Sep 12, 2016

Things I Noticed Reading Darna

I'm sitting here during this long weekend, deciding to read the original Darna komiks, published in 1950, written by Mars Ravelo and drawn by the great Nestor Redondo, as provided by Video 48. For you non-Filipinos out there, Darna is the pre-eminent Filipino superhero. She's appeared in 14 local movies and 3 TV series. Her last two TV incarnations were played by Angel Locsin and Marian Rivera:

Okay, now that I have your attention, let's talk about the komiks themselves. Darna is a Captain Marvel (that's Shazam, not Carol Danvers) riff, someone who turns into a superhero with a magic word. Narda is a girl from the province who just wants to take care of her grandma and her brother Ding. One day she's gifted with a magical stone that enables her, upon saying "Darna!", to turn into a superbeing of the same name.

In some incarnations, Darna and Narda are the same person in different bodies. In others, Narda and Darna are two separate beings that switch when the transformation is made. (Just like Captain Marvel.)

Anyway, I decided to read the original komiks and, while Video 48 is missing a couple of issues, it feels complete enough. So here are some things I noticed reading the first Darna story:

I Keep Calling Them Issues

Each installment of Darna appeared in the anthology title Pilipino Komiks, and ran for five pages each. That's it. There are 28 installments. I keep calling them issues, because, well, that's my orientation when it comes to this medium and I have to constantly make a conscious effort to not call them that. So I will call them issues, yes.

The Villain Shows Up More Than the Hero

If you've read American Golden Age comics, you'll know there isn't really that much in the way of serialization. With the exception of a few that had long-running storylines, like The Spirit and Captain Marvel, most stories back then were focused done-in-ones and they focused on the heroes. They didn't spend that much time on the villains.

Darna appears in the first issue and doesn't show up again until the end of issue 16. In contrast, her arch-nemesis, the impakta (the closest Western equivalent would be a Gorgon in Greek myth, but instead of turning people into stone, she controls snakes), Valentina shows up first in issue two and appears in every single issue up to her death in the 28th. The two of them don't even meet until the 24th.

I'll say that again: not only does the villain of the story have more air time than the hero, the hero also doesn't show up for more than half of it.

The Villain Is Actually Sympathetic

There's actually very little to Darna's backstory—little girl Narda finds a magical stone that enables her to turn into superhero Darna, thus protecting her little provincial town, with the only two people who know her secret being her grandmother and her brother. But there's a lot to Valentina's backstory. She was born with snakes on her head. Her parents raised her in solitude, and in fear of her. A snake with a woman's head (imaginatively named "Kobra") shows up claiming to be her real mother. She falls in love with the first guy she meets (because, solitude), and then he runs away from her once he sees her head snakes. She terrorizes the town out of misguided feelings (and really, let's face it, because she was not raised in an actual society), and when she kills herself, she looks at the man she loves as much as she can and cries.

I mean, yes, she's evil and does evil things, but at least there's the idea of her not being "born" evil, of it being nurture over nature. In a superhero landscape where the bad guys are getting more and more sympathetic, it's weird to think that Valentina was ahead of her time.

I'm Not Sure the Little Girl Thing Works Anymore

Captain Marvel's alter-ego, Billy Batson, was conceived as a ten-year-old kid. Over time, they aged him up to sixteen and gave him some relationship storylines.

Narda was conceived as a girl just as young as Billy originally was. Her last two incarnations on TV have Narda and Darna being played by the same actress each time. Partly this is because it's cheaper to have one person playing both parts. Partly, I'm sure, it's about the fact that they can do relationship storylines.

God, Redondo's Art Is Beautiful

It gets kinda lost in the production quality, but damn. When he goes all out, he goes all out.

Filipino Fandom Is Just Different Enough from Western Fandom

It's always interesting to me how Wonder Woman took 77 years to get a movie and has only had one TV show. The common theory that female superheroes don't sell may likely be seen empirically in focus groups, but the Philippines really doesn't care. Our main superhero is a woman (and, actually, off the top of my head, I think our five main superheroes are two women, two men, and a member of the LGBT community). And, while in Western comics there may be debate as to her attire, if that debate does exist here, it's much less pronounced.

I'd never say sexism doesn't exist here, because it definitely does. But you wouldn't know it just from taking a quick glance at our genre fiction.

Keep On Riffing, Just Add Local Flavor

One time, when I was living in the States, my friends from the Philippines and I decided to meet for Thanksgiving. We thought it would be apt. Thanksgiving is about foreign people coming to America to find a new home, and that's what we were. Thanksgiving is also about family, and that's what we were. So we go all out. We cook the turkey, and then we're ready to feast, and then we each take a bite.

One of us says, "Turkey's not very good, is it?"

And we agree. Now the people who cooked are good cooks. Turkey's just not the most flavorful of meats.

So one of us goes, "We should make it with rice."

And none of us even considered this, because we didn't think turkey would be served with rice, but all at once, we all went, "Yes, we should make some rice."

So we tossed some rice into the rice cooker, poured in some water, plugged it in, waited, and then feasted. And all of a sudden, the holiday felt right.

I'm reminded of what Alan Moore said about creativity, which I think he took from Douglas Hofstadter, the author of Godel, Escher, and Bach. Creativity is about taking something that exists and then changing the parameters. Most of the time, the most creative things are changing parameters that are so obvious, most people would overlook them. And if they didn't, it would be done halfway. It would have been easy for Ravelo to take the Captain Marvel template and say it's set in the Philippines. Actually finding the little details to make it feel Filipino makes the difference.

It's amazing that for as much as Darna, in her basic storytelling engine, feels like a riff off the Shazam concept, it also feels as Filipino as you can get. The provincial town. The singing so she can earn money for her grandma. The little brother named Ding. It's not a superhero story set in the Philippines; it's a Filipino superhero story, in much the same way Peter Parker is a New Yorker not just in character and setting, but actually feels representative of New York.

It Makes Me Appreciate the Remakes

No, not the TV shows — I don't watch enough TV for that. No, I mean the twists in the comics based on it. Gerry Alanguilan and Arnold Arre did Darna Lives, a seven-page fanfic depicting Narda as an older woman who hasn't turned into Darna for a while.

Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo also did a riff on the concept in an early issue of Trese.

The first was inspired by Alan Moore. The second was inspired by Warren Ellis.

I'd love to see how the influences since Ravelo and Redondo affect it, whether the influences come from Moore or Ellis or Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison or David Aja or JH Williams III. The concept of Darna is so rich and so very local, that it seems a shame that the only avenues she would appear in are local primetime TV and a new movie. I would love to see what local comics artists could do with the concept, with their set of influences, and how they would run with it.  This is a part of our culture we should draw from, a part we should enrich. We've taken so much from Darna in terms of pop culture material. It should be time to put some of that creative energy back, in the medium she originally appeared in, so the cycle can continue.


Chimalpahin said...

I'm wondering if Ravelo was at all aware of Captain Marvel. Was fawcett licensing those comics in the Philippines?

Duy Tano said...

I would have to find the source — I really should have bookmarked it — but I distinctly remember reading the following:

(1) Mars Ravelo was a fan of Captain Marvel and Plastic Man (hence Lastikman)
(2) Captain Marvel and Plastic Man are two of the biggest heroes in the Golden Age
(3) American troops frequently received care packages, including comics, in wartime, including the Philippines, which they shared with locals.

Given that Cap was the most popular character of the wartime era, I would find it close to impossible for Mars to have not been aware of it.

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