The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 79 | In Search of the Filipino Artist in Contemporary American Comics

Leaving Proof 79 | In Search of the Filipino Artist in Contemporary American Comics
Published on Friday, March 2, 2012 by
As a group, these Asian artists were astonishingly accomplished and talented almost beyond measure. Certainly the top three talents—Redondo, Niño, Alcala—stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any comic book artist the world over, bowing their heads to no one.
– Jon B. Cooke

One thing I’ve thought long and hard about ever since I started intermittently writing Leaving Proof entries about Filipino artists working in American comics is the question of whether or not the traditional Filipino comics and sequential art style or a reasonably similar successor style can be seen in today’s American comics.

What exactly is the traditional Filipino style of comics and sequential art? I briefly went over the basic features of the style in a previous column, but let’s talk about them in more detail, shall we?

Francisco V. Coching art from Pilipino Komiks #147 (1953)

Francisco V. Coching art from Pilipino Komiks #147 (1953)

The commonly acknowledged originator of what came to be known as the traditional Filipino style of comics art is the late Francisco V. Coching. Coching’s style itself was influenced by the work of pioneering Philippine artist Francisco Reyes (who, along with writer Pedrito Reyes, created Kulafu in 1933, the first two-page, coloured comic strip published in the Philippines) and Canadian-American comic strip illustrator Hal Foster of Tarzan and Prince Valiant fame. Coching’s work on comic strips and komiks proved eminently popular: of the 53 komiks serials and novels he illustrated, wrote/co-wrote, and lettered between 1934 and his retirement in 1973, all but three would be adapted into films.

Coching went on to influence Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Tony DeZuniga, Alex Niño, and virtually all komiks artists to varying degrees, in some cases serving directly as a mentor and teacher to younger illustrators. The work of American comic strip and comics artists such as Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Alex Toth, and Roy Crane also helped shape the development of what would eventually become a somewhat loosely defined Filipino style of comics and sequential art.

Nestor Redondo art from Hiwaga Komiks (1953)

Nestor Redondo art from Hiwaga Komiks (1953)

What features does this style entail? I don’t think there’s ever been a universally accepted list of definitive features, but I think the four characteristics I’ve listed below—however nebulous when considered individually—taken together form what many comics readers and scholars consider to be the fundamental aspects of the traditional Filipino comics and sequential art style:

  • Precise draftsmanship and highly detailed linework.
  • The extensive use of very fine hatching, cross-hatching, and stippling to suggest lighting and volume.
  • Straightforward and simple panel-to-panel transitions (the notable exception being Alex Niño).
  • An emphasis on naturalism and a relatively limited range of stylization (the exception, again, is Alex Niño).

So what happened to the Filipino art tradition that used to be commonly seen in American comics of the 1970s? Well, to put it simply, the artists and the style they employed simply fell out of favour.

Alfredo Alcala art from Alcala Fight Komiks #23 (1964)

Alfredo Alcala art from Alcala Fight Komiks #23 (1964)

All manner of theories have been forwarded to explain the rapid 1980s decline of the popularity of Filipino artists in American comics. One theory suggests that publishers like Marvel and DC cut down on the practice of hiring foreign expatriate or overseas-based artists because of the threat of a labour action by American artists in the face of competition from cheaper Filipino artists, many of whom, at least anecdotally, could produce significantly more finished pages than their American counterparts in the same amount of time: Alfredo Alcala was known to produce forty pages a week during his stint at DC—doing the pencils, inks, and lettering by himself—at a time when the average American comics artist’s weekly output topped out at around ten penciled and inked pages. Another theory is that the skills of the Filipino artists had been stereotyped by editors and many of their American artist peers as being suited only for horror, adventure, military, crime, and romance comics (a notion that strikes me as absolutely and incontrovertibly stupid, by the way), and once DC and Marvel began publishing superhero titles almost exclusively at the beginning of the 1980s, the demand for the services of Filipino artists dwindled radically. Others speculate that readers’ preferences at the time were beginning to shift towards less detailed rendering and a visibly more expressionistic aesthetic.

