing about it and that's what the Lord of the Rings trilogy was. That's kind of what I did, except I didn't have to create an entire world. I had Philippine history, and I just had to tweak it a little bit. I just had to put superheroes into Philippine history a little bit and then focus on the most exciting bit. I can tell you the story now. There's Book 1. I can tell you what happens in Book 2, and I can tell you what's going to happen in Book 3.
It's generally accepted that the country has been getting better.
Do you think that's going to affect the way your next book will be received when it comes out?
Yes and no. I am happy with the way things are going. But to a certain degree—and this sounds selfish—I was thinking, "Damn, the country's getting better! My book's not going to be relevant! It's not finished!" (Duy here. At this point, I would type in "(laughs)", but let me just say: no amount of that will justify just how much I cracked up.) I was kind of in a rush and in a panic. But it's still relevant, nevertheless. There are still things it tackles that I think people will think are true. I hope.
The president in your story has a mole on his cheek. Is that intentional?
Yes.(laughs) The thing is, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to talk about the issues or at least open up discussion about the issues, and I just hope that I'm not alone in it. I think by putting it in a comic book context, I give it a little space. 'Cause the truth of the matter is no one wants to talk about the issues, 'cause that's just damn boring. And it just gets heavy. I didn't want it treated in that manner.
People want to talk about them on Facebook.
Yeah, but people don't want to pick up a comic book and have it said to their face, and neither do I. I wanted it to be a superhero comic book—it's still a superhero comic book at the end of the day, and it's supposed to be fun and entertaining. I just wanted it to have more meat than a typical superhero comic book. And while these are my issues, I feel I'm not alone in these issues. At least that's what I get from the responses. I've had lots of people disagree with me, of course, but I think that's part of literature.
What are they disagreeing with?
I don't know. Sometimes they disagree with the whole idea that a comic book should be talking about the issues. "Comic books are supposed to be escapist in nature. We shouldn't be talking about these issues in a comic book."
Yeah, I've seen that kind of thing before too. "Watchmen ruined comic books."
I know! I like this one interview of Alan Moore, where he says there's no such thing as escapist literature. Even fantasy. Science fiction is not about another world. It's about the world we live in. Because of that fantasy world, the author is given the space to see different things, emphasize different stuff.
When I first discovered the book, I had just read Gerry Alanguilan's blog post on The Difficulty of Doing Superheroes in the Philippines. Did you manage to read that?
Yes, I did. I so wanted to respond when I saw that. I was just in the middle of drawing the book when Budjette directed me to that post. And it was exactly my problem with Philippine superheroes. They weren't dealing with the issues. So when Gerry pointed that out, I said "Yes! Exactly! That's my point!" But I couldn't say anything because I was still in the middle of writing my book, and I would've pre-empted the book if I responded to it in any way. So I just read it and reread it and reread it. That was really important to me. Superheroes had to make sense in our world. I think my "Big Bang" moment when everything kind of crystallized for me is when I discovered the idea of overseas Filipino heroes.
Yeah, that was brilliant.
Thank you! It was just "boom!" I remember thinking at the time, "Yeah, people are poor. They're so poor that superheroes need to leave, and... overseas Filipino superheroes!" And from that starting point, everything kind of fell into place.
It is the starting point in the book. But that's like what I said—I read a news report a few months ago about how people are actually staying in the Philippines now. Fewer people are leaving. That doesn't worry you at all in terms of your book being received?
It doesn't. I think it goes deeper than that. The issues that I'm tackling, more than anything else, aren't really about just the OFWs. It's about hypocrisy and corruption. As the story continues, you'll see how that comes out even more. There's still gonna be a whole hell of a lot of that in two or three years time. It's still going to be relevant.
(Joking) "The country can get better when my book is done!"
"Only when my book is out!"
"And is sold out!"
(laughs) I can't believe I actually had such a selfish thought. "Please don't make it so good! It takes time to make these things!"
