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

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Reflections PART TWO/Reconsidering the Pinoy Bomba "Sex" Komiks

Ever since Don Ramon Roces' ACE Publications gave birth to mainstream Filipino comics in 1947, the choice of editorial content, subject matter, themes and illustrative look of almost all local comics have practically been the same.

With comics publishing companies other than ACE coming out after 1947, one would expect some diversity of approach and content (maybe even some creative controversy) in the comics marketplace but this was never the case such as what had happened in the U.S. in 1952 with the coming of the E.C. horror comic genre.

Rather, there was this somewhat rigid sameness and uniformity so characteristic of the conservative status quo of the 1950s that permeated local Filipino comics. The reason was that all the mainstream comics companies of the time were following an industry-wide "Comics Code" conceptualized and implemented throughout the industry by Don Ramon Roces.

As shown in the previous blog entry, the American Comics Code Authority was born in 1954 in order for the remaining American mainstream comics publishers (i.e., Dell, Atlas, National, Archie, etc.) to self-regulate and censor other comics publishers who did not share their editorial point of view. That point of view was in essence, the outlawing of the horror comic genre.

The local version of the American Comics Code in the 1950s was the APEPCOM code. APEPCOM stands for the "Association of Publishers and Editors of Philippine Comics-Magazines".

As disclosed in the book: "History of Komiks in the Philippines and Other Countries" published in the early 1980s by Islas Filipinas Publishing (another comics publishing outfit owned by the Roces family), industry leader ACE Publications codified in January, 1955, (a year after the U.S. Comics Code was implemented) the internal editorial policies of its four comics publications i.e., Pilipino, Hiwaga, Espesyal and Tagalog Klasiks. This set of codified rules was called within the company as the "Golden Code." The purpose of this editorial code was to self-regulate and self-censor ACE comics' editorial content.

This Code was allegedly based on the late President Manuel L. Quezon's Executive Order No. 217 and on the principles enunciated by the revolutionary hero Emilio Jacinto's "Dilim at Liwanag" (Darkness and Light).

How then did this 1955 internal company code spread to the other bourgeoning and competing comics publishing houses at the time? According to the version of one "History" book on local komiks, Don Ramon, through Tony Velasquez (the "Father" of Filipino Komiks) cordially "invited" all the other new comics publishers at the time to form an association: the APEPCOM. Once formed, ACE's "Golden Code" was imposed on all of them. The aforementioned Komiks History book states it in this wise:

"The Company however, felt that the observance of a komiks code should be for all komiks-magazines being published in the Philippines. The other komiks-magazine publishers were sounded out and they liked the idea. Thus was born the APEPCOM, acronym for ASSOCIATION OF PUBLISHERS AND EDITORS OF PHILIPPINE COMICS-MAGAZINES. Its first president was Antonio S. Velasquez.

Later on, APEPCOM joined hands with the Catholic Laymen's Committee for Decency so that its aims could be more effectively realized. The Committee, later renamed Knights of Columbus Good Press Committee, was co-chaired by Ernesto V. Lagdameo and Demetrio R. Santos with the following as members: Rev. George J. Willman, S.J.; Hon. Pastor Endencia, and Rt. Rev. Francisco Avendano." (Source: Cynthia Arevalo, et. al., "History of Komiks in the Philippines and Other Countries", Islas Filipinas Publishing Co., 1982 ed.)

If the above is to be believed, one could see just how powerful Don Ramon really was. He had the Catholic church behind his back who acted as his "big stick". With that kind of a resback, an up and coming competitor comics publisher had no choice but to join the APEPCOM by mere "invitation" and be controlled by Don Ramon's "Golden Code". Is it not any wonder then that most of the mainstream Filipino comics published during the 1950s onto the 1960s, were practically the same editorially, embracing a conservative, CATHOLIC point of view?

