The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 14 | Filipino Art in American comics: From Komiks to Comics (or “Mr. DeZuniga Goes to New York”)

Leaving Proof 14 | Filipino Art in American comics: From Komiks to Comics (or “Mr. DeZuniga Goes to New York”)
Published on Thursday, October 21, 2010 by

[Author’s note: The text in this article originally appeared on http://kittyspryde.forumotion.com on 13 October 2010 and may have had its content changed or edited since its initial online publication]

This will be part one of a series of posts I will be writing about the work of significant Filipino and Filipino-American artists in the North American comics industry. It is not my intent to write a comprehensive history of all the Filipino and Filipino-American artists who have worked in American comics. A task like that would be beyond my scope as a commenter and researcher. Rather, my goal is to spotlight the careers of artists whose work I consider personally significant.

More often than not, comic book artists have illustrative styles that are at least partially defined by their ethnicity or country of origin. This isn’t an inherent quality directly dictated by genetics of any sort, of course. It is a quality that is acquired through the assimilation of geographically immediate and cotemporal influences common to a location and cultural group. Critics and fans alike frequently talk about the different kinds of “clear line” comics illustration in Europe and various styles of Japanese comics (manga) art. Less known in North America are the informal but nonetheless distinct South American schools of comics art, the Korean manhwa art style, and the distinguishing mannerisms of the manhua artists based in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Despite the growing globalization of media generating a veritable potpourri of hybrid styles, the influence of culture and geographical location on artists’ peculiarities remains a manifest phenomenon in modern comics. Somewhat forgotten in the current comics scene is the variegated komiks style of illustration that originated in the Philippines.

Pilipino Komiks #1 (14 June, 1947)

Pilipino Komiks #1 (14 June, 1947)

While similar media such as comic strips existed in the Southeast Asian nation of the Philippines as early as the late 19th century, Philippine comic books (hereafter referred to as komiks, a spelling of the word “comics” adapted to fit Philippine orthography) didn’t really come into their own as a commercial art form until the late 1940s. Inspired by the comic books brought by American servicemen both during World War II and in the ensuing period of US military build-up in the country, dedicated comic book publishers catering to the local population started appearing in the late 1940s. Premier among them was Ace Publications, founded in 1947 by Ramon Roces and Tony Velasquez. Ace’s first comic book, a weekly anthology-styled publication was entitled Pilipino Komiks. The title’s stories ran the gamut from illustrated re-tellings of classic Filipino folk tales and legends (“Prinsesa Urduha” illustrated by Vicente Manansala, who would go on to become a National Artist), fantasy and science fiction (“Lagim” by CaGuintuan), humor (Hugo Yonzon, Jr.’s “Ang Buhay ni Aldabes”), and pulp-style crime strips (“DI-13″ by Damy Velasquez and Jessie Santos).

Many of Ace’s first artists were strongly influenced by popular North American pulp magazine and comic strip illustrators of the interwar era such as Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Dick Calkins, Carl Barks, and Floyd Gottfredson but it was evident early on that a distinct indigenous style of comic book art characterized by detailed rendering, florid brushwork, masterful draftsmanship, and conventional storytelling and panel arrangements was developing in Ace Publications’ studios.

Tagalog Klasiks #9 (05 November, 1949)

Tagalog Klasiks #9 (05 November, 1949)

The 1950s would see a boom in komiks publishing, with Ace Publications putting out four more anthology titles: Tagalog Klasiks (started in 1949), Hiwaga Komiks (first saw print in 1950), Espesyal Komiks (started in 1952), and Kenkoy Komiks (also began publication in 1952). Ace Publications would extend its range to cover the romance genre, supernatural horror, superheroes (though they never became as popular in the Philippines as they were in the United States), and illustrated serial adaptations of foreign books and stories.

Other publishers also appeared on the landscape, offering alternatives to the Ace Publications fare as well as re-printing American comics titles. It would not be an exaggeration to state that komiks readership numbered in the millions during the medium’s first “golden age” (~1950 to 1963), a development made more significant by the fact that the Philippines had a total population of around 25 million throughout the 1950s.

Things would take a turn for the worse in the next decade, however. A massive printing industry strike in 1963 would force Ace Publications to shutter its doors. A church-backed morality-driven crusade to “clean up” comics and shut down publishers of comics that featured depictions of crime, violence, sexuality, and supernatural horror was also well underway, similar to the moral panic that ran rampant a decade earlier in the United States that led to the closure of American crime/horror comics publishing giant EC Comics in 1956.

