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

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Komiks under Martial Law (Sept. 1972 to Jan.1981)

HOW A MONOPOLY WAS MAINTAINED AND AN INDUSTRY STUNTED

I.

This appeared in issue no. 467 of POGI komiks magasin, published by the Roces family’s Atlas Publications, cover date January 14, 1981:

With the lifting of martial law next year, Don Teodoro Valencia wrote in his Dec. 20 column in a morning daily that “what the President will be restoring are the freedom of the press, free speech and the right to invoke the writ of Habeas Corpus xxx.”

The first 2 rights are among the most cherished in free society, they are also the most abused. And lest some practitioners of yellow journalism, long held in lease by martial law, start believing that they will again be having a field day, and that they will be free to write anything they please, they are best reminded that while freedom of the press means “the right freely to publish without censorship or any other government interference,” that right is necessarily restricted in practice by the law bearing on sedition, libel, pornography, obscenity, indecency and blasphemy. In other words, anything printed must be decent. We repeat, decent.

Press abuses are often encouraged by the fact that laws are not always applied impartially—the scales tend to tilt on the side of those who wield the mighty pen and, abetted unwittingly by a sensation-hungry public, can make or break a public figure.

This early, therefore, the necessary safeguards against the resurgence of irresponsible journalism must be instituted. We have in mind the Ministry of Justice assuming a more vigilant posture against abuses of press freedom. Further, the posting of continuous cash bonds as a requirement for publishers would serve as some guarantee of responsibility and editorial integrity. With this scheme, metropolitan dailies and magazines may be required cash bonds of P50,000 and P25,000 respectively, with provincial newspapers posting P25,000 and magazines P5,000. House organs (magazines, pamphlets, newsletters, booklets, etc.) may be exempted.

The requisite of cash bonds may on the surface smack of restraint of press freedom, but to our mind it is quite imperative if we are to prevent the politically normalized situation from becoming an open season for seditious writing, character assassination, sensationalism and irresponsible reporting.

In this context, the lifting of martial law will be an acid test for publishers, writers and other members of media in the relentless drive for a truly responsible and free press.” (Emphasis Ours)

This editorial is both curious and instructive. Curious because the paper lifting of martial law was on January 18, 1981 by way of Presidential Decree No. 2045. The above editorial appeared in POGI komiks magasin with cover date: January 14, 1981, or 4 days earlier than the lifting of martial law. Further showing that the editorial was made a month earlier prior to January, 1981 is its opening text: “With the lifting of martial law next year, Don Teodoro Valencia wrote in his Dec. 20 column in a morning daily that…”

Instructive, because the editorial also reveals the close coordination between the Roceses and the conjugal dictatorship in Malacañang. The Roceses’ komiks titles were the leading mass medium of the 1970s and were read weekly by millions of low-income Filipinos. Dominating more than 75% of the local komiks market, it was a pure monopoly. On the wane in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Roceses would not have regained their monopoly over a censored and repressed medium without politically kowtowing to a dictator. It was an expedient that ensured their economic survival.

Several years later in 1981, the illusory lifting of martial law, the Marcos conjugal dictatorship was not ready to let a truly free, fair and competitive free market challenge the dominance of their partner propagandist. The Roceses after all, were doing a great job of helping “entertain” and intellectually mollifying their low income mass readership; diverting their attention from the abuse of power and resultant social injustices that were being committed around them by Marcos, his cronies, his wife Imelda, and the military.

Don Ramon’s family was not just into print publishing and distribution. By 1981, the Roceses had already expanded into other areas of local business such as lumbering, construction, hollow blocks manufacturing, and book publication. All this was in addition to their other business interests in other countries, Spain in particular. Some are of the view that the Roceses had to maintain their komiks business in order to get into the good graces of the Marcos dictatorship by being part of its media control hierarchy, and then wily extend this political and economic “protection” into their other local businesses.

Komiks publishing under martial law was controlled by the State. No one was allowed to print and publish unless one had a permit from Malacañang. The permit was renewed every six (6) months and one had to pay a Php 20,000 to Php 50,000 bond. A lot in those days. The bond was forfeited in case the publisher violated the comics code administered by a local comics code authority, the KPPKP, composed mostly of Don Ramon’s men. From September, 1972 to January, 1981, comics publishing in the Philippines became a closed fraternity that enjoyed only a select, privileged few who had money and the right connections. To sustain this status quo beyond the paper lifting of martial law in January, 1981, a call was made for the State to continue with the bond payments; all under the pretext of protecting a “free and responsible press."

One would have expected the Roceses, or the three (3) other minor comics publishers at the time: Rex Group of Companies, G. Miranda and Sons and Mars Ravelo’s RAR publications, to have risen up and oppose the State’s control of the media. But this did not happen. From September, 1972 to January, 1981, eight (8) years of media control and of taking it easy has dulled the independence and spontaneous creativity of these comics publishers and their stable of creators. Eight years of social conditioning and “tradition” has ingrained in their minds that conventional, industry-wide, self-regulated, government-friendly and “wholesome” comics were the only way to go. To understand and appreciate how this progressive indoctrination came about, a situation akin to a kidnap victim’s developed sympathy for her captor, or “stockholm syndrome”, one has to glance back at the history which preceded it.

II.

After martial law was declared on September 21, 1972, a nationwide media blackout took place. Television stations went off the air, movie houses were closed down, curfew was implemented, newspaper publishing houses were raided and magazines went off the stands, especially those pesky bomba sex komiks that were proliferating everywhere. The culprit? Marcos’ issuance of Letter of Instruction No. 1 ordering then Press Secretary Francisco “Kit” Tatad and then Defense Minister, Juan “Johnny” Ponce Enrile to: take over and control or cause the taking and control of the mass media for the duration of the national emergency, or until otherwise ordered by the President or by his duly designated representatives (i.e. Tatad and Enrile).” Komiks publications were a part of the mass media at the time.

