This is the sixth in a series of columns I’m writing about select influential Filipino artists in the American comic book industry. Previous columns in this series have looked at the early history of komiks (indigenous Filipino comics) and Tony DeZuniga’s groundbreaking work at DC Comics, Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, and Romeo Tanghal. While I’ve taken an almost academic eye to examining the work of the aforementioned artists, I’ll be breaking from convention and will be discussing Whilce Portacio‘s work mostly through the filter of my own personal experience with it. Unlike the previously covered artists, all of whom are in various degrees of retirement, semi-retirement, or corporeal surcease and whose work I was exposed to long after their careers had peaked (more on why this was so later in the column), I was actually “there” (as a reader and a fan) when Portacio started making waves in the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Additionally, Portacio is still very much active as a comic book artist and I think a fair assessment of his impact on the industry won’t really be possible until after he decides to hang the pencils and ink brushes up for good.
William “Whilce” Portacio was born in 1963 in the Philippine province of Cavite, known as the birthplace of Philippine independence and the location of the country’s historical capital. The future Uncanny X-Men artist spent most of his early childhood in places like Midway Atoll’s Sand Island, Hawaii, and New Mexico before his family settled in San Diego, California, picking up a love for comics and developing a talent for illustration along the way. Portacio got his first big break in the industry at the 1985 San Diego Comic-Con, his portfolio so impressing Marvel editor Carl Potts that he immediately gave him an assignment inking Frank Cirocco on Epic Comics‘ Alien Legion (a title co-created by Potts). Portacio would go on to ink David Ross on Alpha Flight and Cynthia Martin on Marvel’s Star Wars books throughout the mid-1980s. Portacio soon found himself inking rising star Arthur “Art” Adams on the Longshot mini-series. Adams, perhaps more than any other artist besides Alex Niño, had a strong influence on Portacio’s own work, evident in a shared predilection for florid linework and a certain set stylization when it comes to interpreting the human face and figure.
Portacio’s first stint as a penciler in a Marvel book was a two-issue run on the New Universe title Strikeforce: Morituri, paired with friend and studio-mate Scott Williams on inking duty. Still, most observers would probably agree that Whilce Portacio’s “breakthrough” moment was when he was assigned to be the regular penciler on the the first on-going Punisher series in 1988, his highest profile assignment yet. With Williams again handling finishing duties, Portacio developed a rendering style and a propensity for unconventional panel construction that resonated strongly with the readers, despite a certain rawness evident in the quality of his storytelling (the runaway popularity of Marvel’s psychopathic vigilante during the late 1980s likely also factored into Portacio’s own growing fame as an artist). He would stay on the title for a little over a year before landing a gig penciling X-Factor in late 1990.
My very first Whilce Portacio-drawn comic book was X-Factor (vol.1) #64, his second issue on the title. I remember getting it from the newsstand outside the 19th Tee bar and restaurant at John Hay Air Base. It featured a story penned by Louise Simonson (with Portacio credited as a co-writer and inked by Art Thibert) that had Iceman journeying to Japan to rescue his girlfriend Opal Tanaka from a gang of Yakuza cyborgs. There were rumors going around the gaggle of comic book readers at my small public elementary school that the artist was of Filipino extraction (remember, this was in the days before the Internet as we know it, or even Wizard magazine, so it would be a few more months before the rumor would be confirmed in a local newspaper article). To fully appreciate the import of that weighty could-be fact, one must understand the rather complicated place the comic book medium (both the local komiks and American imports) inhabited in the Filipino consciousness at the time.
As I’d mentioned in an earlier column, many of the Filipinos born and raised in the Philippines from the mid-1960s all the way up to the early 1980s (the so-called “Martial Law Babies”—those who were children and young teens during the “Conjugal Dictatorship” of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos from 1972 to 1986—a group I fell squarely in) grew up largely unaware of the short-lived revolution komiks veterans like Tony DeZuniga, Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, and Alex Niño spearheaded in the United States. The entry of foreign publications (to include comic books from the US and elsewhere) into the Philippines was strictly regulated by the Marcos government, and what comic books did make it through would invariably be priced well beyond what most people would be willing to pay for casual and disposable entertainment. For all intents and purposes, Alcala et al had virtually disappeared off the face of the earth as far as most local readers were concerned (for many years, the only evidence I had of Alex Niño’s overseas work was a battered copy of the Classics Illustrated edition of Moby Dick). Additionally, years of komiks industry labor disputes, campaigning against the medium by moral and religious watchdog organizations, and ultimately, the abolition of non-government sanctioned media outlets by the dictatorship had pushed komiks into the fringes of local popular culture (in an ironic twist that I’m sure annoyed moral crusaders and busybodies to no end, this meant that only the shadiest bomba komiks publishers survived to covertly peddle their wares on newsstands). All this happened against a backdrop of the pervasive, one could say institutionalized, feelings of inferiority attached to indigenous art and language vis-à-vis foreign (particularly American) cultural artifacts extant throughout most of the Filipino community’s post-colonial existence.
I can think of no better way to illustrate how this complicated set of factors influenced local perception of the comic book than through this personal anecdote: When I was around twelve years old or so, my mother saw me reading a comic book—I think it was Namor the Sub-Mariner #12 written and illustrated by John Byrne—that featured the super-powered Namorita in a partial state of undress. Seeing that she was gearing up to censure me for reading what she perceived was age-inappropriate material (which it wasn’t), I quickly allayed her fears by showing that I was in fact reading an American comic book, upon which she commended me for keeping up with my English reading in my spare time. Like so many other things in everyday life, comic books had become another front in the on-going, decades-long, often neurotic struggle to define our post-colonial identity through arts and language: Comic books were socially acceptable recreational reading, as long as they weren’t the filthy, local, Tagalog- and Ilocano-language komiks.
Portacio’s rise to prominence aided in eventually changing those attitudes. True, he wasn’t a komiks veteran like his predecessors, and for many years after he became the regular artist on The Uncanny X-Men, his star shone so brightly that it all but obscured the work of other (and many would aver more technically sound) artists of Filipino descent who came before and after him. Still, his success on the biggest stage helped to bridge the artificial artistic legitimacy gap between foreign comics and local komiks in the minds of many Filipinos at home and abroad. I contend that this was quite significant in terms of forging a contemporary cultural identity for the Martial Law Baby generation.
Next week: We continue our personal retrospective on Whilce Portacio’s career.