October 27, 2012

A Critique on Philippine Komiks Art

Velasquez's Kenkoy

Philippines Komiks as a genre has been a struggling industry at the dawn of this century- struggling to survive and struggling to discover its identity.

Yu's X-Men
Here in the Philippines where the American colonial mentality is rife, the comic art movement is still influenced by the demigods of Marvel and DC. Although many have been inspired by our old Masters like Redondo and Velasquez, there are artists who draw nothing but spandexed heroes and Disney-like anthropomorphs. While it is true that some try to break out from the scene on their own, others lend their hands to DC and Marvel for financial sustenance. It is the unfortunate but inevitable result of our ailing komiks industry. Priorities are based on survival rather than on creativity, on the basic needs rather on luxury.  That is the sad reality of a Third World comic-loving nation.   Artist devote more time and effort parroting Western physique and Western plots, than on the stuff they wish they would do on their own.

Portacio's X-Men

Though many are struggling here in Third World Philippines, others likes of Whilce Portacio bask in the sunlight of the American dream (and the limelight of the American comics industry).  His stereotypical Westernized art is commendable in terms of technical virtuosity but I still feel that too much of his super hero characters can be bad for one’s health.  I mean, they're too puerile to be anything more than in its present state no matter how window-dressed it is for mature audiences.  Although it is a fact that Filipino old masters have served the altar of DC and Marvel, they still retained their air of originality with works leading the horror and adventure series, thus, they stuck to their own style without being smothered by American spandex. 

On the flipside, Filipino manga artists who have been suckled from the teats of Tezuka, Asamiya, Toriyama, and Watase have lost their originality when they aped the big saucer-like eyes, smudge-like noses and lips as thin as a hairline. Even with all the arguments in the world telling me that “it’s the story that counts” or “we’re just manga-influenced but our art is still original” whittles down to the fact that these artists (me included- I never cared for originality) took the best from Japan and morphed it into something half-Japanese. Though one cannot be blamed for it since many Filipinos have been weaned on Voltez V, Transformers, Ghost Fighter, Fushigi Yuugi and Dragonball, it’s frustrating to see that these artists feel they have a need to copy everything from the technique up to the patently Japanese semantics and non-verbal expressions. In effect, their pursuit is not to produce a Filipino identity, but to satisfy their manga cravings. Ask yourself: Is there a place in the Filipino identity for gigantic robots? For school kids in miniskirts? For nosebleeds and sweatdrops?

Culture Crash's take on manga Pinoy-style

 If we remove all the capes and spandex from the scene, and the manga from the pages, we will be left with our own classic Pinoy style. If one collectively puts the works of the aforementioned Masters, you would be able to find a style that is uniquely Pinoy. Ours have more ornate and elaborate details. You can find it in the background, in the folds of the clothes, in the ripples of the/ lakes, or in the facial expressions. They evoke a beauty that is richly Baroque unlike their American counterparts whose lines seem spartan, sparse and lazy. The draftsmanship of Pinoy komik style is borne from the Filipino mentality of horror vacui wherein every corner must have its use, its decor and its embellishments.  We take inspiration from the florid lines of our churches, from the creative strokes of the Art Noveau bahay na bato, from the grimy pollution and garbage filled scenes of Manila.  We make horror vacui our style of rendering, and it works.

Hiroshige's woodblock print
Tintin in Tibet by Herge

Apart from those that make our style unique, there is still one foreign art style Filipino artists may want to try- the ligne claire. Ligne claire, French for “clear lines,” favors the use of deep bold lines of equal strength and thickness to draw the entire scene. It’s what some would call a “democracy of lines” for there are no crosshatchings, no chiaroscuros. Unlike the Marvel way of drawing where realism and shadings are de rigeur (Think: Moore’s V for Vendetta), Franco-Belgian graphic novel artists tend to do the other way. With the Belgian Hergè at its forefront, bandes desinees like “Adventures of Tintin”and “Asterix” have been churning out art published in the ligne claire style. Is it because perhaps they were influenced by the Japanese ukiyo-e prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige just as Van Gogh and Tolouse-Lautrec were inspired? Perhaps so, for the Japanese influence is apparent in these contemporary artists of bandes desinees. However, what’s most striking is that they adopted this form as entirely their own that if one has not studied Japanese prints and its connection with Post-Impressionism, you won’t realize that Tintin is part Tokyo.

Here in our country, the only one I have seen practicing this style while infusing the techniques of the Old Masters is Gerry Alanguilan. He has not abandoned the legacies of Velasquez and Redondo for it can be appreciated clearly in the meticulous details of his backgrounds, but also he has been making his characters in the ligne clair style which is a breath of fresh air in the industry.

Alanguilan's Elmer
I am not advocating this style over the others just so we can have an identity in this artform. Rather, we should learn from these styles to supplant and enrich our already “existing” style- the same one that of Velasquez and Redondo. Their form is the reason why foreigners appreciate Filipino Komiks because for someone from the outside who has little bias as to what is here, identifying their art as uniquely Filipino is something to be proud of.

Peter van Dongen's Rampokan Jawa, a novel about the Indonesian Revolution
Enriched by taking what’s best the world has to offer like how the Belgians did with Tintin, and by not mimicking entirely another country art form is one key to enrich our Filipino identity. It may not mean that we are limited to copying those of Velasquez’s just in order to have consistency in style, but instead of going for the ultra-detailed background favored by the old, artists can create their own form without being hypnotized in drawing samurais or caped crusaders. My point here is that ligne claire is blind when it comes to country-specific iconography and stereotypes that such a technique can eventually foster a brand new, uniquely Filipino komik style. The anatomies can vary, the eyes can range from saucers to pinpoints, all in the style of ligne claire. It's up to the artist, but the style can become infused with our own. And that is the exciting thing to see.

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