This is part 3 in a series of columns I’ll be writing about the influential Filipino artists who worked on American comic book titles. In the first part of this series, we took a quick look at the origins of komiks in the post-war 1940s and the flowering of the medium in the 1950s, the virtual collapse of komiks publishing in the mid-1960s, and Filipino artist Tony DeZuniga’s breakthrough entry into DC Comics in 1971. In part 2, we took a look at the work of another Filipino “first waver”, the legendary Nestor Redondo. Today, we examine the career of one of the true masters of comics illustration, Alfredo Alcala.
Alcala was born in 1925 in the Philippine province of Negros Occidental. He had always been interested in illustration, and dropped out of high school to work as a full-time commercial sign painter. He would later bluff his way into a job designing lamps, chandeliers, and other lighting fixtures for a local company. Alcala would lend his artistic talents to the local anti-occupation guerrilla forces during World War II, acting as a spy and then drawing detailed maps and illustrations of Japanese Imperial Army facilities. After the war, Alcala moved to Manila and started working for a number of upstart komiks companies, before becoming a regular artist at the largest publisher at the time, Ace Publications. Along with Francisco V. Coching and Nestor Redondo, Alcala would become one of the three most emulated artists in the burgeoning komiks illustration field.
Alcala himself would say in interviews over the years that his biggest influences were inter-war North American artists such as Hal Raymond, Hal Foster, and Lou Fine. Later in his career, he would incorporate techniques and stylistic flourishes gleaned from magazine illustrators like J.C. Leyendecker and Frank Brangwyn. Alcala did more than just ape his idols, though. He absorbed their influences and created something wholly unique and remarkable on its own merits.
When Ace Publications ceased operations in 1963, Alcala, with a number of former Ace artist-writers including Nestor Redondo, would establish a creator-owned publishing venture called CRAF Publications. CRAF would produce some of the most amazingly illustrated komiks (or comics for that matter) published up to that point and since. It was in CRAF’s Alcala Fight Komix anthology series that Alcala would debut Voltar, his most popular creation. Voltar was directly inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and Alcala made no secret of that.
But Voltar presaged the barbarian comics trend that would hit North America by about seven years (Marvel Comics’ first issue of Conan The Barbarian wouldn’t hit the stands until 1970). CRAF Publications would fold sometime during the late 1960s, done in by the extreme competitiveness and infighting among the founders and mismanagement (none of CRAF’s founders had any relevant business experience). Alcala would keep self-publishing material until the fateful 1971 meeting with DC editor Joe Orlando and publisher Carmine Infantino (covered in the first part of the series). Long-time comic book writer and editor Mark Evanier relates a particularly funny anecdote concering that first meeting between Orlando and Alcala:
Alcala’s transition to drawing for the American market began in the early seventies when an intermediary arranged for a group of artists in the Philippines to sell work to DC Comics. Alfredo often told the tale of going to a hotel in Manila to show his samples to Joe Orlando, one of DC’s senior editors.
Orlando was naturally impressed with the quality of the work he was shown. He told Alfredo that DC would hire him and asked how many pages per week he could produce.
“Forty,” said Alfredo.
The editor was startled. The least exhaustible DC artist would be hard-pressed to pencil and ink ten pages in a week. Then he realized that Alfredo probably assumed he would only pencil or only ink. “No, no,” Orlando said. “We want you to do all the art…pencil, ink, even lettering.”
“I see,” Alfredo muttered. “I pencil, I ink, I letter?”
“Yes,” Orlando nodded. “Now, how many pages per week do you think you can do?”
“Forty,” said Alfredo.
Again, the editor was startled. Obviously, there was some sort of misunderstanding here. He figured that the artist before him was thinking in terms of very simple pages with only two or three panels on each and no detail. Fortunately, Orlando had brought along with him, several dozen pages of original art from past DC books. He showed Alfredo pages by Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, Curt Swan and others.
“We want work like this…these many panels per page, and this detailed,” Orlando explained.
“Oh,” Alfredo nodded. “You want me to pencil, ink and letter pages like this?”
“Well,” Alfredo explained. “That changes things.”
“I would think so,” Orlando sniffed. “Now then…how many pages a week do you think you can do?”
“Eighty,” said Alfredo.
Skeptical and disbelieving, Orlando put Alfredo down for 40 pages per week. Soon after, when Alcala pages began arriving at DC at that rate, it was assumed by some that “Alfredo P. Alcala” was the joint moniker of perhaps a half-dozen hands. Not so — as anyone who later saw Alfredo sketching at a convention can attest.
Alcala wasn’t just fast and talented. He was fast, talented, and consistent. He could pencil, ink, and letter a 12-page back-up story in nine hours with no discernible change in line quality between the first and last pages.
