The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 18 | Filipino Art in American Comics: Alex Niño

Leaving Proof 18 | Filipino Art in American Comics: Alex Niño
Published on Wednesday, December 1, 2010 by

This is part 4 in a continuing series of columns I’ll be writing about select influential Filipino artists in the American comic book industry. Earlier columns in this series can be read here, here, and here. This week I’ll be taking a look at the career of Alex Niño, one of the most innovative illustrators in that pioneering group of 1970s comics artists from the small island nation in Southeast Asia.

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Alex Niño was born into extreme poverty in a rural area of the Philippine province of Tarlac in May of 1940, not far from Mt. Pinatubo. Niño’s parents were subsistence farmers who found little use for money (in a 2004 interview, he recalls that he and his siblings used what few coins their family had as playthings and jewelry). When the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941, Niño’s father joined the local guerrilla movement while the rest of the family managed to escape much of the violence by living in improvised earth shelters, away from the population centers that were the primary target of the invading Japanese Imperial Army forces.

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The young Niño displayed a talent for art at an early age, scribbling figures in the sand outside of their dugout with a sharp stick while Japanese Zeros and American Wildcats engaged in aerial dogfights only a thousand feet overhead, the precocious five-year old occasionally making improvised toys out of the spent .50 caliber and 20 mm cartridge casings that would rain down from the sky every so often. Niño’s family would move to the capital of Manila soon after the end of World War II, his father eventually becoming a professional photographer.

alexniño12While not an exceptionally gifted student (he would often be scolded by his father for spending too much time doodling on the margins of his notebooks), Alex’ grades were good enough that he was able to enter the University of Manila out of high school, with an eye towards an eventual career in medicine. He would drop out after his freshman year however, and in 1959 became a full-time, freelance comic book artist, doing work for the ubiquitous Ace Publications, as well as a number of smaller publishers. Niño would apprentice and serve as an assistant under Ace Publications artist Jess Jodloman for a few years and learn from komiks veterans such as Francisco Coching, Alfredo Alcala, and Nestor Redondo before getting his own strip in Pilipino Komiks.

Unfortunately, this success would be short-lived as Ace Publications would close permanently in the mid-1960s due to labor issues. He would continue doing freelance work for the few komiks publishers that were active during the 1960s (including CRAF Publications, co-founded by Alcala and Redondo in the wake of Ace Publications’ closure).

alexniño16Niño is the first to admit that his work wasn’t terribly popular with the komiks-reading populace. He would often finish last in various reader polls, his highly-stylized work alternately being described as grotesque or too weird by readers accustomed to the proper proportions, clean lines, and conventional layouts of the three biggest komiks artists at the time: Coching, Alcala, and Redondo. This wasn’t a deliberate attempt by the junior artist to be different for its own sake. He would spend hour after hour trying to draw like his idols and mentors, but he found himself time and again gravitating towards a certain style of rendering.

In some ways, it can be argued that Niño’s work is a more “indigenous” style of Filipino comics illustration compared to that of Alcala or Redondo’s. He was much younger than either artist and unlike the popular illustrating duo, wasn’t directly exposed to any great extent to the work of American magazine and comic strip illustrators of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s until he had already started working in komiks and generally credits Jess Jodloman as being the single biggest influence on his style.

alexniño17Like many of the first wave of komiks artists who worked for DC during the 1970s, Niño was largely restricted to working on the publisher’s horror titles. Unlike DeZuniga, Alcala, and Redondo who all moved to the United States more-or-less permanently soon after the fateful 1971 meeting with DC editor Joe Orlando and publisher Carmine Infantino, he opted to work from the Philippines despite the growing political and social unrest in the country. The artist would continue to work in the local komiks industry while sending in work to DC’s offices in New York. Niño would soon attract attention stateside for his highly-detailed work on various back-up strips in Rima the Jungle Girl, Tarzan, and Adventure Comics and he would soon rival Alcala and Redondo in popularity, something he never expected given his modest success as a comic book artist in his native country. He would later be the featured artist in numerous issues of House of Secrets and Weird War Tales. During this period, Niño would also do some work for Marvel Comics, Pendulum Press (where Nestor Redondo was an artistic director for their Classics Illustrated line), Warren Publishing, and the adult-oriented Heavy Metal magazine. Reproduced below are samples of some of the strips he produced during the 1970s:

“The Pit of Darkness” (Tarzan #232, Aug/Sept 1974, DC Comics)
“… And in Death There is No Escape!” (House of Secrets #109, July 1973, DC Comics)
“An Alien in New York” (Heavy Metal magazine, Vol.7, Issue 10, January 1978)