Is it not any wonder that most of the comics creators who were guided and "controlled" by this Code, had eventually developed an almost prudish, conservative, and Catholic point of view when writing and drawing their comics? Nudity was a big issue with these people. Violence was toned down. The world is black and white. Good always triumphed over evil. Evil must not be glamorized. Never ridicule the church...local comics, like its American mainstream counterpart, became sedate and "safe". But increasing and maintaining its readership with each passing year.

But this recounting by the dubious and one-sided Komiks History book is deliberately incomplete. Local comics in the 1950s other than Don Ramon's were following the trend in America towards crime comics. And according to more reliable news reports, this particular genre became very profitable and like the U.S. horror comic genre was becoming more adult, more risque, going beyond mere "kiddie" fare, and becoming controversial. Politicians began to take notice and like their U.S. counterparts proposed a ban on these publications.

Quite naturally, an industry with so much impact on the younger generation is not without its critics. Specifically, a few years back when producing crime komiks really paid handsome dividends, City councilors proposed a ban on the sale of Crime komiks to children below 18. The top publishers got together however, to forestall the move by setting up a voluntary censorship board. Operating under the title of Association of Publishers and Editors of Comics Magazines, they adopted a code, similar to that of the United States and furnished a seal for “good comics reading”. Members who violate the Code or are guilty of publishing indiscretions are expelled.” (Source: E.P. Patane, “Komiks: A Growing, Profitable, Publishing Venture”, The Asia Magazine, October 20, 1963 issue)

This is where Don Ramon's "invitation" to other comics publishers came in. With the advent of the APEPCOM Code now in place, Don Ramon's control and censorship of local comics was complete.

Then along came the Pinoy Bomba (Sex) comic of 1968 and all hell broke loose.

It was a genre that really challenged not only the APEPCOM code, but most importantly, the underlying conservative catholic ideology behind it. If U.S. mainstream comics experienced the trauma of having been introduced to the senseless violence of a horror comic in the 1950s leading to negative public-wide discrimination towards the culture of comics reading, the Philippines later had the same equivalent through the introduction of SEX/EROTICA or alleged pornography in a Bomba comic, that ALMOST lead to a public-wide discrimination against all kinds of Filipino comicbooks, thanks again to the hysteria initiated by the Roceses' APEPCOM.

And if you think that the Pinoy Bomba comic is all sequential art like the erotic graphic novels of the Europeans such as the works of Milo Manara, Guido Crepax, and others, it is not. Rather, it is basically a combination of nude photos, articles on sex, and comic strip serials. For a more elaborate description we refer to the 1969 article of Jose F. Lacaba (a multi-awarded Filipino screenwriter, scholar, and Free Speech advocate) that appeared in the Philippine Free Press of that same year:

What particularly bothers me about it is that it seems like a manifestation of rank discrimination. For what is the specific target of this decency crusade? Those little magazines capitalizing in sex, locally produced, that have recently swamped Manila’s sidewalks and stalls. They’re cheap, costing from 35 to 40 centavos therefore easily accessible; and have been known by such flip and vulgar titles as Pogi, Toro, Barako, Pil-Yeah, and what have you—they’re proliferating so fast I can’t keep track of them all. Their pages are replete with pictures of burlesque dancers and movie starlets in scanty costumes and provocative poses, comic strip serials dealing with such taboo topics as impotence and venereal diseases, tik-tik type crime stories, instructional articles on subjects such as masturbation, and cartoons this shade of green. Without exception these magazines are, no question about it, trash.

Pogi was the first of these magazines to appear, and when a friend of mine showed me its maiden issue my initial reaction was to call it the poor man’s Playboy. It lacked Playboy’s gloss and sophistication but shared the same crusading zeal about the beauty of sex and the necessity of having a healthy attitude toward it. The very title of Pogi was evidently inspired by Playboy’s. That first issue I found amusing; the whole thing was low camp; and its humor was very, very low (example: “I like my cigarettes king-size. Of course, I like my men the same way”).

