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

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Do Filipinos still read comic books?

Let's start with this news article, one of several, found in the internet:


Comic Book Hero Spreads Counterterrorism Message

By Stew Magnuson

xZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — One of the unique products used in psychological operations in the southern Philippines is the comic book “Barbargsa — Blood of the Honorable.”

About 600,000 copies of the 10-part series have been distributed on the Sulu islands, a chain that was once a terrorist safe haven, and still suffers from skirmishes.

U.S. special operations forces have used comic books in information campaigns. But the characters were based on well-known American superheroes. Two years ago, two Army officers decided to create one from scratch to tell the children of the Sulu islands the story of what was happening in their homeland.

The project was the brainchild of Maj. Edward Lopacienski, military information support team commander for the joint special operations task force Philippines mission, and the non-commissioned officer in charge, Master Sgt. Russell Snyder.

The pair sat down in January 2006 and outlined the basic idea.

The plot follows several basic comic book storyline conventions — most notably the battle between good and evil.

The comic book focuses on Ameer, who left his home island to work overseas, but returns to find it racked with violence. Ameer is a practitioner of kuntao, which is a local form of martial arts. Like Zorro or Batman, he dons a mask and vows to protect the downtrodden and innocent victims of terrorists.

The Philippines military are also portrayed in a positive and heroic light while the villains are the terrorists or “bandits.” The creators were careful to accurately illustrate the Sulu region, and use character names, clothing and mannerisms that reflect the culture of the Tausug ethnic group. There are versions in English and in the local dialect.

It depicts real events that took place on the islands and at neighboring Basilan — specifically the Sulu Co-Op bombing in March 2006, which killed five and injured 40 and the Basilan hostage crisis when members of the Abu Sayyaf Group took school children and used them as human shields against Filipino troops.

“Essentially what we’re doing is showing all the atrocities that the Abu Sayyaf Group has done,” Lopacienski said.

One subplot shows how terrorists manipulate a boy into becoming a bomber.

The production of the comic book was farmed out to a Manila-based marketing firm. Two experts on Tausug culture were brought in as consultants to make sure nothing offensive was put in, and that everything was culturally accurate. It took about 2,000 hours to create the 10 comic books.

“In the end you see the hero and the community rising up to turn over the terrorists,” Lopacienski said.

It was important that the series be reproduced on high-quality paper as slick as any graphic novel found in U.S. bookshelves, he said, because that shows respect to the culture.

Lopacienski said there is anecdotal evidence of the comic book’s popularity. When some areas missed delivery due to security concerns, children “were ripping out the pages and trading them like baseball cards,” he said.

Local stores have printed unauthorized T-shirts portraying the hero Ameer."

-end-

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And in other news, you will recall that during the 2007 local elections, comic books were used by many politicians to inform people about themselves and their platform of government. One controversial incident stood out concerning former actress VILMA SANTOS-RECTO when she ran for governor of Batangas. Her close rival was her brother-in-law who then, didn't approve of her running for the position. What followed was a surreal word war between the two camps and the medium used was--you guessed it--comic books. Eventually the two camps patched up their differences, the brother-in-law gave way, and the more popular Vilma ran for governor and got elected.

There are so many other news reports of FREE and VOLUMINOUS comic books being distributed all around the country by private individuals, government, religious and non-government institutions that effectively belie the notion that Filipinos, particularly the majority of low-income Filipinos, don't read printed comic books anymore. So you have to ask, WHO exactly, are the people asking these questions?

You will find that the culprits are usually those who think that comic books are those that are being distributed FOR SALE commercially and in large quantities in the mainstream market. And what is happening in the mainstream market right now? Most of the comics are expensive, english-language licensed reprints of American and Japanese comics and cartoons or are "inspired" by them selling from a low of Php 75 to Php 100, have low circulation and whose audience are primarily those with upper-income, westernized tastes.

On the fringe, you will find some local comics made by so-called "indies" whose printed product primarily target the same upper-income, westernized audience, have low circulation, are hard to find, and though sometimes priced below Php 75 (i.e. Php 50) are not within the reach of the common low-income Filipino reader. These "indie" comics primarily use the English language and though they may on occasion use a pinch of Filipino slang, illustrate an aspect of Filipino life and culture in our country, all these are minor background to the largely westernized themes and stories that they consciously adopt in their beloved works of art.