Rudy Nebres art from 1984 #1 (1978)

Rudy Nebres art from 1984 #1 (1978)

The reason behind the decline is likely a combination of these and other factors, but whatever the causes for it, by the mid-1980s, most of the Filipino comics artists who had started working for Marvel and DC in the 1970s had shifted to animation work, many of them employed by Disney and Sunbow Productions (the outfit responsible for popular 1980s Saturday morning cartoon fare such as G.I. Joe, Jem, Transformers, and Visionaries) as character designers, storyboard artists, and background artists. Some stuck it out with moribund horror comics company Warren Publishing, which closed its doors in 1983. Others stayed on with DC and Marvel as freelance inkers—the working relationship between American pencilers and Filipino inkers wasn’t always smooth, though: the late John Buscema once derisively described Alfredo Alcala and Ernie Chan‘s inking technique over his Conan pencils as “artwork by the pound” in reference to their predilection for “noodling” (i.e., fixating on fine linework and cross-hatching), never mind that his collaborations with Alcala and Chan are some of the most fondly remembered art from Marvel’s Conan comics and magazines.

Ang taong hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan. (‘A person who doesn’t know how to look back to where he came from will never get to where he is going.’)
– Filipino proverb
Alex Niño art from Espesyal Komiks #297 (1965)

Alex Niño art from Espesyal Komiks #297 (1965)

While Filipino artists were making inroads in America in the early 1970s, in the Philippines, komiks were under assault on multiple fronts. Years of campaigning by religious watchdog groups against the alleged morally deleterious effects of komiks on the youth had taken their toll: The general population began to regard all komiks that were not overtly religious or educational in tone as exceedingly violent and prurient entertainment with little artistic value.

The declaration of martial law in September of 1972 and its throttling effect on media freedom stifled komiks creativity and contributed further to the trend of prominent Filipino komiks artists seeking employment abroad or retiring outright. A “comics code” promulgated soon after martial rule was declared stated that “no material that will bring hatred or contempt, or incite disaffection towards the government as well as the various intrumentalities under it will be published.”

Rudy Florese art from Korak... Son of Tarzan #57 (1975)

Rudy Florese art from Korak… Son of Tarzan #57 (1975)

The general unavailability of American comics—in part due to martial law restrictions on the importation of foreign publications but also due to the prohibitive cost of buying American comics—meant that most young Filipino artists missed out on the career-defining DC, Marvel, and Warren Publishing works of the First Wave artists (i.e., the Filipino artists whom DC editor Joe Orlando signed to contracts in the early 1970s).

The decline of the primarily Tagalog-language komiks industry was also a symptom of a much larger issue: Owing to the Philippines’ colonial history, long-standing and institutionalized feelings of inferiority attached to indigenous art, language, and culture were (and to an extent, continue to be) widespread in the Filipino population, particularly among the middle class. A significant socio-cultural barrier kept young Filipino artists from taking after their komiks and First Wave predecessors.

I suspect that few readers are aware that the likes of Whilce Portacio, Leinil Francis Yu, Jay Anacleto, Lan Medina, and Gerry Alanguilan are indeed Filipino. Their art reflects the U.S. comics mainstream of the past decade rather than their own visual heritage, and they clearly work in a different artistic tradition, with little in common with their predecessors. That is probably good for them commercially, but it means that the traditional Filipino style is all but dead.
– David A. Roach
Do I [draw like an American comics artist]? What is the ‘American’ style of drawing comics? Look at any batch of American comic books and you will see that they are a melting pot of styles from all over the world. The styles are so varied, so wildly different that one cannot come up with a unifying set of characteristics that can comprise a single art ‘style’.
– Gerry Alanguilan

So where does this leave us as far as the current state of traditional Filipino comics tradition in American comics is concerned? Has the link between the 1970s First Wavers and today’s Filipino artists been irreparably severed and is the traditional Filipino style of comics illustration, as David A. Roach puts it, “all but dead”?

Of course not.