Alcala would relocate permanently to the United States in 1976, first living in New York, and then eventually moving to California. Alcala would become a regular penciller, inker, and letterer for many of DC’s most popular non-superhero anthology titles, including House of Mystery, Weird War Tales, Ghost, and Weird Western Tales. Alcala, being one of the unofficial elder statesmen of DC’s pool of Filipino comic book artists, was very vocal about what he perceived as inequity in how they were paid. At the time, DC’s policy was that Filipino artists were to be paid a lower page rate than their American counterparts. Alcala would start freelancing for DC’s cross-town rival, Marvel Comics, in the mid-1970s, working primarily as an inker on titles such as Rampaging Hulk magazine, Savage Sword of Conan magazine, Man-Thing, and Ka-Zar. Later, Alcala’s comics work would entirely be dominated by Marvel jobs, DC perhaps not appreciating the jabs at their treatment of Filipino artists and slowly reducing the work sent to him.
Over at Marvel however, Alcala would oftentimes feel underused and somewhat unappreciated. Many editors would request for him by name to “save” a poorly done penciling job or to fix inking errors. But he would rarely, if ever, get offered the type of full-spectrum illustration work he did at DC. Being a proud man, a self-taught artist who had at one time been considered one of the best illustrators the industry had ever seen, Alcala felt that being asked to “fix” and ink the work of pencilers whom he felt didn’t share his draftsmanship skills and adherence to technical rigor was a step down from what he was truly capable of. Publisher Manuel Auad recounts a conversation with Alcala that says all we need to know about his dedication to his craft:
I never undestood why most of the artists I would meet on Friday afternoons at the offices of DC or Marvel would sigh, “Thank God, it’s Friday!” Why? Do you stop being an artist on weekends?
As with many of the Filipino artists who came to North America during the 1970s, Alcala would be unfairly cast as a “horror,” “fantasy,” and “western” artist. When Marvel cut down on its black-and-white magazines during the early 1980s and focused its publishing on superheroes, Alcala would find a difficult time getting enough work. Warren Publications would re-print an English language version of his Voltar stories in their Rook anthology title but it would, in many ways, be Alcala’s last hurrah in mainstream comics before being shuffled out the industry door by editors and readers who failed to appreciate the amount of sheer talent he had and the depth of his devotion to the sequential art medium and how that could have enriched the superhero comic genre.
Alcala died in 2000 after a difficult battle with lung cancer, the ubiquitous cigarettes dangling from his lip exacting their toll on his body. It’s hard to place where Alcala’s legacy stands these days. Part of the reason for the difficulty is the fact that his most widely circulated North American work was as an inker and finisher, and inkers, in general, are largely unappreciated by the modern comic book fan who has little to no knowledge of how comic books were made prior to the digital era. One only needs to look at a very young John Romita Jr.’s work when it was inked by Alcala to see how much Alcala brought to the table (no slight on JRjr, who is one of my favourite artists, but Alcala’s inks elevated his early work from workman-like to miniature masterpieces). In the Philippines, like many of his contemporaries who worked overseas for Marvel and DC during the country’s martial law years (when foreign media was restricted from entering the country), he is virtually unknown among those born in the mid-1970s and onwards. He’s not even the most famous artist in the country with the surname of Alcala, as that honor probably belongs to the late National Artist for the Visual Arts Larry Alcala (no relation, although he did work briefly for Ace Publications), a satirical cartoonist and comic strip creator whose one-page gag A Slice Of Life strips (where readers play a game of “spot Larry Alcala’s caricature of himself” similar to “Where’s Waldo?”) in Panorama magazine were something of a weekly reading ritual for the general population.
To learn more about Alfredo Alcala and to see more of his amazing work, hit up the following links:
- Alfredo Alcala entry at the Philippine Comic Book Museum
- Alfredo Alcala entry at Lambiek.net
- Alfredo Alcala search results at ComicArtFans.com
Next Time: We take a look at the work of Alex Niño, perhaps the most iconoclastic of Filipino artists who made the transition to American comics. See you then!
- Auad M., (2004, September). Alfredo Alcala. Comic Book Artist, 4, 84-85
- Cooke J., (2004, September). A Touch of Class: A Chat with Publisher Manuel Auad. Comic Book Artist, 4, 31-37
- Evanier, M. (2000, May). Point of View. POV Online. Retrieved from http://www.povonline.com/cols/COL290.htm
- Lent, J.A., (2004, September). Filipino Komiks: A history. Comic Book Artist, 4, 74-95
- Roach, D.A., (2004, September). A-Z: A Guide to the Filipino Comic Book Artists. Comic Book Artist, 4, 60-73
- Spurgeon, T. (2000, May). Obituary: Alfredo Alcala, 1925-2000. The Comics Reporter. Retrieved from http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/resources/longbox/2073/