Yet, these people whine and pine: "why aren't comic books being read by Filipinos?". Layered beneath that cry of anguish is the translation: "why aren't Filipinos reading my globalized comics?" The answer to that is pretty obvious. But when you confront them with it, they shake their head in denial and continue to do what they're doing. When you suggest that they target the wider, low-income market, create more variations in their subject matter and not be limited to trivial, inoffensive sanitized "entertainment", be more Filipino, and think more like businessmen instead of awestruck fanboys and fangirls, they look at you like a wide-eyed deer caught by the car's headlight as if you're coming from Mars or Jupiter.

They fortify their denial with a litany of cockamamie defenses: there's no profit when you sell to the low-income, we don't know and don't like to get a loan, we're just doing this because we "love" it, we're just doing this because its "art", its a personal hobby, none of your business its what I "chose" to do and I'm unaccountable to no one. Then when reality dawns on them and find that they have a small limited audience, they later complain: "Why don't people respect artists? Why does society look down on comics and comics art? Why don't FIlipinos read comic books anymore? Why isn't there a local comics industry?"

Tragi-comic as always. But now you know why Filipinos don't read and buy THEIR comic books.



9 Comments:

Blogger TheCoolCanadian said...

I think what you said make sense.
I've recently had some verbal tussle against a few of these "indie" comic book creators and that's exactly the reasoning they shot back at me when I commented how bad their books are.

Though some indies are not that too bad, many suck, and yes, like what you said, they are only publishing them for themselves, which, I nonchanlantly told them that what they're doing is economic suicide.

If they're publishing their comic books for themselves, why even bother to sell few copies to other people? Just publish them, keep them in your bedroom and admire your ingenious work, period.

They're not worth reading, anyhow.

-Jose Mari Lee

4:27 AM

 
Blogger aklas isip said...

Yes, and some of these indies who have comics art museums, salons, beauty parlors and what-have-yous, sometimes have the gall and delusion of proclaiming in the internet, like self-styled messiahs, that they have been "keeping alive" komiks reading in the country for 15 years now; that its some sort of "industry".

Out of curiosity, WHAT pray tell, are SOME of these so-called "indie" works that are "not too bad"?

8:27 PM

 
Anonymous Rommel Fabian said...

Ahehe. parang kilala ko ung mga messiahs na yan. yan ung mga umupo sa mga upuang 'di naman nila dapat upuan, sa naganap na selebrasyon ng komiks dito sa Pilipinas. eh, "HINDI" naman sila mga nagtrabaho dito.

kung todo boka pa. akala mo ang daming alam sa pinoy komiks dito sa pinas. eh, mga kolektor lang at pumupulot ng komiks history dito sa abroad pa nagwo-work. tapos ung natutunan, nilabas na ng bibig nila...akala mo tuloy kasama talaga sila sa eksena ng pinoy komiks. Tsk, lupet mo tol!

eto pa ang isa sa mga mas malupet na sinabi nila.. sabi ng pinuno, bubuhayin daw nila ang komiks dito sa pinas. hehehe. ayun! mga naglabas ng komiks sila-sila rin ang nagdo-drawing at sumusulat. wala naman silang nabigyan ng trabaho.

kamukat-mukat mo, INDIE pala. INDIE maganda at INDIE mo mabasa. hahaha! Hay nako... mga feeling great sa komiks. :)

3:54 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Karamihan sa mga Indies ay hindi talaga pang-commercial. They're only doing it as a hobby. Parang cross-stitch.

12:38 AM

 
Blogger TheCoolCanadian said...

"Yes, and some of these indies who have comics art museums, salons, beauty parlors and what-have-yous"

BEAUTY PARLORS? Really? Ha-ha-ha!

"WHAT pray tell, are SOME of these so-called "indie" works that are "not too bad"?"

PRAY TELL! Seeing this written made me felt as if I were living my first life in the middle ages in England. He-he. I'm enjoying your sarcastic sense of humor, Aklas.

And my response to your last question is... er... uhm... uh...
the not too bad are... still lukewarm by international standards.

My opinion on this is: try to be as Filipino as possible to show the world who and what the Filipino is. Outside the Philippines, there are very few people who really know who and what the Filipino is. Since the indie comic book creators are aiming for that, they should really see the light that taking the superhero route won't turn the world's crank, so to speak.