When martial law was declared, Marcos and the military reigned supreme. This meant that as commander-in-chief and chief executive of the land exercising emergency powers, Marcos had authority not just to implement laws, but to MAKE them as well. Congress and the Senate, or the lawmaking arms of the government that were opposed to him, were closed down until the chief executive decided to reconstitute them. Marcos’ self-made laws during the martial years were called “Presidential Decrees” and “Letters of Instruction”.

Acting on authority of Letter of Instruction No. 1, Kit Tatad’s Department of Public Information (DPI) issued two (2) orders on September 25, 1972 requiring all media publications (komiks publications included) to be cleared first with the DPI and that all printers (komiks printing presses included) were prohibited from producing any form of publication for mass dissemination without prior approval from the DPI. To add teeth to this last DPI order, Marcos issued on October 28, 1972, Presidential Decree No. 33 which penalized without qualification or exception, the printing, possession, distribution, and circulation of printed materials (komiks magasins included) that were immoral, indecent, or which defy the Government, its officers, or which tend to undermine the integrity of the Government and the stability of the State.” Those found guilty by the military tribunal (not the courts) suffered imprisonment of at least six years minimum.

On November 2, 1972 (a holiday) the media blackout ended. On this date, Presidential Decree No.36 was issued by Marcos creating the Mass Media Council (MMC) chaired by both the Secretary of Public Information (Kit Tatad) and the Defense Secretary (Juan Ponce Enrile). Its purpose was to prohibit the recurrence of the 1960s mass media that was critical of Marcos. There was a perception that the mass media of the 1960s’ “old society” conspired and helped foment the elements of insurgency, subversion, organized violence, and lawlessness against the Marcos government. Towards that end, anybody who wanted to print and publish anything, even a comic book, had to get prior approval from the MMC.

Specifically, P.D. No. 36 prohibited and penalized any newspaper, magazine, periodical or print publication of any kind, radio, television or tele-communications facility, station or network, from operating without first obtaining a certificate of authority form the MMC. The MMC certificate must be duly and personally signed by Marcos and was valid for only six (6) months, renewable for another six (6) months unless otherwise terminated by Marcos. A comics publication was no exception.

Soon, cronies of Marcos such as, but not limited to, General Hans Menzi (senior military aide of Marcos), Roberto Benedicto (Marcos’ U.P. frat brother), Leyte Governor Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez (Imelda’s brother), Presidential Assistant, Juan Tuvera and his wife, Kerima Polotan-Tuvera, took over the raided newspaper, magazine, radio and television stations and were given written authority to resume these enterprises’ operations as partners of the “new society”.

Next up were the komiks publications that had a wide, mass-based audience, the biggest of which were those of the Roceses. Would the Roces family give up their waning publishing empire to the Marcos cronies? What concessions would the Roceses have to give in order to avoid a military take-over? Brother Chino Roces of the critical Manila Times newspaper was already jailed. Was Don Ramon to be next?

As a propaganda tool, the mainstream komiks distribution system of Don Ramon was certainly an asset worth having. Marcos’ spin doctors, media specialists and propagandists were most certainly aware that Don Ramon controlled the distribution of all mainstream comics (even those of his competitors) in the country. As chronicled in pp. 29-30 of the 1984 book: “A History of Komiks in the Philippines and other countries”, edited by Ramon R. Marcelino:

“At this time (1964), Antonio S. Velasquez revived the parent of all the komiks genre, namely, Pilipino Komiks. Velasquez served as the consultant of the PKI (Pilipino Komiks Inc.) with its temporary office at Adela Street, near the Sta. Mesa Rotunda then before it gave way to the five-way traffic lane leading to the Nagtahan Bridge sector.

First issues of Pilipino Komiks then marketed in Manila and the provinces originated form this office. Later on the office of the PKI was transferred to Commandante Street in Sta. Cruz, Manila where the garage of the Liwayway Publications was located. This sector eventually became the traditional drop-off place and pick-up area for Manila agents for practically any publication particularly all the komiks-magasins.” (Emphasis Ours)

When PKI later changed its name to Atlas, it was in reference to the greek mythical god-hero who carried the whole world on his shoulders. And rightly so, for Atlas Inc. actually controlled at this point the circulation, marketing and distribution of the whole mainstream comics industry.

Details as to the identities of the individual players in both the Roces and Marcos camps, their negotiations and power brokering that went on behind the scenes, their possible conflicts of interest, may be lost to us at this point. What is clear however, is that the Roces family were allowed to resume their magazine and komiks publishing business so long as they became partners of the government by publishing stories with a “developmental thrust”, that is, stories that did not challenge the dictatorship but instead helped disseminate its diversionary propaganda of nation building, the Green Revolution (a nationwide home grown vegetable garden program), family planning, Bliss housing program, and other ideals of Marcos’ “New Society”. Another way of putting it, the Roces komiks monopoly became part of Marcos’ “counterfeit revolution” as coined by oppositionist Ruben Canoy.