It does not take a particularly practised or critical eye to see Alex Niño’s strong influence on the work of Whilce Portacio, contrary to Roach’s claim that it has little in common with that of his predecessors. The qualitative merits of the latter artist’s work relative to that of former are open to debate, but Niño’s impact on Portacio’s style is plain and indisputable

In fact, Portacio, in a 2006 interview with Newsaramas Benjamin Ong Pang Kean, cited Alex Niño as a major influence

Having grown up in the States, I have very little firsthand knowledge of our komiks greats. And having been reading American comics only in the 1970s and 80s was only exposed to Alfredo Alcala and Rudy Nebres through their work on Conan and Iron Fist. Although, somehow (I cannot remember now how it happened) I was exposed to Alex Niño’s super stylized artwork and that had a major influence on me. The design sense and the limitless imagination of Alex Niño really got me inspired to let my creative side imagine new worlds and characters.

Lan Medina's work shows obvious elements of the traditional FIlipino comics art style (art from Fables #1, 2002)

Lan Medina’s work shows obvious elements of the traditional FIlipino comics art style (art from Fables #1, 2002)

As for Lan Medina, another contemporary illustrator whose credentials as a traditional Filipino comics artist Roach questions? Medina is about as genuine and traditional a Filipino comics artist there is working in the American comics industry right now. Unlike more popular artists like Portacio and Yu who started their careers working for American publishers, Medina laboured for several years in the komiks industry before breaking into the American comics scene and he continues to contribute to komiks publications. His work has all the hallmarks of somebody who is obviously steeped in the history of Filipino comics and sequential art and he counts Nestor Redondo, Vicatan, and Rudy Florese among his biggest influences.

Gerry Alanguilan, of course, is one of the world’s leading proponents of Filipino comics and sequential art and that is reflected in his work. His inking technique calls to mind the “noodling” that the First Wavers were associated with. That Roach can cast aspersions on the “Filipino-ness” of Alanguilan’s work is mind-boggling.

Leinil Francis Yu's more recent work shows a growing traditional Filipino comics art influence (art from Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk #3, 2009)

Leinil Francis Yu’s more recent work shows a growing traditional Filipino comics art influence (art from Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk #3, 2009)

Even the comparatively young Leinil Francis Yu—who admitted in a 2006 interview that he knew very little about komiks history—seems to be, in his most recent work, incorporating a lot of the flourishes associated with Redondo, Alcala, and Niño: A development that I suspect is due partially to Alanguilan’s tireless efforts to educate Filipino comics artists about their own artistic heritage.

So where is the traditional Filipino style of comics and sequential art in today’s comics? The features that mark the style as distinct have always been subtle ones, especially when compared to the more idiosyncratic characteristics of other geographically- or culturally-based movements like the European ligne claire school or the Japanese manga establishment. But I believe that they’re there to be seen by readers who know what to look for. The traditional Filipino style of comic and sequential art is alive and well on North American comic book store shelves, in the work of industry veterans like Whilce Portacio, Lan Medina, and Gerry Alanguilan. It can be seen emerging in the work of Leinil Francis Yu and other, younger artists who are re-discovering the legacy imparted by their komiks predecessors.