Kenkoy Komiks #18 (14 September, 1959)

Kenkoy Komiks #18 (14 September, 1959)

Outside of the publishing and print arena, political and military turmoil was rapidly escalating. Government censorship of media was on the rise. There was a growing fear that then-President Ferdinand Marcos (elected in 1965 on the right-wing Nacionalista Party ticket and re-elected on the strength of his cult of personality in 1969) was planning to install an authoritarian government, a fear that would be justified soon enough in 1972, when Marcos would declare martial law and install himself as de facto ruler for life.

It was from this increasingly repressive and oppressive environment that four talented and ambitious ex-Ace Publications artists would make the unprecedented leap to American comics and achieve success on the world stage. The first of these four was a young man named Tony DeZuniga.

Tony DeZuniga (originally spelled DeZuñiga) started out in his mid-teens as a freelance letterer and illustrator in the 1950s, working alongside established komiks artists such as Nestor Redondo and Alfredo Alcala, while studying commercial art at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.

DeZuniga art from Weird Western Tales #118

DeZuniga art from Weird Western Tales #118

After graduating from UST, he went to New York in 1962 to study advertising and graphic design. He would return to the Philippines to begin his career in advertising. DeZuniga would move to the US in the late 1960s to work as the creative art director for a New York-based ad agency. Bored by ad work, DeZuniga, brimming with what can only be the confidence of youth, walked into DC editor Joe Orlando’s office in 1971 with a folder containing his most recent work. So impressed was Orlando with the quality of DeZuniga’s work that he immediately assigned him to illustrate a story eventually published in Girl’s Love Stories #153, a popular romance title at the time.

He would soon do the pencils and inks for an inventory story featuring minor DC character Dr. Thirteen that would appear as a back-up in Phantom Stranger (an “Egyptian story”, according to DeZuniga in a 2004 interview with Comic Book Artist magazine). DeZuniga was a pioneer, the first komiks artist to have made the successful move to a major American comics publisher. In 1972, he would go on to co-create (with writer John Albano) Jonah Hex, one of DC’s most visually distinct characters and perhaps its most enduring “non-superhero” property.

Shanna the She-Devil story page drawn by DeZuniga; from Steve Gerber’s portfolio

Shanna the She-Devil story page drawn by DeZuniga; from Steve Gerber’s portfolio

A year later, another DeZuniga co-creation, the female superhero Black Orchid, would become a recurring character in Phantom Stranger. But perhaps DeZuniga’s greatest contribution to comics is that he made the editors at DC aware of the talent that was in the Philippines. It was at his insistence that Joe Orlando would fly to Manila in 1971 to meet Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, Nestor Redondo, and so many other artists who would soon be wowing readers of DC’s horror, military, romance, and crime comics throughout the 1970s.

DeZuniga would have a long career working for DC and Marvel. Of the “first wave” of Filipino komiks artists that came to America, he was, along with inker Romeo Tanghal, perhaps the most successful in making the transition from horror/romance/crime/military comics to the superhero comics of the 1980s.

DeZuniga had a detailed rendering style influenced by Nestor Redondo and Alfredo Alcala, but he was also quite adept at mimicking the flourishes of other illustrators, a talent that served him well during the times that he would serve as a fill-in artist (note how effectively he is able to mimic regular artist John Byrne’s style in Uncanny X-Men #110).

DeZuniga would stop doing regular comics work by the late 1980s, and would later work for Sega of America as a character designer throughout the 1990s. Today, DeZuniga is retired and continues to paint, illustrate, and teach art in California’s San Joaquin County.

To learn more about Tony DeZuniga and and to see more of his stellar work, hit up the following links:

Next Time:  Our trip through the 1970s continues as we take a look at the American comics work of one of DeZuniga’s mentors, Nestor Redondo. See you in 14 days!
References:
  • Clancy S., (2004, September). Tony DeZuniga: Hex and other blessings. Comic Book Artist, 4, 40-48
  • Lent, J.A., (2004, September). Filipino Komiks: A history. Comic Book Artist, 4, 74-95
  • Santos S., (2009, September 01). Kenkoy contents. Message posted to http://unanglabas.blogspot.com/2008/12/kenkoy-first-issue-no-data-payasong.html
  • Santos S., (2009, November 01). Pilipino Komiks contents. Message posted to http://unanglabas.blogspot.com/2008/11/pilipino-komiks.html
  • Villegas D., (2005, December 26). The Story of Ace Publications. Message posted to http://pilipinokomiks.blogspot.com/2005/12/story-of-ace-publications.html
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