How long did it take you to do this one?
That took me a year and a half, and I rushed it. I feel like I could have taken more time on it.
It doesn't show, aside from the duplicate panels.
When I first saw FHL on Komik7107, it was just in black and white. When did you get the idea to add these gray tones in?
I didn't know what the limits to the printing were. I knew color was out of the question, and that I'd just have to deal with black and white. So I thought the only thing we could do with the printing to show tones were the dots. There's a technical, artistic term for it—
Ben day dots?
There you go. I thought that was all you could do to simulate gray tones. Then I printed out gray tones in photocopy, and it turned out okay. And apparently, when you print out in gray tones, it's the same price as black and white, so I thought, "Great!" and started using gray tones. That's why it was such a late development, and it made the art much clearer, you know?
You say the overseas Filipino superheroes just came to you, but what about everything else? How did you find the right tweaks and twists? When I spoke to Budj, he said that if you're, say, gonna create a Filipino Spider-Man, you can't just transplant that story into Manila. You have to do more things and give it a more authentic flavor. How did you find the right twists, like the jeep with the faulty starter?
For me, that was my starting point. So when I stumbled into "overseas Filipino superhero," I just had to reverse-engineer the world from that. Once that was solid, okay. Filipino superheroes are leaving. Why? Because there's no support for Filipino superheroes. Why? Because there's no government money. Why? And I just had to connect the dots from there, because that was my logical starting point. Everything kind of flowed from that point.
I guess, finding the right plot twists, I had to make even the main bad guys' reason for doing what they do, also Filipino. And I think that's how things came together, really.
And then there's just looking at the way we in the Philippines do things. We kind of make do. We do awesome stuff out of makeshift things. We can take a small piece of junk and go "Oh, it works!" you know?
I believe you have a character that deals with that!
Of all of them, I thought he had the most genius superpower idea. Where did he come from? How did you think of that?
I didn't! It was my brother-in-law. He's not even into comic books, but he's into stories and TV shows and stuff like that. And he said, "Why don't you have an inventor who makes things out of junk?" And I said (excitedly), "That's awesome!" (laughs) I wish I could take credit for it, but I thank him in the credits. Vince Alvarez for the Maker's power.
As a side question, do you have any plans to go to Komikon as Invisiboy?
(laughs) That's my deep regret now in the back of my head! I just wanted to have a bald, fat comic book superhero! I didn't realize the ramifications of it. The thing is, when I was thinking about these characters, Ian Sta. Maria was my art director at the time in advertising. So a lot of the banter between Kidlat Kid and Invisiboy is based on the banter between Ian and me.
Kidlat Kid's based on Ian?
A little bit.
Even visually, a little bit.
Flashlight is Pepe Smith, right?
Yeah. That's the thing. I wanted to look at iconography and classic Filipino stuff, you know? And for me, Pepe Smith is just so classic. The Filipino bad boy. I wanted to write the Filipino bad boy. A little bit of Robin Padilla and a little bit of Pepe Smith and a little bit of our action superstars. But I really wanted a bit of that rock and roll mentality. And Pepe Smith's time was the 1980s, and I thought that was appropriate because Flashlight is from that time when the Filipino Heroes League was in their prime.
So you planned out the whole story beforehand. Do you actually have a written script where you detail the panels and the layouts?
Everything is planned out, because I'm anal retentive. Someone else could technically draw it. The script is that detailed. Once the script is done, for me, the comic is over. Once it's done, it's visualized in my head, and I know what to do and what to draw. Of course, when I start drawing, I will disagree with my script and go, "Nah, that's bullshit," and then revise that and redraw it to something better.
How much of that changes in the drawing process? Does it actually change the direction of the story?
No, the story doesn't change. I just find a better way to tell it visually. For that I have to listen to my gut. Usually, if I'm having difficulty drawing the page, it means there's something wrong with the script. If I panel it out and I can't figure it out, it's like I stutter artistically or drawingwise. That's when I look at the scene and rearrange the panels.
