The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 42 | Filipino Art in American Comics: My Whilce Portacio Experience (Part 2)

Leaving Proof 42 | Filipino Art in American Comics: My Whilce Portacio Experience (Part 2)
Published on Monday, August 8, 2011 by

(Continued from last week’s column)

When I wrote last week that Whilce Portacio’s success helped forge a new contemporary cultural identity for the Filipino community, I wasn’t just exaggerating for effect. Three of the country’s biggest broadsheets, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, and The Manila Times ran features on him. Column inches were devoted to explaining to people just who these “Uncanny X-Men” were and why drawing them was such a big deal. Our town’s local weekly paper asked the proprietor of Jet Book Store for his insights into why Uncanny X-Men was suddenly so popular with young local readers (I guess he qualified as the resident “American comic book expert” because after the US Air Force left John Hay Air Base—taking the newsstand outside the 19th Tee restaurant and bar with them—his shop was the only place people could get current American comic books with any sort of regularity). His answer was, “they like the drawings.”

Portacio intended to make Bishop (center) the first Filipino X-Man (and the first male Asian X-Men since Sunfire) but was overruled by the editors. He settled for drawing himself in as one of Bishop's sidekicks, Randall (left)

Portacio intended to make Bishop (center) the first Filipino X-Man (and the first male Asian X-Men since Sunfire) but was overruled by the editors. He settled for drawing himself in as one of Bishop’s sidekicks, Randall (left)

It wasn’t just because we liked the drawings, though. In addition to the inherent ethnocentrism that can be found in many developing post-colonial societies helping boost his local popularity, for a lot of young people in the early 1990s, Portacio represented a fundamental shift in how we viewed our potential futures. We saw ourselves in him and wanted to root for his continued success in one of the most American of modern art forms. In a society where true upward economic mobility for the lower and middle classes was feasible only to those willing to pay the cost of being an overseas contract worker, he was a highly visible reminder that there were alternatives to working on commercial maritime transports for years at a time (the Philippines has been the world’s leading supplier of ships’ crewmen since 1987), toiling away on oil rigs in the Middle East, working in the service and manufacturing industries in Guam, Saipan, Taiwan, Japan, or Hong Kong; or punching a clock as a care aide or nurse in hospitals and clinics in North America.

The “coupon bond” comics my brother and I spent our spare time working on suddenly took on greater significance: it wasn’t just childish play-work, it was training for a viable future overseas career in the commercial arts (it was for my brother at least, he went on to become a successful character designer and animator several years later). Editors, animation directors, and assorted agencies and independent headhunters from the US started talking to local, small-town, artists about working overseas: One of my uncles—a fair artist in his own right but not one most would consider professional-grade—actually got an interview with one of them by passing off my then-fourteen year old brother’s work as his own. Needless to say, he didn’t make it past further screening, and my brother was too young to get the job.

I had classmates whom I had never seen so much as doodle on the margins of their notebooks suddenly take up a keen interest in art and illustration. Of course, most of them returned to more mundane aspirations once they realized they had neither the talent nor the wherewithal for a career in commercial art and illustration that paid in hard American currency, but the important thing was that Portacio showed us that it could be done. It would be years later that I would learn that it had been done two decades before by Tony DeZuniga, but as I’d mentioned in the previous installment, for various reasons, our generation was largely unaware at the time of the “First Wave” of Filipino artists who worked for DC and Marvel in the 1970s and early 1980s.

As rapidly as Portacio’s career peaked however, so did it seemingly decline. Soon after leaving Marvel Comics in the closing months of 1991 to help found Image Comics, he immediately sold his stake in the company and his original stable of characters for the comic book Wetworks (a military/horror hybrid concept that was unlike the more derivative superhero-based offerings from the fledgling publisher) to Homage Studios partner Jim Lee. The debut of the Wetworks comic book he was supposed to draw would be delayed for two years—it was originally intended to be a 1992 Image Comics launch title alongside Lee’s WildC.A.T.s and Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce—as the artist dealt with the health issues and eventual demise of his sister (who suffered from systemic lupus erythematosus).

Wetworks (vol. 1) #1, featuring the unintentionally-hilarious-in-its-excess triple-gatefold cover

Wetworks (vol. 1) #1, featuring the unintentionally-hilarious-in-its-excess triple-gatefold cover

Still, he maintained enough pop culture cachet with certain sectors of the Filipino youth that by the time he returned to illustrating comics regularly in 1994, many of us took notice and bought Wetworks #1, even though American comics had pretty much priced themselves as luxury items in the local economy at that point (most Image titles cost upwards of ₱55.00, which was something like a quarter of the average daily wage back then). As much as I enjoyed reading those first four Wetworks issues though, it felt like I was ready to move on to something else.

Next time: The conclusion of this little trip down nostalgia avenue. Also, I finally get a chance to meet the man at a Manila mall signing but end up ogling female hip-hop artist Chill instead!

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