Review: Three dispatches from the Philippines
These three books don’t represent the comics community of the Philippines: I know almost nothing about that community and I’m sure of that. Extrapolating from these three stories – from the three comics stories I happen to have – is futile and silly and I’m going to try not to do it. Drawing any conclusions about the larger Philippine comics market would be like reading [[[Iron Fist]]],[[[ Scott Pilgrim]]], and [[[Fun Home]]] and from them alone creating a unified theory of North American comics.
So all I really want to say up front is this: these may be some of the best Philippine comics. But I seriously doubt that they’re all of the best. There’s probably even some projects even better than these. It’s a big world out there. (I also want to thank Charles Tan, who sent me a big box of Philippine comics and SF late last year, and without whom I wouldn’t have heard of any of these books.)
Elmer (issues #1-4)
By Gerry Alanguilan
Komikero Publishing; May and Oct 2006, Nov 2007, Nov 2008; 50 Philippine pesos ea.
There’s something about the comics form that attracts really unlikely premises – flying men, teenagers who want to do their homework, retellings of operas without music, and whatever[[[Alice in Sunderland]]] is. [[[Elmer]]] is another in that proud and odd lineage: it’s a serious contemporary story set in a world where chickens suddenly became intelligent in 1979.
Yes, chickens. The protagonist is a young chicken named Jake, who comes back from his dead-end life in Manila to the rural farm where he grew up, because his father, Elmer, has had a stroke and isn’t expected to last long. He rejoins his sister May (a nurse) and brother Francis (a movie star) there, and stays there after his father’s death. Except for the chicken thing, the plot set-up is very like an indy movie, some Philippine [[[Garden State]]].But the real story is then told in a series of flashbacks – the story of what happened when all of the chickens in the world suddenly woke up and started talking. Alanguilan’s detailed, realistic black-and-white art keeps it all looking plausible as he tells his dark story of pogrom and murder, with chickens who find themselves thinking, moral beings trapped in slaughterhouses and factory farms and humans who hope to go back to the way things were, even if that means killing millions of now-sapient beings.
He walks a fine line there: Elmer could easily have turned into a metaphor for some real-world conflict (pick one – there are a dozen or so to choose from) and just devolved into pure unbelievable fantasy. But it never does: this is the story of these particular characters in this particular time, and we accept them…even if many of them are chickens.
Amazingly, there’s no detectable ulterior motive in Elmer – it’s not a sly call for vegetarianism, since both the humans and chickens eat other kinds of meat happily after the change. It’s just a fantasy story, the kind of “what if” that only arises from the creator’s real life; only someone who lived with chickens would ever wonder what it would be like if one suddenly talked to him.
Elmer isn’t perfect; some aspects of the story strain credulity – even after the reader accepts the initial premise – and Alanguilan can be melodramatic in spots. (Also, the dialogue avoids contractions nearly all the time, which can be distracting.) But his art is impeccably detailed, and he manages to wring a lot of facial expressions out of his chickens. And his storytelling is equally good; Alanguilan is a fine comics creator who’s essentially unknown over here. This is one damn good – if damn weird – story.
Trese: Murder on Balete Drive and Trese: Unreported Murders
Story by Budjette Tan; Art by Ka-Jo Baldismo
Visual Print Enterprises, Mar and Jul 2008, 140 Philippine pesos ea.[[[Trese]]] is an altogether more conventional series: it’s a contemporary dark fantasy with a nourish affect, both in art and story, about a young woman in Manila – Alexandra Trese – who’s called in by the police on supernatural cases. The plots are pretty standard for the genre, though Tan does tell them well, with a knack for tough dialogue and important confrontations.
But the art is gorgeously inky, with a sometimes scratchy intimacy and flow. And Alexandra Trese has a whole new world of supernatural entities to work with – vampires and werewolves and faeries and wendigos have been picked over for generations, but kambal and aswang, tikbalang and tiyanak, those are another story. Tan has an entirely different mythology to work with – one he and his original audience knows well, and which he explains just enough so that non-Filipinos can figure them out. But they’re still new and exciting, the way supernatural beings should be – they may have rules and restraints but we don’t know what those are.
So Alexandra Trese’s exploits are more exciting than even those of another tough female investigator with a mysterious past would be, even more intriguing than another story illustrated by Ka-Jo Baldismo would be. And these two volumes are already very good urban fantasy to begin with.
I won’t try to describe all of the stories here, but you know the general type – mysteries about the supernatural, with a heroine we slowly learn more about, a woman with a direct connection to these creatures herself…whatever the exact nature of that connection is. Tan tells those stories well, and Baldismo shows us that world, in black-and-white frames that look like a world illuminated by lightning.
Martial Law Babies
By Arnold Arre
Nautilus Comics, 2008, 500 Philippine pesos
And this is something else yet again – a realistic story about young people growing up in Manila over the past three decades. They were kids under martial law in the late ‘70s, and they’ve all grown up to adults in the early years of the 21st century. Arre draws it in a slightly cartoony style – more so with the kid end of the story than the adults – that gives the whole thing a snap and verve.
That’s good, because there isn’t a heck of a lot of plot here. The story follows two main characters – Allan and Rebecca – and flashes back through their younger lives as they both make decisions in the early part of this decade. Allan is more central than Rebecca; the book is about him in all important respects. (And I really hope that he’s not as close to his creator, Arre, as I fear he might be.)
You see, Allan fell in love with a girl named Marissa when he was very young. And he stayed in love with her, despite the fact that she hardly knew who he was, and despite the fact that he rarely saw her, and despite the fact that more than twenty years passed. Some reviewers might call that a wonderfully romantic consistency; I call it really pathetic, especially since Arre shows that Allan hasn’t gone anywhere with his life, because he’s always looking back to Marissa. (Rebecca’s role in all of this is to be the Other Girl, whom Allan could have worked up
a relationship with if he had actually tried – but of course he never did.)
Along the way, Arre has a lot of vignettes and scenes of Allan and Marissa and their friends, and he’s very good at those scenes – they all genuinely like each other and their camaraderie is unfeigned. But, sooner or later, [[[Martial Law Babies]]] has to come back to the Marissa plot, which I couldn’t find compelling – I mean, I’ve been that lovestruck guy, crushing on someone who barely knows me, but other things happened in my life as well. But, for Allan, there’s absolutely no other girl besides Marissa, not ever for a second, and I just couldn’t believe that.
But there’s a lot to like in Martial Law Babies; it’s warm and funny and engaging. The dialogue does drop into Tagalog more than I expected, though, and I have to say that there’s a small but real chance that I missed some important bits because they were in a language I don’t understand. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have anything like the understanding of what “martial law baby” implies that an actual Filipino would. My cultural blind spots aside, though, I really enjoyed Martial Law Babies, despite Alan’s monomania.
Publishers who would like to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.