The latest issues of Pogi I’ve seen are toned down, have fewer cheesecake photos and now for real vulgar humor you’ll have to go to its imitators. To anybody’s maiden aunt, I guess, Dyagan is the devil incarnate

The chief objective to Pogi and its relatives seems to be that they are cheap, in both senses of the term, but specifically in the sense that they are inexpensive. This is where discrimination comes in. Anybody with more than 5 pesos is free to go to any thoroughly respectable bookshop and get a copy of Playboy, but the jeepney driver with 40 centavos to spare can’t go down the sidewalk to pick up Pogi without a horde of comstockians jumping on his neck.” (Source: Jose F. Lacaba, “Smite Smut they Say”, at www.philpost.com/1244pages/smitesmut1299.html, citing and reprinting from his magazine article that appeared in the Philippine Free Press in 1969).

From the above report, it would appear that the Pinoy Bomba comic was “tame” (and even poorly conceived) by today’s standards but had a well-meaning objective (i.e. promoting a healthy attitude towards sex through ADULT-EROTICA entertainment). But given the degree of “innocence” and naivete’ of Philippine society’s status quo at the time (especially the APEPCOM), the Bomba comic was seen as BASE PORNOGRAPHY and the reaction of the largely catholic “moral” crusaders bordered on overkill which only put more fat into the fire as chronicled in the 1983 book: “The History of Komiks in the Philippines and Other Countries” by Cynthia Arevalo, et. al. To wit:

In the late 1960s, smut komiks appeared—no doubt influenced by the wave of permissiveness then pervading the West and emboldened by the near anarchic conditions obtaining in the country. Called “bomba” komiks—the “bomba” was euphemistically used for explicit sex graphics—the publications aroused the ire of concerned citizens and spurred the APEPCOM to move against them. The Association tried to make Manila City Hall to clamp down on the “bomba” komiks. It was a move doomed to fall from the very start; it was to be found out later that certain men close to the authorities were protecting, if not actually financing, the smut publications.” (Source: Cynthia Arevalo, et. al., “Pornography in Print” article from: The History of Komiks in the Philippines and other Countries, Ibid.)

The mid to late 1960s were indeed a time of change and societal turmoil as new thoughts and ideas in the arts, sociology, technology, economics, psychology, government, law, philosophy and religion, emerged to challenge the traditional thinking on these subjects by the status quo. This arose primarily because of the public-wide frustration, disappointment, and distrust of government and the authorities at the time. It was during this period, from 1965 to 1968, that Ferdinand E. Marcos was first elected President of the country. During Marcos’ watch, political warlords increased in number and were all over the countryside, the Philippine peso devaluated progressively, the country continued to import more and manufacture/export less, the Communist insurgency was spreading in the student protest sector, Labor strikes were everywhere, Marcos’ secret plan to invade Malaysia through the scandalous Jabidah massacre was exposed by Ninoy Aquino, the Plaza Miranda bombing, Marcos’ widespread bribery during the national Presidential elections, Marcos’ later affair with a Hollywood starlet: Dovey Beams, the oligopoly and monopolies of family corporations that still controlled the media and economy remained entrenched, these and many others, stoked the Filipino psyche to challenge the existing leadership, which included not only Marcos and his ilk in the political social and economic arena but also the institutionalized Catholic ideology as well through the proliferation of alternative “humanist” and “born-again hippie” philosophies. The local comics publishing front was no exception to these developments. And what better way to challenge institutionalized Catholicism and its support of the reigning elite, than through a cheap, Pinoy Bomba comic catered to majority of Filipinos who were STILL poor?

The Pinoy Bomba comic was actually a template for the introduction of a new alternative genre in Philippine comics that never really developed or matured: EROTICA. It was only given the sensationalized term “bomba” or “bomb” because in the catholic and conservative’s sheltered, repressed, and enclosed “lifestyle” mere nudity is enough to excite their puritan senses.

The EROTICA comics genre has developed and is in fact part of the mainstream in Europe and Japan whose comics industries never experienced the kind of “wholesome”, moralist censorship backlash that Filipinos have, and are still experiencing, in our Third World Country partly run by the Catholic church headquartered in the Vatican.