How do layouts come to you? For example, how do you know when to make panels in a sequence of equal size, or give extra space to a moment? Is that something that's kind of more organic or cerebral for you? How much do you think about the breakdown?
I think about the breakdown a lot because the panels and the captions are, for me, the rhythm of your story. I really love the pacing and the rhythm in the work of Robert Kirkman. The way Robert Kirkman paces out his comic books, it's just so fast and so fun. It's like you're watching a movie in your head as you're reading the comic book, and that is what I love. I love going "Whoa!" and your imagination's going wild as you're reading it, so I try as much as possible to emulate that. I want to make sure that the movie in my mind as I'm reading the story is moving. I want the reader to experience that. So I do think about how much needs to be said, how much needs to be in a single panel, so that the reader can look at the image, read the script, and then go off to the next one as efficiently as possible. Where there isn't a lot of break, a lot of stoppage, unless the art requires you to stop. Like it's a "moment."
Costume designs. Where'd they come from?
For me, I just had to make it as simple as humanly possible. There's a great contrast in how the Filipino Heroes League costumes look and how the Republic Heroes costumes look.
The Republic Heroes look like they have money.
Exactly! And I wanted the Republic Heroes to be almost overtly, in the most declarative way, Filipino. Like "I'm proud to be Pinoy." It's like in Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much." They're showing too much how Filipino they are. And I wanted the contrast with the Filipino Heroes League more down to earth, where the Filipino touches would be more subtle in nature. So they would be simple. I get criticized a lot for the costume design, like there isn't a lot of imagination going on. And it's true! There isn't a lot of imagination going on, because these are regular folk. They're not costume designers.
There was one scene in Invincible where Invincible was trying to get a costume and trying to find his name. And he was going through a series of name studies. He actually had to go through the creative process, on how to get a proper name and how to get a costume from his dad. He actually has to go to a costume designer. So that makes sense. Robert Kirkman made it make sense that Invincible would have this iconic costume, because Invincible has a costume designer to make his costume. And these guys, the FHL, don't have that. They're not copywriters nor are they designers. So I'd rather keep it simple and think about how these people would come up with their own costumes.
Obviously we respond to American superheroes and Japanese comics and other non-Filipino stuff. How well do you think this would go over with non-Filipinos?
I don't know. It's actually quite interesting. I do have pages online, and some people just bring it to the States. And there are some foreigners who respond positively to the story. And I didn't write it for them, and I didn't think they'd understand any of it, even though it's in English. And when they read it, or even when they read the first 30 pages, they go, "Oh, where's the rest?" Somehow the cultural gap isn't as far as I thought it was. They still want to read the story and want to know where it's going. I think it's because it's a Filipino superhero point of view, and that's not something that's been explored in Western literature.
That brings me to my next question. Why'd you write it in English?
'Cause I can't write it in Tagalog. I cannot. My Tagalog sucks. It worse than sucks. It's awful. I couldn't bring out any of the humor, any of the casual conversation, any nuance if it was in Tagalog. It'd be lost. It'd have to be translated. That, for me, is a next step. I want to get the book done, finished in English, and then have it translated for a Tagalog release.
What about other dialects?
I haven't even gone there! Sure, why not?
Aside from Robert Kirkman, who are your main influences?
I'd have to go way back. There are only two comic books I go back to over and over again. Those are Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Those are the comic books I keep going back to over and over again. And of course, who didn't grow up loving Todd McFarlane?
I loved Todd McFarlane.
I consumed Todd McFarlane. I was a nine-year-old kid in New York, and I saw Spider-Man, and I thought "Oh my God! This is it!"
I know everyone in our generation here is a huge fan of Jim Lee, but for me it was McFarlane.
Jim Lee is awesome, but for me, Todd McFarlane all the way. That was what drew me into comic books. Jim Lee was good, but it didn't speak to me the way Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man did.
