A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Comics Illiteracy: Is there such a thing?

Would you go into publishing if your readers were illiterate? Put another way, would you still go into comics publishing if most of your readers have no understanding of the unique language of comics much less comprehend any attempt at literary meaning behind such works? From a business and practical point of view, the answer would most certainly be in the negative if one's objective is to publish literate pieces of comics works.

Even if one were to engage in publishing non-literate and purely entertainment-based comics, the output would have to be commensurate to the number of Filipino readers who are reasonably literate and capable of appreciating such works. The question now is, is there a sufficient number of literate readers out there who actually support entertainment-based comicbooks? Who are they? For the answer we have to examine the state of literacy in our country.

One view is that the literacy rate has risen from 72% to 90% in the last 30 years. According to the latest Functional Literacy, Education, and Mass Media Survey conducted by the National Statistics Office (NSO), 48.4 million or 84% of the estimated 57.6 million Filipinos who are 10 to 64 years old are said to be "functionally" literate (Source: "8 out of 10 Filipinos are functionally literate" by D. Pepito, TODAY newspaper, February 17, 2005).

The NSO defines functional literacy as a higher level of literacy which includes not only reading and writing skills but also numerical and comprehension skills.

Functional literacy was found to be higher in females by an average of 4.8 percentage points than in males. Significantly however, it was found that functional literacy arose in those areas that were economically well-off. In fact, the top six regions with average family income were found to have the highest functional literacy rates. They are: NCR (94.6%), CAR (85.4%), Calabarzon (90.4%), Ilocos (88.6%), Central Luzon (86.9%), and Cagayan Valley (84.4%).

ARMM had the lowest average family income and corollarily the country's lowest functional literacy rate as well at 62.9%. Areas with passable literacy rates (and low family income) were foudn in Eastern Visayas (76.7%), Zamboanga Peninsula (74.8%), Davao (77.8%), and Soccskasargen (77.1%).

Yet, by correlating the existence of literacy with economic well-being, one cannot but help allow some doubt to seep in. If 80% of Filipinos are functionally literate, does it follow that 80% of them are also economically well-off? Apparently, the NSO thinks so. But this goes against other statistical data by the Asian Development Bank, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the same NSO itself that there is a growing incidence of poverty in the country due in part to uncontrolled population growth.

Specifically, the Philippines was found to have one of the highest poverty incidence rates in Southeast Asia pegged at 15.5% with poor people living at less than one (1) U.S. Dollar a day or at Php 32.00 a day, which percentage is lower than Laos (39%) and Cambodia (34.1%) but higher than Vietnam (13.1%) and Indonesia (7.5 %). In other words, in the year 2004 around 40% of Filipinos were poor. That's 40% of approximately 80 million Filipino individuals, or thirty two million (32,000,000) people. In 1995 there were 4.36 million families who were poor. By 2000, the estimate was 5.14 million families or over 31.2 million people.

As of 2004, the NSO reports that the population of the Philippines is at approximately 80 million. About 57.6 million are adults aged 10 to 64 years old. Of this 57.6 million, 32 million live below the poverty level of Php 32.00 a day. Could we say that this impoverished 32 million are "functionally" literate? Not by a longshot if we follow the NSO theory that one's economic stature is determinative of one's level of literacy.

Philippine Star columnist, Jarius Bondoc, says it best:

"Poverty rates only reflect changes in relative prices not changes in underlying incomes or wealth. Considering this, the Philippines is an atoll of a high-income class, an island of a middle-income class, and a vast sea of low-income class. This has been the case since 1960 when the country had a 27 million population in 4.4 million families, as it was in 2000 when the country grew to 76.5 million (2.8 times) in 15.3 million families (3.5 times)" (Source: "40 Years of Failure" Gotcha column by Jarius Bondoc, Philippine Star, January 10, 2005).

Factoring even the rising cost of goods and services without any significant increase in individual and national income, compounded by a 26% unemployment rate, and the increasing rate of professional or "literate" Filipinos leaving the country as Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs), it is indeed doubtful that there are 80% Filipinos who are economically well-off and corollarily, functionally literate. If we are to subscribe to this NSO theory that one's economic stature is determinative of one's level of literacy, then it follows that more Filipinos are actually illiterate or at least on the way to illiteracy.