Some opine that there is a difference between Erotica and Pornography. To some, erotica is the depiction of human sensuality (love) and sexuality with high art aspirations whereas pornography is the depiction of sexuality solely for eliciting sexual arousal, impure thoughts and solely for commercial gain. Despite such difference however, the fact still remains that under the kind of conservative, moralist philosophy still prevailing in our country, the two are considered as one and the same and should be CENSORED; in fact banned from public sight.

Who decides if the comic is obscene or pornographic? To rephrase that, WHO decides if the comic should not be read by others who do not share one’s values and beliefs towards sex? Certainly not the consumer who votes by not patronizing the product, but the CENSOR who altogether prohibits the comics creator from even thinking about it and bans its distribution if ever it gets published. Is this MORALLY right? Is it MORAL for somebody else to suspend at any point in time, one’s freedom of choice and of expression? If one chooses to BAN a person’s choice of reading pornographic literature that is totally devoid of any scientific, cultural, literary or artistic merit, has there been any scientific or empirical data positively showing that such kind of censorship and social control, reduces the incidence of sex crimes and other ills in society? Does this kind of censorship promote the development, sophistication and maturity of a comics reading public?

The so-called religious moralists in our society seem to think so and they propose extreme measures in banning this hard-to-define, amorphous, ever-changing term called “pornography”. But the fact still remains that there is no statistical or scientific study positively showing that pornography indeed causes widespread deviant social behavior. Significantly in the early 70s at the height of the sexual revolution, a scientific study sponsored by the U.S. government was conducted to find out if pornographic literature led to criminal or deviant behavior. The results were NEGATIVE. More details on this could be viewed from the movie documentary on the making of “Deep Throat”, a controversial and early 1970s LOW BUDGET, x-rated film considered by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest and most profitable film ever made.

There is further empirical evidence showing that the total abolition of censorship limits rather than promotes, the spread of pornographic literature. This was the experience of Denmark in 1967 when it abolished censorship of pornographic literature as exemplified by Jose F. Lacaba:

That the attraction of pornography diminishes the moment it ceases to be forbidden is shown by the experience of Denmark. Two years ago (1967) the Danish Parliament abolished all censorship of anything written. The result: bookshops and newsstands were suddenly swamped by a deluge of new pornographic books (one publishing house came out with a “Porno series”), books so explicit and detailed in their descriptions of sexual practices as to make Mrs. Grundy turn in her grave and never stop turning. But did the expected buyers come running to the stores? That they did not. In fact, buyers grew fewer. “Four to six months before the law was changed, “griped one publisher “you would distribute 20,000 to 25,000 copies of a new pornographic title. Now only about half of that number are printed, and a third of them come back. I suppose we only print for onanists, and that’s not youth, but mostly people from 45 to 65.” Said another publisher: “There really is a very poor market in Denmark for erotic literature, now that it is no longer forbidden fruit.” The government found the results of its experiment so encouraging it decided to abolish all censorship of movies and pictures.” (Source: Jose F. Lacaba, “Smite Smut they Say”, Ibid.)

Japan too, has restrictions against pornography but Japanese comics creators have been innovative and clever in “going around” the law. Instead of depicting the human organ, they only erase or “white out” the organ or use visual substitutes such as a banana, cucumber, sword, baseball bat, melon, basketball, or employ visual innuendos between the panels. But because the sexual act was not graphically explicit in its depiction, this only served to fuel even more the reading public’s imagination and hence boost the sales of Japanese erotica comics. Quoting philosopher Bertrand Russell, Jose F. Lacaba once more offers a possible explanation:

Frank pornography would do less harm if it were open and unashamed than it does when it is rendered interesting by secrecy and stealth.” The present campaign against smutty comics will only lead them underground and make them doubly attractive, the way sex itself becomes more fascinating when it is invested with the dark mysteries of taboo. The taboo may succeed in becoming a law, but the law will only enhance the desirability of what’s forbidden. Russel again: “Nine tenths of the appeal of pornography is due to the indecent feelings concerning sex which moralists inculcate in the young; the other tenth is physiological, and will occur in one way or another whatever the state of the law may be.” (Source: Jose F. Lacaba, "Smite Smut they Say", Ibid)