You use a lot of grids, so I can see the Dark Knight and Watchmen influence, but you're also very good, speaking of McFarlane, at depicting motion. I think that's what Jim Lee lacks as a storyteller.
That's what I always found about Jim Lee as well. It looked so hard. And then suddenly when you look at Todd McFarlane, there is this flow to everything, especially when Spider-Man's legs are everywhere.
Yeah, I didn't care if it was impossible.
It was just awesome. What are those lines on his thighs? There's no muscle that goes that way. But I didn't care.
Moving back to FHL, how far are you with the second book?
Here's the thing. I was a hundred pages into it, meaning I had fifty pages left to go. Then the CB Cebulski thing happened, and it totally blew my mind, and I still don't think I deserve to be in it, but I was in it, and I wasn't gonna say no. But when I was doing those try-out pages—I did some Daredevil try-out pages (see them here and here)—I poured in so much effort to making those pages with the best of my ability. They're still not good, but it was the best of my ability.But I put so much effort into that, that my wife pointed out, "You know, Paolo, it looks like you're putting more effort into those Daredevil pages than in your own comic book." I stopped and looked at all the art I had drawn, and she was right. I was rushing it, I was mailing it in. So I had to look back and a redo needed to happen. I can show you, in fact. All the pages from 20 onwards had to be redone. That's when I started mailing it in, because I was feeling the pressure everyone was putting on me, the "Where's Book 2, where's Book 2, where's Book 2?" But in the meantime I forgot to take my time with the storytelling, and my wife was telling me "Take your time, take your time, take your time." But then I started doing five pages a week—forget about quality, just five pages a week. And fine, I was doing it, but when I took a good look at it, it just wasn't cutting it. So that's why I'm back to page 63. And it's going to take longer. I wanted it out this October, and if it was gonna be the crappy version, it would have been out this October.
Do you work digitally?
Partly on paper, partly digitally. I borrowed the process of Leinil Yu, which was to do your sketch on Photoshop, then you print that, then you do your pencils on top in blue line, then you scan that and do your inks by hand. Sketching's the only thing that's done on the computer, and some inking.
(At this point, Paolo shows me some pages from the next volume, as well as the original versions of those pages.)
There's a world of difference
Well, it's not that the first version was bad at all. The second version's just much better. Those are some pretty thin lines. How thin a pen are you using?
That's a .05.
Which local artists are you looking at right now?
I am in awe of the Pinoy artists that we have. I'm looking at artists who haven't even been discovered yet, like Rey Macutay. Look him up on Facebook. His art is absolutely incredible. The lines are so clean, his storytelling is so clear visually. You don't even need words. Each frame will tell you visually what's going on.
Your parents are artists. Did you have formal training in art?
No, I have absolutely zero formal training. I somewhat regret not taking it up, but growing up, I just had other interests. I suddenly got into acting. I thought acting was the thing for me, and as it turns out, it wasn't. But that's okay. I love theater, but I realized it was—and this sounds weird—something I could walk away from. It was something where I could say, "Yeah, that was fun, I did that a little bit," and not go, "Oh, I wish I was back on stage." However, when I finally discovered comics, in my head, I knew there was no way I'm ever walking away from this. Ever.
Did you try to study comic book textbooks, like Understanding Comics?
I did buy How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which really screwed me over (laughs). I couldn't draw like him, and I thought panels needed to be a certain way. I felt so disheartened. That's why I felt so awesome when I read Alan Moore's book Writing for Comics, in the introduction (where Moore says he didn't really approve of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way). I thought, "Yes!" Thanks to Alan Moore for pointing that out, that I didn't have to draw like everybody else.
I think my main hurdle was actually telling a story. Fine, I could draw. But I didn't really know how to tell a story. I didn't know how to go about it. Funnily enough, I took English Lit in college, in Ateneo, just because I liked to read. And it was through English Lit that I got to appreciate how stories are told. Not that I'd ever written a story, mind you. I never even took a creative writing class. But I got an appreciation of story and storytelling. And to be honest, with Filipino Heroes League, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just trying to hammer out the plot and learning as I go along.