They should strive to create something originally Filipino. A good example for an eye-opener for the world is THE WEDDING DANCE by Amador Daguio. It is such a powerful material and it shows the uniqueness of the Igorots.

The indies' drawings may be able to compete internationally, but the writing is still quite pedestrian. Funny how it is, that in order for them to become "international", they should first be "local". It is in being specific that magnifies a thing.

The weakest point I see from their work is characterization. They have to work hard to make each and every character they create to be three dimensional. Many don't seem to understand how important this part is in writing fiction. They have forgotten that Character is action. It is the one that makes the story move forward. And having a medium rare or even half-assed written character will actually take the cake.

A wasted effort.

10:37 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buti pa ang cross-stitch, may pattern na sinusunod kaya maganda diba?! kapag walang pattern na sinusunod ano ba ang labas?

kaya namamatay ang komiks dahil, gusto lang ng iba, ilabas ang mga libog at nahihimutok nilang mga ego. di na lang itinago. pinabasa pa sa iba.

5:33 PM

 
Blogger aklas isip said...

Wasted. How vaguely familiar.

10:43 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@thecoolcanadian:

Nothing personal, man, but in order to sell an idea globally, a local creator should STOP thinking nationally. Consider that most of the comics today are made under the subject matter of "fantasy". If the world will be reading Filipino superheroes, they won't relate to it it because comics like these also involve Philippine culture that other nations will be alienated from it. It's best to sell an idea that has no culture of a particular country in it, like in the case of Gundam, which is set in outer space, and does not depict any nation, tradition, etc.. whatsoever. Another example? Star Wars. And don't rely too much on "original ideas". That's bunk. Most ideas are old dressed up as new.

Most of these indies did not succeed because of these reasons:

One is that they were drawn badly and abandoning the technical aspects of creating and laying out a comic book. For example, back in the 1990s when Whilce visited the Philippines, I came upon many comics made by these indie groups at that time. Some of the title fonts of their first issue comics were covered up by their characters, or look nonsensical (remeber P-Noise?), some art looks like its drawn out of a piece of page from a school notebook then scanned. Half-assed jobs.

Another reason is the characters and story. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the stories are localized. These comics are sold to a crowd who are wowed with aliens, babes, robots, starships, superheroes and all that. But a guy in ethnic garb? In "bahag"? Will that sell? Never did. I've seen it for the last 10 years and it never worked. Local Comic book readers who relishes Marvel and the DC Universe will never give a damn. We are too westernized to appreciate it, with the exception of those who are educators and those who will bestow you the Palanca Award.

In short: if they had a good idea, it will be screwed up by bad art execution. And if they make an original idea - like the Igorots you mentioned- no one will give a damn out of it.

Also, the mistakes done in another group are repeated again after a few years later. I had a collection of these things before, even those comics when Whilce Portacio was here in the Philippines, trying to band indie groups together in one brand. I threw those comics away plus the new indie ones a few years ago. I wish I kept them to prove it to you guys that NOTHING has been improved since Whilce was here.

My advice is to those indie groups out there is DO COMICS THAT WORK. What art that works, what stories that works. Look at Frank Cho's Jungle Girl. Anyone can dig that, art and story-wise. I mean, we ALL SEEN JURASSIC PARK, right? Even anywhere in the world people have seen that movie.

Bottomline is, for me, a hero in ethnic garb will NEVER EVER WORK. It will be like the Superfriends having sub-heroes like El Dorado, Apache Chief or Super Samurai...and you know those guys never had any respect.

7:05 PM

 
Blogger aklas isip said...

CC:

I strongly recommend the book: "JAPANAMERICA: How Japanese Manga and Pop Culture Conquered America" by Roland Kelts. When you read it, you will realize that other than having a good, ORIGINAL idea, writing and art, one's distinctive national CULTURE, also plays a significant part in the success of a printed comic book.

Look, "LONE WOLF and CUB" was a Japanese period piece with characters wearing kimonos, had weird asian hairstyles, looks, mannerisms and customs, yet its been translated to death in several languages than Gundam.

Gundam and Star Wars reflect no culture? Are you sure? Some are of the view that it reflects western romanticized military culture.