On November, 1972, the comics publishers who were able to get the much coveted six (6) month MMC certificates of authority, after military indoctrination and payment of administrative fees together with a Php 20,000.00 bond (a lot at the time), were Mars Ravelo’s RAR publications, G. Miranda and Sons (together with its sister company Mapalad Publishing Corporation) and Don Ramon’s comics companies such as Atlas (formerly PKI), GASI, Affiliated, and a revived ACE Publications. Don Ramon’s comics titles cover dated, November, 1972 to April, 1973, in fact, printed on its covers the MMC Certificate numbers to show compliance with the law. Confiscation and military arrest would result if these MMC Certificate numbers were not found in many local magazine at the time. Don Ramon’s flagship vernacular magazine “LIWAYWAY” which contained komiks serials, also came back to the stands in November, 1972. Liwayway’s November to December, 1972 issues contained serialized articles such as “Demokrasya: Rebolusyon ng Ating Panahon” purportedly written by Marcos (actually Adrian Cristobal) that espoused the necessity and achievements of the “New Society”. Similar articles appeared in many of Don Ramon’s komiks titles at the time.

The supply of paper was also managed by the military as part of its control measures in limiting the dissemination of anti-Marcos propaganda. This initially affected the circulation of the comics, but not Don Ramon’s publications which, with four comics companies in tow, still published majority of the country's mainstream comics titles in the industry. Not only this, but Don Ramon was STILL the lone distributor of ALL mainstream local comics—including that of his competitors-- in the entire country. Don Ramon practically controlled, if not owned, the mainstream comics industry. With most of the mainstream comics publishing houses now gone, Don Ramon had a huge sandbox to play in.

The Roces family were fortunate. At the time, not only did they still have their distribution network but most importantly, they still had the money and political connections to survive the crony-led business take-over of martial law. Other comics publishers at the time, particularly the bomba sex komiks companies, were not as fortunate. Lacking the money and political contacts to get the much sought government permit to operate, most of them were arrested and forced to close shop.

1960s “legitimate” comics publishers such as the Philippine Book Company (owned by E. Enriquez) and Bookman (owned by C. Picache), two family owned companies, ceased the comics publication business and shifted their focus on general printing services, school textbook publication and book importation. Other comics publications stopped operating totally. Among them, the writer’s cooperative from Malabon, Goldstar Publications, headed by publisher Ner Siongco, followed by Filemon Campaner’s Pioneer Publications, Amado Araneta’s Makabayan Publications, J. Pinili’s PR Publications, D. Benipayo’s Benipayo Press, and finally by a now splinter owned CRAF Publications including that of Nestor Redondo’s “Ares Publications”. Others such as Luis Reyes’ Viratas Publications tried to prod on with religious “fotonovels” but this too did not last long. The unwanted bureaucratic red tape, unwarranted government censorship, and the concomitant bribery that usually accompanied the issuance of the MMC certificate, was apparently too much for these comics publishers to bear.

How Mars Ravelo and G. Miranda were able to get their respective MMC Certificates is still not known. Details of their maneuverings are still lost as of this writing. One could only but speculate, reasonably at best, that Ravelo rode on the connections of the Roceses who were still cordial with him considering that Ravelo would occasionally write for the Roceses’ komiks companies oftimes employing ghost writers to get the job done. But perhaps one could reasonably assume that these few remaining companies were allowed to operate in order to cushion the large unemployment of artists and workers that ensued in the local comics industry.

Their futures and careers drastically put into a crossroads, local comics illustrators and writers were at a loss. Many wanted to leave the country. Their sources of income were now being limited in an ever-shrinking industry slowly being bereft of independent-minded publisher players. As overkill, some komiks collectors even suffered the indecency of having their collections raided and confiscated by the military on orders of First Lady Imelda Marcos, on pretext that they were a national resource better kept for posterity by the government.

In 1973, less than a year after the declaration of martial law, PSG Publications owner, Pablo S. Gomez, was compelled by the prevailing media climate to sell the rights to his two bestselling komiks titles: “United Komiks” and “Universal Komiks” to Don Ramon’s newly formed Affiliated Publications, Inc. Gomez would later devote all his time to the other mainstream media of movies and television. Compounded by plummeting sales, publisher Beatriz Guballa (a.k.a. Doña Bating) also decided in 1974, to sell her flagship vernacular magazine “Bulaklak” to Mars Ravelo who later renamed it “Bulaklak at Paru-Paro” later shortened back to “Bulaklak” now morphed into a movie magazine sans its komiks serial features.

In order for commercial life and foreign monetary aid to continue pouring in, it was important for the dictatorship to present to both the Filipino public and the international press that the country was not another banana republic undergoing a social and institutional breakdown. Comics, particularly Don Ramon’s mainstream comics, were used to help propagate this spin by “entertaining” and placating an inquisitive public; re-directing their attention to the sedate, harmless and wholesome comics stories of melodramatic fantasies and self-contained domestic conflict that did not glorify or sensationalize graphic sex, violence, crime and most important of all, did not criticize the ongoing political, social, and economic purge being done right under their nose. In short, the mainstream comics of this period did not contain any hint of critical, seditious or rebellious content against the Marcos government. And for the first six months from November, 1972 to April, 1973, the spin was apparently working.

When it was time to renew their individual MMC certificates however, Marcos issued on May 11, 1973, Presidential Decree No. 191 abolishing the MMC replacing it with the Media Advisory Council or MAC. Unlike the MMC, the MAC was now headed by non-government officials in that its chairman was the President of the National Press Club (actually Marcos’ Executive Secretary Primitivo Mijares at that time, who later turned against the dictatorship by testifying before the U.S. Senate) and a civic leader/Presidential appointee.

The MAC still accepted applications for certificates of authority which were to be signed by Marcos. Its inception was to convey the public impression that the government was in the process of gradually handing back control of the mass media back to private hands. Private hands however, who showed willingness to “self-regulate” and “self-censor” their ranks under supervision of the government. Fortunately, Don Ramon was no stranger to self-censorship and self-regulation.

