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

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Reflections on the Comparative Histories of American and Filipino mainstream comics industries: PART ONE

The views expressed here are in relation to this blog's previous December 20, 2006 post: "Comparative Historical Overview of the American and Filipino mainstream comics industries: 1950 to 2006". This particular entry is a culled collection of exerpts from blogs, articles, and books on the historical state of these two countries' mainstream comics industries.

I've gotten some pretty interesting comments regarding this post especially from college students and one or two faculty members from the academe. I deliberately omitted to accompany this post with my usual commentary in the hope that by just presenting the bare facts as observed and reported in these excerpts, one would readily observe some interesting parallels between these two countries' industries. Most of the comments I got jibed with my personal observations, others were off-the-cuff. Anyway, this is how I interpret the collected facts:

In the early 1950s, the American mainstream comics industry, which sold comics at 10 cents, was thriving at 600 million copies a year. Yet, by 1968, the industry was down to about $6 million dollars in gross annual sales. This was a time when American mainstream comics was selling at 12 cents.

What happened?

American writers such as Gerard Jones, Jordan Raphael, and Tom Spurgeon opine that by the mid-50s, comics sales were being affected by the rise of television and rising production cost. They do not however, cite any convincing data to support this bare claim. There is one significant historical event though, in the mid-1950s particularly, that greatly and detrimentally affected the U.S. mainstream comics industry. There is moreover, available empirical data to show that this event, more than anything, is what caused a sharp, progressive decline in industry-wide comics sales.

We are talking about the public burning, banning and contempt for comicbooks brought about by U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver's 1954 sub-committee investigation on juvenile delinquency. It was in this televisd committee investigation that the infamous NYC pyschologist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of the controversial "Seduction of the Innocent" testified that American comics were the major cause of juvenile delinquency.

From 1952 to 1954, U.S. mainstream comics was dominated by Horror and Crime comics, genres which had then outsold and outmoded the superhero genre. At that time, Horror and Crime comics though widely read by children and young adults, were trying to be relevant and explore new themes in art and subject matter not seen in other competing media despite the sensationalism, garishness and melodrama that permeated its contents. Many observe that this new genre was a step up from the adventuresome, yet child-like innocent fun and frolic previously provided by the American superhero fantasy of the 1940s. With the exception of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, all the other superhero comics titles (and they were plenty) began to fall on the wayside, making way for the new, and a little more adult (at that time), genre of Horror and Crime.

It was the particular genre of Horror though, that really brought in the industry-wide 600 million annual copy sales. The U.S. Senate sub-committee investigation of comic books as a probable cause for juvenile delinquency and the testimony therein of Dr. Wertham would have quietly and naturally died down, if not for the testimony "volunteered" by the visionary comics publisher who started the entire Horror comics trend in 1952 and who risked exploring mature and sometimes edgy adult themes in his horror, crime, and science fiction comics. That publisher was none other than the late, great William M. Gaines of E.C. Comics. His famous (or infamous) comics titles were "Tales from the Crypt", "Vault of Horror", "Haunt of Fear", "Crypt of Terror", "Crime Suspenstories", "Shock Suspenstories", and "Two-Fisted Tales". When his Horror comics were discontinued, Gaines went on to publish MAD as a successful black and white humor/satire Magazine outlasting, outliving, and outselling his old horror comics line.

As told by Gerard Jones in his 2005 Book, "Men of Tomorrow" and by EC Editor Al Feldstein in the "Tales from the Crypt Season 1 Television series, documentary DVD disc", Gaines was so incensed at Dr. Wertham's accusation that he later volunteered to testify before the televised Senate sub-committee hearings and refute Dr. Wertham's accusation and "defend" his horror comics line on grounds of free speech and expression. Rare footage of Gaines' televised opening statement before the Senate Committee can be viewed at the same DVD documentary disc. Unfortunately, Gaines wasn't trained, much less polemically prepared for the Senate backlash thrown his way that day which later resulted in the public-wide lynching and burning of horror and crime comics.