What about the Incal by Moebius? That's a space opera from France/Europe and yet, its not considered by many to be AMERICAN. It reflects a distinctively European/continental/cultural perspective in storytelling and artwork. The same with the comics works of Milo Manara.

Of course if the stories and art are half-assed, they would not succeed. But assuming they were, and were 'UNIVERSAL" and 'non-cultural' (whatever that means) they've never succeeded. Look at After Eden, Elmer, etc. Have they taken by world by storm just as the Japanese Manga and some European comics have? Of course not.

Ever heard of Marjane Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS? Its a graphic novel that's been made into an internationally awarded animated film. The simply drawn, cartoon characters there are based in IRAN, of all places and PART OF THE ENGAGING STORYLINE IS THE CULTURE OF IRAN, specifically growing up in Iran at a time when the Shah was deposed. The cartoon characters there wore black robes, spoke and used terms that were culturally distinctive to them, but very ENGAGING TO READ AND APPRECIATE. Persepolis has been reprinted to death in several languages and is even used as part of a reading course in leading American universities to better understand Middle East culture. Is that a monetary and critical success or what?

Bottomline: you need something more other than good stories and art to succeed. And yes, originality and one's CULTURE play an important part in that. Lose that, and you lose a semblance of identity and uniqueness in the marketplace.

In Japan, its part of their comics reading culture to read manga from right to left beginning at the back page moving on to the front. Guess what? when its translated into English and sold in the American market, they retained that Japanese reading culture in Shonen Jump, Tokyopop, etc. And japanese words that couldn't be translated to English are retained with explanatory notes at the bottom or editorial page. Did this turn off American readers? It didn't. In fact, they LOVED it. The more ethnic, the better.

Our problem is, we don't know how to value and ENHANCE our Filipino culture. Why? Because early on in life, particularly those in the upper middle to upper classes of which many of today's "indies" come from, our high class indie creators are already westernized in outlook having lived that life intensely at birth. A lot of factors have brought this out but let's get into that. (And yes, by gum, social-economic class has something to do with it and we're not trying to sound Marxist here only that that branch of behavior science called "sociology" would verify it)The point is, a re-evaluation and understanding of what makes living in the Philippines so unique and engaging and then translate that into a comics work that's engaging and compelling to READ not just to look at, which is very superficial and what the Pinoy indies and komikeros are doing.

P-Noise and all the other Ersatz Pinoy x-men/justice league wannabe superheroes that followed, in the opinion of many, though dressed and look ethnic, still maintained a vague, shallow, kinda westernized approach to storytelling and not that all original to begin with. Its Anglicized just like Mango's "DARNA the Golden Anniversary" issues, and QUESTOR Extreme. And everybody knows where these turkeys went.

Look, just because the example given in this article is of 'superheroes' doesn't mean that everybody should be doing it. Its just given as an example to prove that whatever it is, so long as it appeals to a particular market and its affordable or accessible, will be READ. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less.

If Filipino comics creators would like to try their luck in making superheroes, fine. But PLEASE make it culturally distinct, original and engaging to read in a literary and artistic sense. Don't be so darned IMITATIVE of American superhero concepts and art approaches. The current crop of Pinoy superheroes like Maskarado, Kalayaan, Mythology Class, etc. MISERABLY fail in that task.

So Filipino culture has a lot of influences. BUT WHAT MAKES IT DISTINCT from the equally mixed cultures of AMERICA, ENGLAND, JAPAN, FRANCE, or any other country in the world for that matter? THAT's the task at hand. What's that uniqueness and how to do you translate that to an engaging, compelling piece of comics literature that does not give undue superficial focus on the "illustrative art" aspect of things. As Bruce Lee would say, stop concentrating on the fist or else you'll miss all the heavenly glory, the BIG picture as it were. Comics is not just about drawing and looking at the pretty pictures. Its a UNIQUE LANGUAGE THAT'S MEANT TO BE READ AND TO COMMUNICATE AND CONVEY INTERESTING IDEAS to other READERS. And every culture, every UNIQUE culture contributes to that diversity. Forget that and you're left with..what? INDIES!

You yourself said that in order to make it in another country, its ironic that you have to be culturally unique in order to be saleable. Why the about-face now?

11:38 AM

 

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