That's a pretty ambitious first story. It's three books long!
It is. I don't know why, but that was the story I wanted to write. And I think as you go along, you start to learn more. I keep running into tiny little quotes of writers that I appreciate and I really really love, and I try to emulate their philosophies on writing. One of my favorite writers is George Orwell. I love Nineteen Eighty-Four. I keep going back to that book because it's so disturbing, and still so true of society today as when he wrote it back in 1948. For him, if you want to write well, what's important is that you just have to be clear. Don't flower it with words no one understands or words people will have to look up in the dictionary. Just be clear and speak normally. Don't just fill it up with fluff.
Another writer I totally love is David Mamet. And this is something I got by doing one of his plays, The Three Sisters. When he writes a script, it's like spoken language. There's all this punctuation and pauses, and sentences that stop in the middle and then a new thought starts with the next sentence. It's very difficult to read, but the moment you start realizing the thought behind these different breakages, it sounds like spoken language. When you say it out loud, when you read it and understand it, the rhythm and the cadence of the speech is normal language. It's like he took a tape recording and then just dictated. It's really, really tough to write and really tough to act. But one of his tips in writing is to make sure that each scene has a conflict. Each scene has a conflict. Person A wants to get something from Person B, and at the end of that scene, either Person A gets it or Person B keeps him from getting it.
So that's something I learned as I went along, especially with Book 2. I'd think, "My God, this scene is boring. Why is it boring? Oh yeah, no one's fighting about anything."
Would you say you're more comfortable writing Book 2?
Yes, much more comfortable.
So would you still say you have no idea what you're doing?
I would still say I have no idea what I'm doing, but I have a clearer idea of what I want. I know what Book 2 is supposed to do. The entire story is mapped out in my head. I know that Book 2 is going to be a big, big climax to the story. Kind of like The Two Towers in Lord of the Rings, you know, which is really the best movie out of all three of them. It's compact and awesome and amazing, and I feel like that's what's gonna happen in Book 2.
In Book 3, it goes down a little bit, and of course there's gonna be a big bang at the end. That's the way it's going to be structured.
How important is it for you to keep an intact story structure per book, making sure that each book still has three acts, despite the fact that overall, Book 1 is still act 1, Book 2 is still act 2, and Book 3 is still act 3?
That structure kind of evolved. For me, each book has a specific purpose. It sets off to answer a particular question. In Book 1, it sets off to answer who's behind all these killings. So I reveal it, and of course, once I reveal that, there are more questions. And those questions lead you into Book 2, and by the end of Book 2, you'll know the answers to those questions, and of course at the end of Book 2, there's going to be one final question.
What made you want to write three separate books rather than one big one?
It would take me too long, and I wanted to see reactions and how things would come about. I kind of felt that it felt right to have three books. When all done, I want it to be one big volume, but it would depend. Book 1 cost 200 pesos. Book 2's gonna be even longer, and more expensive. And then Book 3 might be even longer than that, so we're talking about a book that might cost around 700 pesos or so, and I don't know if a lot of people can afford it. I keep thinking about the students who go to Komikon, and for them, 200 is huge. It's a little on the pricey end for students, so I might keep them separate.
Speaking of students, is that your specific demographic that you're aiming the book for?
Yeah, which is the reason I wanted to keep it light. When I wrote my pitch to Visprint, I wrote it like a product. "This book is targeted to 18- to 20-year-olds in college. However, this will also appeal to a broader market." So I had an audience in mind that I wanted to reach.
Now for the hard-hitting questions. Are you ready?
(points to the pedicab scene, left) How did the tire not melt at that speed?