As early as November, 1972, the same month P.D. No. 36 was issued creating the MMC, Don Ramon called on the remaining mainstream comics publishers to re-form into a new self-regulating body, the Kapisanan ng mga Publisista at mga Patnugot ng mga Komiks-Magasin sa Pilipino or KPPKP, who not surprisingly, re-adopted the old APEPCOM Code but broadened its terms to include guidelines that were not subversive to the government. On that same month, the MMC certificates were issued to KPPKP comics publisher members. What followed was another sensitization of Philippine comics. As recounted by Dra. Soledad Reyes in her article appearing in the 1984 edition of “A History of Komiks of the Philippines and other countries”:

When Martial law was declared on September 21, 1972, a total ban on mass media was enforced. The komiks-magazines were allowed to resume publication after the industry had prepared a new code which specified, among others, that no government official or military personnel would be depicted as corrupt, that respect for the law should always be maintained, that no explicit sex scenes may be shown, and that stories about criminals and criminality be minimized. Stories dealing with poverty and social unrest disappeared. What took their place were tales revolving around domestic situations, or stories used to propagate values and beliefs deemed worthwhile by the government. The world of the komiks had suddenly acquired a new sheen—it had become unbelievably antiseptic and wholesome.

The long wished for recognition that the komiks industry had desired was finally given; the komiks was to work hand in hand with some government agencies in developmental projects such as the Green Revolution and family planning programs. Stories which incorporated values such as the need to limit the number of children in the family, the need for people in the provinces to stay put there and not join the exodus to the cities were published periodically. Also included were articles dealing with the nature and organization of government agencies such as the Social Security System, Government Service Insurance System, Nutrition Center, to name a few.” (Soledad S. Reyes, “Romance and Realism in the Komiks” from “A History of Philippiine Komiks, Ibid., p. 50)

A similar observation was made in 1974 by the late Fr. Ben Carreon, in one of his magazine articles:

Picture magazines that once looked like advanced courses in pornography have gotten out of their sleazy, slinky cocoon. Today, thanks to the new guidelines in Mass Media, the Filipino comics is reaching out into the area of respectability.

And because of its new thrust—where once the storyline was almost like a receding hairline and ingeniously contrived fantasies--- it is now pushing into regions of readership.

It used to be that anyone with a sleek concept of sexuality, meaning the fat slob or the slender slut who’s willing to out-nude Eve and outpose Marilyn Monroe gets the full page.

Now, the comics pages are really for laughs and for heroic exploits as well as for the amusing family story that brings out the old time Filipino virtues.

I’m not saying that this is true of all comics and movie magazines. Some of them are still stuck in the mire of mediocrity. But at least, the out-and-out appeal of the libido is out.

Now parents need not worry when their kids sneak out behind the garage and read those magazines. In fact, they need not sneak out anymore. Mam probably will enjoy stories like “Butsukoy, the Wonder Boy”, and Papa will appreciate “Kingpin” if he’s a sports fan.

Xxx xxx xxx

Think of our Malay-Western mix in education. Why, we’ve one of the richest histories in the world. That’s why we should be rich in fantasy. So the Filipino comics, in spite of difficulties in adjustment to the new thinking and high cost of printing is in the throes of progress.” (From: Home-Life The Philippines Family Magazine, Vol. 22, No. 2, February 1974)

Once more, this new KPPKP Comics Code became a self-regulating, industry-wide editorial edict that codified how local comics should look and appear in the market. No room was given for alternative self-expression. There was rather, a re-imposed general sameness that prevailed in the comics being published by Don Ramon, Mars Ravelo, G.M. Miranda and by later publishers. A few works would occasionally attempt to stray but are chastised early on or otherwise left to their own devices, inundated by the flood of regulated/commercialized comics flooding the market. All had to observe a biased and sterilizing Code.

In November 9, 1974, the MAC was again abolished and replaced by another regulatory body with a new appellation but still having the same duties and functions: the Philippine Council for Print Media (PCPM). Criticism however, hounded the PCPM in that its membership were mostly crony Marcos publishers with no representatives from advertisers and other workers from the print media. The PCPM members were: General Hans Menzi of the Bulletin Today, Kerima Polotan-Tuvera of Focus Philippines, Juan Perez of Philippine Daily Express, and Rosario Olivares of the Times Journal. All four were also interlocking officers of the Publishers Association of the Philippines (PAPI). A conflict of interest was thus apparent. How could such an evidently biased body possibly supervise and regulate any wrongdoing committed by publisher-members of PAPI? At any rate, the KPPKP fell under the aegis of the PCPM whose objective was to develop the KPPKP as a trusted, self-regulating and self-governing body of the local komiks medium. As before, one had to secure or renew the requisite permit in order to publish komiks as well as deposit cash bonds to answer for any violation of the KPPKP Code.

Yet, despite all these layers of media control the so-called evils that it sought to suppress came to fore. Why? Because the whole system was counterfeit. The media oligarchs of the 1960s were now replaced by an even fewer, privileged gang of Marcos cronies. This was the anomaly of control.

Columnist Teodoro F. Valencia was more scathing in his criticisms. He said the PCPM was used by the lords of print media in the creation of “an insipid press but a very prosperous one.” As he explained, “advertisements and commercial blurbs still dominate the pages of newspapers in spite of admonitions to conserve energy…In place of the society page, what do we find today? Imported sex articles in all shades of pornography in print, and endless nonsense about coming movie productions, gossip about movie stars and starlets, and worse, undisguised image-building stories about motion picture characters.” (Source: Rosalinda Pineda-Ofreneo, “The Press under Martial Law”, article from the book “Philippine Mass Media: A Book of Readings” edited by Clodualdo Del Mundo, Jr., CFA Publications, 1986 ed.)