The reality speaks for itself. Tuition fees in private schools nowadays have progressively soared such that many Filipinos have either stopped schooling or have reluctantly transferred to public schools. Only the economically well-off elite few can afford the high tuition of private schools.

The public school system is not faring any better either. KAAKBAY CDI (Citizens Development Initiative) a non-government cause-oriented organization announced that public education in the Philippines is in distress. Fewer than 1% of Filipino students are qualified for high school or college level education due to lack of resources and poor management of the public school system by the government. Worse, only 19 out of every 100 public school teachers were found competent to teach English. (Source: "Only 6 out of 100 Grade 6 Pupils ready for High School Study" by Sandy Araneta, The Philippine Star, August 17, 2005)

According further to KAAKBAY CDI, poverty in the Philippines has reached a point where education is no longer a right for all but a privilege for the few. Elementary and High School in the public school system was furtherfound to have failed in teaching the requisite competence an average citizen needs to know and ought to possess at a young age in order to become responsible, productive, and self-fulfilling human beings. To quote the article:

"Education as a way to equalize opportunity has become a myth, because while the rich have a variety of choices offered by private institutions, the poor have to make do with a public education system characterized by dilapitated school facilities, lack of materials and textbooks and technological incompetence." (Source: Ibid)

There is indeed some credence if we are to correlate one's economic stature with one's level of educational attainment. And in light of the country's present economic plight, it is hard to believe, much less conclude, that 80% of Filipinos are functionally literate. The reverse is probably true.

But just for the sake of argument, let's accept for the moment the NSO claim that most Filipinos are functionally literate. Is this any better?

In a 2004 survey conducted by the National Book Development Board, it was found that in a year, the average Filipino read more textbooks than entertainment or leisure based books and magazines. It was also found that only few Filipinos spend on the average, Php 200.00 on books for leisure and read an average of only 12 pages.

What the above data is trying to say is that though there are more Filipinos who are allegedly functionally literate, there is also a commensurate and steady decline in their understanding and appreciation of ethics, history, literature and culture. Particularly, Philippine history, literature and culture. This is functional literacy.

In other words, the Filipinos' level of literacy is mediocre. Functional literacy is actually another word for mediocrity.

If fewer Filipinos aged 10 to 64 years old read entertainment-leisure books than those in the majority who read information-based textbooks, isn't it possible that there are even fewer people who read entertainment or leisure based comicbooks, foreign or globalized? This blogger is inclined to believe so.

Given the aforementioned data that many economically distressed Filipinos are compelled by circumstances to avail of an equally distressed public education system that do not give them the desired level of literacy, and given further that an economically well-off elite few are obtaining a higher level of literacy in private schools, it is respectfully submitted that the foreign and globalized Filipino comicbooks out in the market today cater more, and are patronized by, the latter elite few.

There is consequently, an existent "comics illiteracy" which means that a great many of today's generation of Filipinos do not appreciate much less comprehend, the unique language of comics, and of Filipino komix' legacy in particular.

How do the local comics publishers respond to this predicament? All we have to do is look around at the mediocre comics in the marketplace that cater to the comprehension and appreciation of functionally literate Filipinos. Just look at all those mind-numbing, child-friendly, uncomplicated, purely entertainment-based, and mediocre comics works being displayed in the shelves, racks, and discount bins.

But it doesn't stop there. Its like some two-tiered caste system. To augment their income, some even import foreign comicbooks that are subsequently sold to a culturally globalized and economically well-off, elite few who are presumably more literate than the majority of mediocre functional literates.

One can only wonder what efforts are being exerted to address this situation. More entertainment? More fun? More..."art"? You couldn't help but smile. And they ask you if you "love" Filipino komiks.


Blogger Jon Silpayamanant said...

This was a very interesting read. I'm wondering if there's a big market for wordless comics in the Philippines? Or if there have been a significant number of wordless comics published there?

12:41 AM


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