(laughs) What you should be asking is how come the chain is still on the bicycle! To be honest, that was another design factor I was thinking of, if Kidlat Kid should be carrying bicycle chains all the time to replace the ones on his bike because he's always riding them at high speed.
It's a superhero comic book! That's my response to that! (laughs)
Is it hard to do Invisiboy's invisible effect in black and white?
Super hard! I ended up making him white. I even had to aid you. "Huh? Where'd he go?" It was a difficult thing. In color, it's so easy. Just make him clear, or give him that ghost effect. In black and white, it's really hard.
Is Invisiboy's mask based on Spawn's mask?
Maybe a little bit. Maybe also Spider-Man's. This is where you see my Todd McFarlane influence coming on, a little bit. I'm a huge Todd McFarlane fan, so I did put that in there.
Where are you right now with your Marvel application?
Nowhere. It's done. I sent it in, I got no feedback. CB Cebulski was nice enough to email me back asking if any editors had come back with feedback. I said no, and then silence.
For me, it was just so nice to be asked. And thankfully, I'm glad to be asked, because by choosing me in his list, which I totally didn't deserve, it made me work harder on different techniques, so I kind of took two months of really hardcore lessons on these different techniques and these different technologies that Marvel artists use to help them, and I tried to apply that to Book 2 more. Like before CB spoke, I didn't know there was such a thing as Google Sketchup. It's a thing that people use for their backgrounds. It's a free 3D application. Say you need a vehicle. Download the vehicle, point it any which way you want, put it in Photoshop, and boom, you have your car. Easy trick. Makes your life easier.
You said you were working harder on the Marvel sample pages than on your own comic. Is the allure of Marvel so tempting?
Super! Super, it's your dream job, man! You get to stay home and draw comics!
Marvel or DC?
Okay, but if DC had offered you the same—
Hey man, I'll do it! I'll draw anything! (laughs) I'm not picky! What the hell! Absolutely! It's your dream job! Fine, to be a comic book superstar, you have to work really hard and getting in there is the first step, and there are only very few Leinil Yus in this world, but you can dare to dream. You can sit there and draw all day, and get money from that, and that's fantastic.
We always hear people like Alan Moore talking about the influence of cinema on comics, noting that it's easier to make a comic if you have knowledge of cinematic techniques. What would you say about theater? Do you find any of your theater mentality going into your writing?
Especially when it comes to scripting. The thing is, I read a lot, and a lot of them are scripts. So I read dialogue and characterization. All these things are very important. The things that are unsaid, where you say one thing but really mean another thing—these are subtext. So for me, there's a lot of theater in my scripts simply because I love creating characters. I try to give each one of my characters a different pose, a different point of view, even a different language from everyone else, so they stand out. So that's incredibly important, and I think theater's a great background to have. If you have a script that you yourself would like to act, or words that you want to say—for me, that's what I do. I say it out loud, I play act the other characters.
Is subtext harder to convey in comics?
I try to still give it moments and slight pauses. Like if someone says something that gets a reaction, and then a smirk suddenly appears on that person's face. You know, a split second and you cut back to that certain thing, but I still give it those subtle moments. I try to do it as much as possible. It is hard because you have a limited amount of space, but I do try to put it in there.
I saw that video of you talking about redundancy in comics and how you avoid having the text and the pictures say the same thing. And I realized when you said that, that you do avoid narration.
Nope. The only narration I would do is "Manila, 8AM," to set the scene.
Would you do that if it were in color?
No, because in color, it'd be crystal clear. I didn't want to do narration because I didn't know how to fit it in, really. Again, my background isn't necessarily comics. My background is theater. So I knew how to do dialogue, but I didn't know how to fit in a narrator. I didn't know who this voice was, coming out of nowhere telling the story.
Finally, will you be at Komikon?
I don't know. I'm thinking about it. I don't know if I want to face the music again, of "Where's Book 2?" I am tempted to release just the first chapter of Book 2, 'cause that's done. I'm tempted, but we'll see how that goes.