Worse, Valencia accused the PCPM of persecuting the small fry in order to monopolize the take:

The most glaring example of the monopolistic attitude of the lords of print media was the suppression of GINOO, a monthly for men that featured semi-nudes and provocative poses of women in varying styles of undress. One had expected that with the suppression of GINOO, the press would rule out cheesecake. The contrary was what happened. The front pages of the major newspaper run by the principal officers of the Print Media Council blossomed with the very pictures they censored in GINOO. What the small fry could not do was all right by the bosses of the print media.” (Source: Rosalinda Pineda-Ofreneo, “The Press under Martial Law”, article from the book “Philippine Mass Media: A Book of Readings” edited by Clodualdo Del Mundo, Jr., Ibid.)

The above account was not only true with newspapers but with all other media controlled at the time by Marcos and his cronies, i.e., television, radio, movies, magazines and yes, even the komiks of the Roceses, particularly the local komiks movie gossip magasins.

With the PCPM hovering above the Roces-controlled KPPKP from 1974 to 1981, state control over the local komiks media through the Roces monopoly, was secured. The big four (4) comics publishing companies during martial law were all owned by the Roceses: Atlas, Affiliated, Ace and Graphic Arts and Services, Inc. (GASI). These four companies had a “captive readership” of low-income Filipinos who had no choice but to read their titles in the millions of copies every week during martial law.

III.

Again dominating the comics market, once more being the sole player in a humongous sand box, one would think that some improvement in the quality of the comics ensued after more than two (2) decades of industry dominance since 1947. The reverse was unfortunately the case. As observed by then reporter now Manila Times editor, Danny Mariano, in his 1978 TV Times article:

The plots, settings and characters of komiks-magasins nobelas strive to depict what are easily identifiable in the Philippine milieu. Some critics however, point out that the theme of many of these nobelas recall those of metrical romances, which in the Spanish colonial era formed the basis of traditional literature.” (Source: Danny Mariano, “In the Name of the Masses”, TV Times magazine article, September 10-16, 1978 issue)

This meant that local comics on the whole, as dominated by the Roceses, still employed what had gone before, which is the extension and repackaging into comics format of Spanish colonial era, traditional type literature by way of melodrama and conservatism. And because the monopoly had again no serious competitor on the market, it had no incentive to be original or innovative, contenting itself with self-contained domestic dramas, mediocre swipes, rip-offs, and weak spoofs of icons from other foreign pop cultures. As again observed by Danny Mariano in his 1978 article:

Nowadays, the escapades of such crimebusters as Tom Cat, Palos, Alakdang Gubat and secret agent DI Trece have been substituted for the gallant adventures of medieval prince-lings and knight errants (Prinsipe Amante, Carlomango, Prinsesang Kalapati, Dose Pares de Francia and Siete Infantes de Lara). They also point out the absurd discrepancy of Pinoy Koboys, bandidos and other soldiers of fortune (Mercenario) continue with borrowings from other concepts. Other komiks-magasin characters are obviously borrowed from Graeco-Roman mythology such as Darko, the dark-skinned centaur, Petrang Kabayo, the blonde female centaur, the mermaids Dyesebel and Kleng-kleng, the Medusa-like monsters Valentina and Zuma and Harimanok, half-man, half-cock. Others have been plucked from the cosmos of American pop-phantasia and given ample doses of Filipino idiosyncracies: Captain Barbell, Captain Universe, Kapteyn Batuten and Bad Man and Rodin (whose names and exploits ring of Captain America and the Dynamic Duo), Andres Corsiz, the sci-fi man with the mechanical heart (shades of Steve Austin) and the Hands, a pair of amputated arms which can think, see, move about and even attack wrongdoers.” (Source: Danny Mariano, “In the Name of the Masses”, TV Times magazine article, ibid.)

In short, the look and style of the Spanish colonial era zarzuela and comedia form of folk storytelling were again “modernized” to fit the times. Melodrama, the essence and substance of these storytelling forms however, remained constant.

But melodrama above all, is the grist of the komiks-magasin mill. Komiks-nobelas of this type almost inevitably deal on poverty and portray characters, who despite the muck that surrounds them attain noble proportions. The lovable street urchin who remains wholesome amid a cruel world of unloving adults. The martyr-parent (usually a mother) who does not hesitate to go down on her hands and knees in menial tasks to support a child’s (usually an ungrateful prodigal son) education. The dalagang ina who allows herself to suffer a fate worse than death in order to support a fatherless child. The battered wife who silently agonizes through the maltreatment of a villainous husband (usually an alcoholic gambler). Variations on the Romeo-Juliet theme (a probinsiyana whose love affair with a rich Manila boy is doomed from the start or the chauffeur whose devotion to his senyora is unrequited, etc. etc.).” (Source: Danny Mariano, “In the Name of the Masses”, TV Times magazine article, ibid.)

More than anything, melodrama is what characterized local mainstream comics since the late 1940s when the industry began, up to the closure of Atlas’ comics publishing operations in 2006 (and revived last September, 2007 by the Carlo Caparas line of komiks published by Sterling Paper Products, Inc).