The Pinoy Bomba comic really had it in from the beginning. Like the U.S. Horror comic genre popularized in 1952 by E.C. Comics, it too suffered from public backlash from the country’s catholic “moralist” crusaders who were essentially the mainstream comics publishers controlled by the APEPCOM Code of Don Ramon. But unlike the U.S. horror comic genre which has evolved and matured through the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Steve Niles, to name a few, the Pinoy Bomba comic never really matured or developed in the hands of truly creative, and innovative comics creators. This was in large part due to the fact that it has remained in the underground for several years, a much maligned outcast, attracting mostly inferior creators creating sub-par work that only increased ever more the public’s low perception of the genre.

Yet, despite this the paradox of the Pinoy Bomba comic is that it was the ONLY alternative comic genre that collectively OUTSOLD the mainstream comics in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and maybe even in the 1980s decade. Little wonder then why the mainstream komiks publishers sought the help of the government to help stamp out this growing threat to their business. A classic case of collective monopoly action.

If the neo-puritans really want to strike at the root of the immorality in this country, the place to look for it is not in the pages of the poor man’s Playboy, nor in those of the real Playboy. If they want to restore decency to our society, they should go to where the real indecencies in our midst are. True smut is not in the photographs of nudes, but in the reality of social injustice, in the oppression and exploitation of man by man, in the degrading poverty that afflicts more than 90 percent of our population, the poverty that leads to crime and revolution.

xxx xxx xxx

Censors kill what they cannot comprehend; being unable to recognize the hierarchy of taste, appalled by the taste of the proletariat below him and bewildered by the taste of the cognoscenti above him, he demands that everything be on his level, he would impose his taste by banning the taste of those above and below. He cannot stand the crap manufactured by those he considers his inferiors, nor the act that emanates from those whose superiority he is dimly aware of and unconsciously resents. That is why we end up with a paradox—that the crap must be allowed to exist if the act is to be preserved.” (Source: Jose F. Lacaba, ‘Smite Smut they Say”, Ibid.)

Despite government assistance however, the crusade against the Pinoy Bomba comic failed. Thus:

The Association (APEPCOM) tried to make Manila City Hall to clamp down on the “bomba” komiks. It was a move doomed to fail from the very start; it was found out later that certain men close to the authorities were protecting, if not actually financing, the smut publications. The APEPCOM was still battling the “bomba” komiks when martial law was proclaimed in 1972. The smut publishers were immediately arrested by the military, thus ending an ugly chapter in the history of Philippine komiks.” (Source: Cynthia Arevalo, et. al., The History of Komiks from the Philippines and other Countries, Ibid.)

What this rather one-sided History book conveniently omitted to state was that in addition to the arrest of the smut publishers, there was an almost one year ban on every publication from seeing print; especially the mainstream comics of Don Ramon. Other mainstream comics publishers closed shop because of the declaration of Martial Law in September, 1972, others sold their companies to Don Ramon, until only Don Ramon was practically left standing.

The lesson thus far is that the main factor that brought a significant decline in both U.S. and Philippine mainstream comics industries is HUMAN intervention that can best be described as monopolistic. The weapon of choice for such monopolistic action? Censorship and Control of the entire industry.

Next: In Part Three we examine how despite the loss of their main distribution channel, the newsstands, U.S. mainstream comics led by Marvel and DC was saved by the “direct market” comics specialty stores founded by comics fans, and how this new distribution network was destroyed by the same monopolistic tendencies of Marvel and DC. Conversely, we will also see how during the 1970s, the Roces comics monopoly lorded it over everyone amidst a repressive political regime, how it flooded the market to stamp out competition after the 1986 EDSA revolution, and how this maneuver ultimately led to its decline in the 1990s. Till then, whatever you do, to whomever you do it to, always remember to use protection. : )


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