References
  • Alanguilan G., (n.d.). Common misconceptions about my views on Filipino Comic Art. Retrieved from http://alanguilan.com/sanpablo/art1.html
  • Auad, M., (2004, September). Francisco V. Coching. Comic Book Artist, 2(4), 79
  • Cooke J., (2004, September). A Touch of Class: A Chat with Publisher Manuel Auad. Comic Book Artist, 2(4), 31-37
  • Cooke J., (2004, September). The Philippine Question. Comic Book Artist, 2(4), 57
  • Ela, N., (2011, October). Komiks interview with Lan Medina. Retrieved from http://flipgeeks.com/pinoy-komiks-dc-marvel-etc/komiks-interview-lan-medina/
  • 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, 2(4), 74-95
  • Ong Pang Kean B., (2006, October 30). Celebrating 120 Years of Comics in the Philippines Part 1. Message posted to http://fortheloveoffilipinocomics.blogspot.com/2006/10/celebrating-120-years-of-komiks-from_30.html
  • Quimpo, N. G., (2004, March). Colonial Name, Colonial Mentality and Ethnocentrism. KASAMA, 18(2). Retrieved from http://cpcabrisbane.org/Kasama/2004/V18n2/ColonialName4.htm
  • Roach, D.A., (2004, September). A-Z: A Guide to the Filipino Comic Book Artists. Comic Book Artist, 2(4), 60-73
  • Thomas R., (2002, March). An Avengers Interview–Sort of–with John Buscema. Alter-Ego, 3(13). Retrieved from http://twomorrows.com/alterego/articles/13buscema.html
  • Villegas D., (2005, November 13). Francisco Reyes’ Kulafu. Message posted to http://pilipinokomiks.blogspot.com/2005/11/francisco-reyes-kulafu.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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Discuss this article below or contact the author via e-mail
13 Responses
    • Great insights and I did not know that Hal Foster was an influence back here… wow! As someone who’s been reading comics and komiks back in the tumultuous 70s, I can indeed attest to the works of Nebres and Alcala. I followed characters like Palos, Captain Barbell, and others that I’ve forgotten in these Komiks. Conversely, I’ve also seen Portacio’s and Yu’s early works in (Uncanny) X-men and am now glad to see more Filipino artists in the mainstream US comic book industry.

      Now if we can only get more talents to revive the Filipino Komiks heydays. Not that it isn’t happening… but maybe, the artist is just one factor. How about writers?

      • Thanks for reading!

        I can’t say that I’m unmitigatedly optimistic about a widespread komiks revival… and it’s nothing to do with the talent of the people involved in their creation (which is as good as can be found in any creative industry in any other country). It’s just that the periodical print industry is taking a beating all over the world, so any attempts at re-popularizing the form beyond the aging comic book reading community will have to do something new and out-of-the-box in terms of using different media platforms (traditional and electronic) and getting advertiser support.

      • carlo j caparas tried to revive the komiks some 3 years ago but it didn’t turn out so well.  I heard that artists were not compensated enough to sustain.

        • Arise, old comment thread, arise!

          Yeah, that seems like par for the course given Caparas’ alleged history. The sentiment that Caparas actively downplayed the contributions of Steve Gan (you may remember Gan as the co-creator of Marvel Comics’ Starlord) to classic komiks like Pieta and Panday, for example, is widely held to be true in certain circles in the Filipino comics artist community:

          http://gerry.alanguilan.com/archives/849

    • BTW, I can’t believe I missed out on Lan Medina being a Filipino – guess I was too engrossed with the story of Fables that I sort of glossed over the artist’s influence. That, bu the way, should be considered a compliment of the highest order – that the artist made the story move smoothly, and the details are better appreciated on second and even a third look… but are not distracting on the first pass.

    • I’ll openly admit that While Portico is the only name mentioned here that I know. I will also insert that I am a story-first reader that only afterward looks at most of the creator credits. I find these Leaving Proof Filipino highlights to be very educational since they are highlighting a style that I have not focused on in the past. Thanks for the hard work.

      • The thing about the traditional Filipino style of comics art is that unless one is familiar with the classic komiks aesthetic pioneered by Francisco V. Coching (or the aesthetic employed by komiks iconoclasts like Alex Niño), it’s fairly easy to confuse it for a “Western” style that is solely informed by the comics strip work of early and mid-20th century North American artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. In a way, this parallels how the Latin American “school” of comics and comic strips are often lumped in with the European comics tradition because of the former’s pronounced Spanish, Portuguese, Franco-Belgian, and Italian comics art influences. 

        The other thing too is context… it’s a lot easier to identify the Filipino aesthetic when seen in the traditional Filipino comics genres: romance, horror, crime, war, and humour. The subtle-but-distinct characteristics of the style can be overwhelmed by the bombast (for lack of a better term) requisite of superhero comics rendering and storytelling. The artistic conventions of the superhero genre, I think, have a way of genericizing all but the most idiosyncratic comics art traditions.

    • But is it art? Illustration as an art form? Illustration=Art? Hmmm. Let me illustrate…

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    • […] not just a simple matter of numbers. As we’ve discussed extensively in a prior column, certain Western comics historians and critics have argued that the work of the current generation […]

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