But what is melodrama? Why is it considered a less evolved form of dramatic writing? Lajos Egri, director of the Egri School of Writing in New York City, a prolific writer and director of plays in the United States and Europe as well as screenwriting consultant to various members of the American film industry, defines melodrama in this wise:

Now for a word about the difference between drama and melodrama. In a melodrama the transition is faulty or entirely lacking. Conflict is overemphasized. The characters move with lightning speed from one emotional peak to another—the result of their one dimensionality. The ruthless killer, pursued by the police, suddenly stops to help a blind man cross the street. This is phony on the surface. It is unlikely that a man running for his life would even see the blind man, let alone help him. And, certainly, a ruthless killer would be more likely to shoot the blind man for getting in his way than to make friendly gestures toward him. Transition must be present to make even a three-dimensional character believable. The lack of transition produces melodrama.” (Source: Lajos Egri, “The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives”, Touchstone/Simon and Schuster publisher, New York, 1960 ed.)

Another element that characterized the unchanging nature of komiks during the martial law years is its conservatism. As observed once again by Danny Mariano:

It is significant though that the philosophical standpoints that many komiks-magasin nobelistas assume and align with conservatism. Even their depiction of the alleged “liberated woman” is portrayed through the distinctly jaundiced eye of male chauvinism. The liberated woman is actually a libertine, the direct antithesis of the Spanish-Catholic virgin cult-type. Also, any expression of youthful protest is categorically frowned upon as impious.” (Source: Danny Mariano, “In the Name of the Masses”, TV Times magazine article, op.cit.)

Melodrama and conservatism. It is interesting to note that in those periods in the media histories of American television, radio, film, books and comics, where censorship was prevalent and unwaveringly conservative, melodramatic writing prevailed. The same is true in the Philippines even to this day as shown on either extreme of the spectrum by the kind of mass-based, “traditional Filipino” comics being published by Sterling/Caparas on one side, and on the other side, the so-called modern and globalized “indie” comics that shamelessly imitate the likewise melodramatic comics writing of many U.S. and Japanese fantasy/sci-fi/superhero soap opera comics that presently dominate the reading racks of the middle to upper income class of Philippine society.

When some people derogatively refer to any creative form of writing as “comics writing” or to action/fantasy movies as “comic book movies”, chances are they most often refer to the industry-wide practice of non-offensive, wholesome, conservative, melodramatic writing characterized by sensationalized, manipulative and awkwardly contrived stories that appeal blatantly and exclusively to an uncritical or unthinking audience’s emotions.

In defense, comics publishers and creators counter that such sensationalized, manipulative writing is necessary in order to maintain regular sales. From a business and economic standpoint, the apologia seems to be justified especially in the absence of a free market where melodrama is the only kind of product being offered for sale by the monopolist. The problem however is that in reality and in the long term, an audience’s tastes and preferences evolve and mature. Consequently, there has to be freer, more refined, more intellectually satisfying and alternative comics publications that meet this need. Break that chain and you are stuck with a stunted industry. The non-monopolized comics industries of France and Japan have acknowledged this reality and are prospering.

The mainstream comics industry of the U.S. only began to realize this in the 1980s when it took steps to grant royalties and give more freedom to its comics creators thereby distancing itself slowly but surely from their conservative Comics Code. The result is a $500 million a year direct market comics industry in 1991 that later crashed in 1994 not because of the product’s maturing quality but due to the entry of comics speculators into the direct market who warped it into a comics investment scam, and in 1997 when Marvel comics tried to control the comics distribution of the direct market. This last venture resulted in the closure of many comics distributors and comics specialty stores until finally, only one single comics distributor was left standing, servicing the few, remaining comics specialty stores in North America: Diamond Distribution. Today (2008) the U.S. mainstream comics direct market still has an average annual revenue of approximately $250 million a year.

In the local comics market however, the reverse is true. On rare occasions, real problems of society would be the subject matter of komiks stories which seemingly challenge the martial law edicts of the KPPKP comics code: marital infidelity, the improvidence of Filipino husbands, drug abuse, gambling, alcoholism, prostitution, the impiety of the young, the pernicious effects of rumor-mongering, agrarian reform, agrarian unrest, urban poverty, priests and nuns resorting to violence, crime and rebellion. But as is most often the case in a controlled media where melodrama and conservatism reign, the resolution in these komiks stories usually end in unrealistic, unbelievable and unsatisfying fairy-tale like compromises and contradictions.

In this same controlled comics market dominated by a monopoly, where the readers have no real alternative choice of reading material, only the komiks of the Roceses prospered. Roces komiks were Filipino komiks and they had a "captive" readership during martial law. Just who were these captive readers? Ramon R. Marcelino, KPPKP president cites the following article that appeared in the 1978 edition of “The Illustrated Press”, the official organ of the KPPKP of which he was the writer and editor:

From Batanes in the North to Jolo in the South, komiks-magazines are read by more Filipinos than any other printed medium.

It is not surprising. Some two million copies of 45 titles by 11 publishers are sold every week. They are dispatched by van, bus and train in Luzon and by ship and plane to Visayas and Mindanao where readers of all ages await the next installment of their favorite komiks-magasin strips.

They are farmers, farm laborers, fishermen, miners, factory and office workers, government employees, proprietors, and people of every occupation and profession including housewives and students. They are the nation’s mass elite, gainfully employed, literate and intelligent.

An accurate count of their number is difficult, but a calculation can be made based on the actual circulation figures of all the komiks-magazines. It is thus estimated and assumed that there are six readers for every copy bought. Two million copies multiplied by six readers give twelve million Filipinos who read komiks-magazines regularly.

The number is really much more if those who borrow or rent their copy are counted. They will bring the total up to sixteen million readers. Compared to the population of forty-four million, sixteen million readers represent a diffusion rate of one to four. That puts the komiks-magasin in the category of a truly mass medium.

A recent survey reveals some startling facts about the komiks-magasin reader. He is an adult, married, with a high school or college education. And he is more than not a female, which means that there are more female than male readers. This is because housewives who hold the purse and decide what to buy for the family make up 17 percent of the readership.