This public outcry led to a spill-over effect whereby ANY genre of U.S. comic was publicly perceived as a corruptor of the American youth and reviled as substandard reading fare for illiterates. Pretty soon, a quarter of mainstream comics publishers closed shop, others tried to persevere and overall comics sales plummeted.

"In the early 1950s, annual comic book sales totalled 600 million copies, by 1956 that number had fallen to 150 million. Comics were no longer a mass medium." (Source: Jordan Rapahel and Tom Spurgeon, "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book", Chicago Review Press, 2003 ed.)

To help stave off this public relations disaster nearing the total eradication of the medium and a comics reading culture, the remaining mainstream comics publishers such as DELL, Charlton, Harvey, Gold Key, Archie, Walt Disney, Atlas, and National/DC, ostracized Gaines by forming the COMICS CODE AUTHORITY thus resulting in industry-wide "self-regulation". Those who did not follow the Code and carry its seal of approval, met sanctions foremost of which is that of magazine and news dealers refusing to distribute their unapproved comics line.

In effect, U.S. mainstream comics began to CENSOR themselves; getting rid of the "horror", the "terror", the "weird", the "fear", in the comics business, prohibiting in essence the exploration of more adult and mature themes previously pioneered by Gaines' E.C. Horror Comics.

By and large, the Comics Code reflected a 1950s CONSERVATIVE taste followed by the U.S. mainstream comics industry (that is, with a few notable exceptions creeping up now and then such as the Spiderman drug issues of the late 1960s, the acclaimed 1970s Green Lantern and Green Arrow series, Alan Moore's 1980s Swamp Thing, Watchmen, Frank Miller's Dark Knight, and some of DC/Vertigo's titles such as Neil Gaiman's celebrated "Sandman" series).

Despite the imposition of the Comics Code however, overall mainstream industry-wide sales progressively fell up to the late1960s. And though the "Silver Age" began in the late 1950s with the revival or reinvention of the superhero genre at DC and Marvel which spiked up these respective comics houses' sales charts (i.e., DC with revamps of the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, the tv "Batman" show and Marvel's "modern" Superhero line), overall industry-wide earnings of mainstream U.S. comics shrank to $6 million a year by 1968.

In the Philippines however, the REVERSE was true in that ever since the postwar period from 1947 to 1963, local mainstream comics industry sales grew to $390,000 every fortnight. This translates to $1.5 Million a year EXCLUDING SUBSTANTIAL ADVERTISING REVENUE.

The average Filipino comic then (the large bulk of which was dominated by Don Ramon Roces' ACE Publications line) was at 25 centavos or U.S. SIX AND A HALF CENTS which is less than an American dime and whose interior pages were in BLACK and WHITE! At this time, the great bulk of local mainstream comics was being published by Don Ramon Roces, and they sold more than all the daily newspapers at the time combined. Don Ramon's local comics were a true MASS MEDIUM in 1963 Philippines, population 29 million, with 4 million fortnightly komiks readers. Why was this so?

Well for one thing, the Philippines from 1947 to 1963 had no similar event of a public outcry against comics brought on by a Senate sub-committee Hearing investigating comics as a prime cause of juvenile delinquency. Most unlike the American mainstream comics, the Filipino comics scene of that period was exploring and developing more mature, adult-themed comics genres, albeit in sensational, melodramatic styles which was the style and fashion of the time. The foremost example of this was the serialized komiks-nobelas or comics novels which were mostly soap operas or ROMANTICIZED DRAMA. These were read not only by children but by adults as well.

"The usual diet is humour, romance, adventure and as a variation of this theme, the thriller. There is a significant difference between the American and Philippine variety, in that script writers and illustrators for komiks use local themes and build indigeneous heroes, heroines, villains and jesters. This is one reason why komiks are so popular. It also explains why komiks provide an unending source of themes for local movie makers." (Source: "KOMIKS: A growing, profitable, publishing venture", The Asia Magazine, October 20, 1963 issue).