Niño’s characteristic style would catch the eye of alternative animation pioneer Ralph Bakshi, who offered to fly him to the States so that he could contribute to the production of Wizards, Bakshi’s sword-and-sorcery animated feature film. Unfortunately, by this point (1976), martial law was in full effect in the Philippines under the rule of strongman dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Niño was barred from leaving the country. This would not be the last time that Niño would be asked to work on a high-profile animated feature film, as we will see later.

alexniño02Niño would eventually move to the US in 1983, two years after the lifting of martial law. The timing of his move would be somewhat unfortunate, however. When DC and Marvel began to phase out their horror, western, and military comics in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Niño, like so many other Filipino artists at the time, found himself on the outside looking in when it came to the burgeoning superhero comics trend. Like DeZuniga, Alcala, and Redondo, he was unfairly cast as an artist whose style did not lend itself to spandex-ed superheroics, never mind that he drew nothing like the aforementioned three. Niño would continue to work for Heavy Metal magazine and Warren Publishing, producing critically acclaimed work on titles such as 1984/1994.

With Warren Publication’s declaration of bankruptcy and subsequent sale to Harris Publications in 1983, Niño would lose his only regular source of comic book illustration revenue. By the mid-1980s, his comic book work would be sporadic, consisting of covers, fill-ins, pin-ups, and inking jobs for Marvel, DC, Archie Comics, and numerous small publishers. He would try his hand in the animation industry in 1987, working for Sunbow Productions as a pre-production artist for the short-lived Visionaries cartoon series. Ironically, it would also be around this time that artists such as Art Adams, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, and Marc Silvestri, all of whom had incorporated (in ways direct and indirect) elements of Niño’s distinct rendering style, became the comics industry’s first real superstar artists, with Lee, Portacio, and Silvestri commanding contracts in the high six-figures by the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Niño went back to the Philippines in 1990 and spent the next four year on hiatus from comics.  He would return to the States in 1994 and work briefly for Dark Horse Comics and Marvel, before taking another break from a comic book industry that, for some reason, didn’t seem to be interested in his talents despite his obvious contributions to the contemporary styles of the day.

Comics’ loss would be animation’s gain, as Niño would be hired in the late 1990s by Disney to work as a pre-production designer. The illustrations he made for the 1998 Disney feature Mulan, a handful of which are reproduced below, are some of the artist’s best work:

Pre-production design illustrations for the 1998 Disney animated feature film, Mulan

Niño would also contribute designs for The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Treasure Planet (2002).

god01Niño would make a successful return to comics in 2004 with the irreverent and critically-acclaimed three-issue mini-series, God the Dyslexic Dog. In 2008, at the age of 68, he would come out with another project, a horror mini-series for Image Comics entitled Dead Ahead.

In my mind, there is no single komiks artist more influential in American comics than Alex Niño. Distinct elements of his penciling and inking style and his highly dynamic page and panel designs can be seen in the work of the most popular artists of the 1980s and 1990s, fan-favorites like Art Adams, Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Sam Kieth, Chris Bachalo, Adam Kubert, and Todd McFarlane. Younger artists like Leinil Francis Yu (himself a Filipino artist) have taken to incorporating Niño’s flair. If you take a random page from any of his 1970s work, it wouldn’t look dated or out of place beside the best contemporary comic book art of the last decade. His work for Disney has no doubt helped shape the aesthetic inclinations of countless other artists in various media. His story, coming from the abject poverty of post-WWII Philippines and working his way up to work for some of the largest media entities in the world, is an inspiration to anyone who’s ever dreamed of carving out an honest career in the the arts.  In my mind, he is a true visionary on par with Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko, an artist whose singular creative vision redefined comic book art for everyone that came afterward. Does he get enough credit in the industry for his work and how he helped shape comic book art trends of the late 20th and early 21st century? I don’t know. As much as I like comics, I don’t really pay all that much attention to the “biz” aspect of the medium. In my limited survey of comic book sites, it does seem like he gets skipped over a lot in discussions about the most important artists of the 1970s and 1980s, though.

To learn more about Alex Niño and to see more of his amazing work, hit up the following links:

Next Time: We take a break from the Filipino Art in American Comics series as I review a couple of TPBs. Also, some sports talk and other random musings. See you then, and don’t forget that you can always post messages for me and other Leaving Proof readers in the Leaving Proof forum if there’s anything you want to discuss (it doesn’t have to be related to the columns).

References:

  • Casimir P., (2005). Alex Niño Interview. Spooky: The Warren Fanzine, 2(4), 26-28
  • Cooke J., (2004, September). Alex Niño is Fearless. Comic Book Artist, 4, 50-5, 93-105
  • 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


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