It is not true, then, that komiks-magazines are read only by children and teenagers. Out of every 100 readers interviewed by the survey, only 40 are 19 years of age or below; 60 are adults.

The survey also shows that they belong to the socio-economic classes that follow closely the class segmentation of the population. This is visually described by a pyramid where 4 percent are found in AB homes at the apex of the pyramid followed by C Homes and D Homes with 17 percent forming the base of the pyramid.

As to the lifestyle of komiks-magasin readers, it has been found that 54 percent rent or lease their dwelling places, 40 percent have their own homes, 79 percent have radios, 64 percent have TV sets, 47 percent have refrigerators and 13 percent own cars or jeeps.

While komiks-magasin readers are not affluent, they spend P1.7 million weekly or P88.4 million a year on komiks-magazines.” (Source: Ramon R. Marcelino, “Komiks Magasin: Scriptwriting”, published by Communication Foundation for Asia, 1980 ed.)

The above observations are concurred in by Dr. Soledad S. Reyes who, in her 1976 article appearing in Sagisag magazine, said:

At present, there are four (4) big comics companies—Atlas, Affiliated, Ace and Graphic Arts—who publish at least 5 to 8 comics titles each. Their total circulation is estimated at about one million copies a week. Assuming that for each copy there are five readers, the actual number of readers for Filipino komiks is approximately five million Filipinos.” (Source: Soledad S. Reyes, “Ilehitimong Panitikan: Ang Komiks bilang salamin ng Buhay”, article appearing in Sagisag magazine, November-December, 1976 issue).

By 1978, the figures were a little more generous. Again, as observed by Danny Mariano in his 1978 article appearing in TV Times magazine:

Komiks magasins have the enviable distinction of being a truly mass medium. Every week, about two million komiks-magasins bearing 44 different titles, are sold. If we assume that six people eventually get to read each copy (which some claim is still a conservative estimate), then komiks-magasins should easily have a readership of no less than 12 million.

For the 12 komiks-magasin publishing houses this means weekly sales of about Php 1.7 million, or Php 88.4 million annually.

Among the leading komiks-magasins is Pilipino Komiks, published by Atlas Publications. In 1976, Pilipino Komiks reported an average weekly circulation of 151,481; a figure that so-called legitimate, English-language magazines can only drool over. Current circulation estimates surpass the 175,000 mark, it is claimed.

Some in the komiks-magasin business insist that street sales could be much higher if newsstand owners did not prefer to rent out komiks-magasin copies, at 10 to 15 centavos per sitting. (Each copy sells for 85 centavos). But komiks-magasin publishers have little else to worry about since through three decades, their merchandise have maintained a secure hold on the grassroots.” (Source: Danny Mariano, “In the Name of the Masses”, TV Times magazine article, loc.cit.)

The big four comics publishing companies during martial law: Atlas, Affiliated, Ace and Graphic Arts were all owned by the Roceses. Of these, Graphic Arts and Services, Inc. (GASI) was probably the most profitable:

By the end of 1978, the aggregate circulation of the company’s (GASI) publications was almost fourfold than that of yearend 1975. It was also at this time that the aggregate circulation of the company’s (GASI) publications became one of the highest in the industry. In terms of profitability, the 1978 profit of the company (GASI) increased by 400% over that of 1975. Subsequent years proved themselves as successful for every year since 1978 likewise generated substantial increase in sales and profits over the previous year. This 1984, they project to increase their sales by 20% and their profits by 25% over last year’s despite the current depressed economic conditions.” (Source: “The Birth of Philippine Komiks” anonymously written article from the book: “A History of Komiks of the Philippines and Other Countries” edited by Ramon R. Marcelino, Islas Filipinas Publishing Co., Inc., 1984 ed.)

IV.

1972 to 1981. Eight years of social conditioning, of molding a mass medium of communication into a media controlled industry. During this period, tremendous profit was reaped by the favored few who controlled and managed the entire industry. Approaching the lifting of martial law in 1981 however, the local comics monopoly now faced the probability of competing in a free market. Would the favored few relinquish their undeserved monopoly? Obviously not. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hence, the call by the Roceses in 1981 for the continued imposition by the Marcos dictatorship of bonds on all prospective publishers intending to enter the lucrative market.

The tragedy of the whole thing is that it has been ingrained in the minds of many that only by monopolizing the comics market could the industry and their futures remain secure. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The truth being that even with the huge numbers brought in by the monopoly, this could have been much higher had a free, diverse and open market of comics publishers were competing. As a result, what we have is a stunted industry.

Consider: the sixteen million komiks readers of the Philippines circa 1970s martial law, is small fry when compared to the free and open market competition of mainstream comics publishers in Japan during the 1970s. Japan in the 1970s had an annual comics readership of 1,117 BILLION as reported in this May, 1979 news article from the Bulletin Today newspaper:

TOKYO (Reuter) – The Japanese read more than a billion comic books a year to escape the intense pressures of their competitive, pressure cooker society. While many are read by children, hundreds of millions are read by adults, including university students, business executives, doctors and lawyers.

Xxx xxx xxx

There are five weekly comic books, two bi-monthlies and seven monthlies for boys and two weeklies, four bi-monthlies and 13 monthlies for girls. More than 100 comics are published for adults every month.

The Publications Science Research Institute, a private organization said in 1978 a total of 1,117 billion comics were published in Japan. Most of the comic book writers are said to be men and women graduates of senior and high school. One of them, Shinji Mizushima, was ranked 53rd in last year’s list of the rich in Japan with an income of 290 million yen (1.4 million dollars)” (Source: Ikuo Anai, “Japanese read a billion comic books in one year”, reprinted in the Bulletin Today newspaper, May 9, 1979 issue).