Another reason for the growing success of the Filipino comic was that it was UBIQUITOUS; they were practically everywhere, readily accessible, and conveniently priced within the reach of many Filipinos majority of whom were lower income and were still recovering and rebuilding from the great devastation brought about by World War 2, aggravated further by continuing feudal politics and a growing communist Huk insurgency. Television was not as prevalent in the Philippines in 1963 either whose prohibitive cost limited unit ownership to the few socio-economic elite of the time.

Yes, the interior pages of Filipino comics were mostly in black and white mixed in one page or two with one color: RED. There is a reason for this. Not only is it more costly and expensive to print in FULL color where you had to import more ink, use more color plates and incur additional labor costs, but that the frequency of comics publishing, which was at a faster fortnightly rate than the U.S.' monthly frequency for one comic title, did NOT allow one to have extra time to still do the coloring on all the interior pages without unduly compromising the TIMELY and cost-efficient distribution of the entire operation. The printing equipment available in the Philippines at the time, did not even allow for such a regular and industry-wide "colored" standard. But in black and white you can have the job done quickly and competently with some measure of assured profit to spare.

Of significant note is that unlike the American comic, local comics had advertising targeted to adults within its pages which brought in more money to the publishing house. We are talking here of advertising for products such as pomade, local cigarettes, local softdrinks, bus services, etc. In the American mainstream comic you had advertising that was largely targeted to children such as amusement parks, candies, toy rifles, dolls, and model toys.

It is therefore not too immodest to state that mainstream Filipino comics at this time was more mature content-wise than its American counterpart. What it couldn't accomplish technically, it tried and strove to make up for in substance for its largely lower socio-economic class readership.

Also, where the mature or "liberal" U.S. comics of crime and horror were being phased out of the newstands, and rack space was still shared with other print publications such as magazines and newspapers, the Philippines in 1963 was already way ahead with "comics parlors" that is, newstands and kiosks that ONLY specialized in selling American and Filipino mainstream comics.

Again you could say that prior to 1963, the Philippines was the first (probably in the whole world) to market printed comics through makeshift COMICS SPECIALTY SHOPS situated in the streets. Savor this 1963 report from the Asia Magazine's Bureau Chief, E.P. Patane:

"The real problem is not finding new readers but the mechanics of reaching them. There is plenty of potential in the country's 7,000 islands. How to get to readers from coast to coast, town to town, and village to village is the vital question.

One solution is the komiks parlour, which started on an experimental basis in Manila and has now assumed an institutional status in every big city and town in the Philippines. The komiks parlours offer a comprehensive library of old and new publications and for five centavos a komik addict can leaf through a single copy in comfort. " (Source: "KOMIKS: A growing, profitable, publishing venture", by E.P. Patane, Bureau Chief, The Asia Magazine, October 20, 1963 issue)

This development continued well into the 1980s where makeshift comics specialty stores not only sold but even RENTED OUT their copies for on-the-spot readers thus increasing the pass-on rate (and advertising income) of the medium. No wonder local comics were the most preferred medium in the PIA survey of 1989. You could say that these Filipino comics specialty stores are the equivalent of today's Japanese manga specialty shops.

Business-wise however, and unlike their American counterpart who now earned more income through the licensing of their comics characters and stories to other media, local mainstream comics depended mostly on sales and advertising for revenue. Though there were local comics that were licensed out to movies, this was never fully developed or exploited to other media unlike in Japan who really thrived on this system in the 1970s.

Considering therefore that the Filipino mainstream comics (most copies of which were published by Don Ramon Roces) was thriving in the Philippines from the 1950s to 1963, contrary to its American counterpart abroad, one should then ask whether this trend continued. And in reply we answer in the negative.

Yes, the Philippines did have an equivalent to the Senate Committee Investigation hearings which caused a significant reduction in the readership of mainstream Filipino comics at the time, especially to the conservatively adult and mainstream komiks empire of Don Ramon Roces. We are referring to the rise of the notorious, much maligned, largely misunderstood BOMBA "SEX" KOMIKS of 1968.

NEXT: Part Two of our little trip down memory lane.


PKB recommends: "Comic book educational video" on youtube.com.


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