There are similarities between the Philippine and Japanese comics industries. Both were mass-based but unlike the Roces monopolized comics of the Philippines, Japanese comics did not suffer restrictive, industry-wide censorship, was progressive in that it provided mature, literate and serious comics works as a generation of their readership aged, grew and matured, and most importantly, there were no monopolies that unduly controlled their free and very competitive comics publishing market.

There was more spontaneity and freedom in the Japanese comics market such that all parties that were involved in the industry from the center to the periphery, were constantly improving the product until a simple hobby or habit morphed through the years into what it is today: a comics reading "culture." What is even more impressive is that the population of Japan is less than that of the Philippines yet , even in the 1970s the Japanese were reading a little more than a billion manga .

Having a local comics reading culture effectively shielded the manga industry from competition by other media such television, video games, the internet and other alternative modes of entertainment. The phenomena is akin to social conditioning. Having nurtured and developed a behavioral pattern that is biased towards a particular habit, i.e., comics reading, which is essentially a shared collective experience, the Japanese comics industry is testament to the fact that even with the entry of foreign comic books or new alternative entertainment technologies, these are not enough to penetrate a culture already ingrained at the start of a very young age onto maturity. Sadly, this has not been so in the Philippine experience.

One can only but wonder what it would have been like if the Filipino comics industry were not only mass-based, but free and authentically competitive with several comics publishers having diverse and separate editorial approaches to creating comics, similar to that of Japan in the 1970s as described in the same 1979 news article:

There are escapist erotic comics for men in which pumpkin breasted women (frequently western and often blonde) are depicted as performing amazing sexual feats. Stories in comic books for children are about soccer, and volleyball players, boxers and wrestlers, movie and pop stars, hobbies and ideal school teachers.

A typical comic book for high school and university students sells more than one million copies each week. Costing 150 yen (70 cents) it contains more than 300 pages made of 12 separate stories.

The weekly Shonen Jampu (Boys Jump) issued a special 350 yen (1.60 dollar) 602-page edition last month, aiming at children at the start of a two week school holiday. It contained 19 stories on subjects such as sports and hobbies.

One critic said boys and girls and lower echelon office and factory workers talk about comic book heroes and stories as well as sports during lunch breaks. What has changed in the Japanese comic boom which started in the 1960s, is the fact that the educated now are reading them.

A 1977 government report said 60% of university students regularly read comic books and that the number of comic books read by high school students has risen 6.5 times in the last 20 years.

A separate survey by the Japan recruit center, a private research institute, said university students read 7.6 magazines, including comic books, each month on average.

Less than one percent of university students polled said they never read a comic. A survey taken by the center two years ago found that one out of four senior high school students never read a single serious book.” (Source: Ikuo Anai, “Japanese read a billion comic books in one year”, Ibid).

What is even more tragic is that even after the paper lifting of martial law in 1981, even after the EDSA revolution of 1986, and even after the decline in sales of the Roces monopoly in 1994 accompanied by the closure of its comics companies and sale of its one last company, Atlas, to the owners of National Bookstore in 1996, no new publisher players have seriously entered the fray. Every attempt was either half-hearted or made without any real knowledge of what they were getting into. Worse, their individual failures have given the misimpression that comics publishing in this country is hopeless; that the creation of a new mainstream comics industry free of the baggage from the old industry, is wishful thinking.

To be sure, what is taking place this 2008 are birthing pains wherein on one side, we have the comics veterans of yesteryear in the Sterling/Caparas camp trying to revive the old sweatshop business practice of the Roceses, while on the other side we have the younger generation of “globalists” trying to establish their fortunes in American, Japanese and other foreign comics industries, having no real conception or appreciation for the primary creation of a local comics industry and the concomitant development of a local comics reading culture that goes along with it. Two extremes to be sure with no middle view in sight.

A lot of wasted opportunities have gone by, the habits of a prospective local audience for komiks slowly being weaned away by the entertainment cultures of alternative media now around us, and the misinformed discussions regarding the matter populating the internet, all serve but fire more unwanted pessimism.

Yet, ignorance of the future is still with us. Not knowing with certainty what the future may bring, not knowing what unexpected twists and turns destiny may hold up its hidden sleeve, is reason enough for one to hold some hope, some glimmer of optimism that all will turn out right in the end.

2 Comments:

Anonymous r.v. nunca said...

Hi. Me again. Am still digesting some of the thoughts in this article which is really hard especially your view that only in a free, competitive comics market without monopolies, will we see a new Filipino comics industry. Don't monopolies arise from free markets in the first place? Doesn't the free market create its own seeds of destruction?

5:58 AM

 
Anonymous aklas isip said...

Monopolies can arise in a free market if it is able to produce the best quality product at a reasonably low price. In that sense, it has earned the support of its customers. Yet, the reality is, because of free and fair competition in the market, such a monopoly does not last long.

In a scenario however, where a company becomes a monopoly because of undue government intervention or when the company resorts to undue manipulation of the market and maintains its position at the expense of others,it becomes an undesirable monopoly. It can maintain its positin for as long as it is able to use laws, government intervention and unfair market practices in its favor.

The free market sowing the seeds of its own destruction? I don't think so. The Japanese and French comics industries are still there. They are free. The Philippine comics industry was unduly monopolized since the 1940s. It fell in the 1990s and totally wiped out in 2006. Coercive monopolies sow the seeds of their own destruction NOT the free market.

3:15 PM

 

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