What is Bishop’s secret origin? How is using a brush for inking like boxing? Learn the answers to these questions and more by reading our exclusive interview with artist and Image Comics co-founder Whilce Portacio!
When I first heard about Fan Expo Vancouver from my local comic book shop’s manager a month ago, I wasn’t particularly interested in it. From the poster, it seemed like a live-action TV-centric affair, and when it comes to television, I’m more of a sports and cartoons kind of guy. Curiosity eventually got the better of me though, and I looked up the guest roster online. I saw one name on the list and I was immediately messaging Comixverse editor-in-chief Troy Osgood asking him to get me an all-access press pass and a scheduled interview for the weekend event.
That name was Whilce Portacio.
Long-time Leaving Proof readers will know that I (and many other comics readers of Filipino descent who grew up during the 1980s and 1990s) have something of an involved and complicated relationship with the Filipino-American Portacio’s art. I won’t re-hash the details of it here—you can read about it in the My Whilce Portacio Experience three-part feature I wrote last year (in fact, I recommend you read it as it sets up the interview quite well if you’re unfamiliar with Portacio’s impact on Filipino youth culture during the 1990s)—but suffice it to say that I couldn’t pass up this chance to talk to the Homage Studios and Image Comics co-founder.
The interview was conducted on the benches outside of Room 109 at the Vancouver Convention Centre, immediately after the Tony Daniel/Whilce Portacio/Yanick Paquette sketch duel. Even though he had just spent the previous hour speed-sketching a Harley Quinn and Hulk piece (which was gorgeous, by the way) while answering questions from TdotComics‘ Alice Quinn and the three hours before that signing comics, drawing commissions, critiquing sketchbooks, and talking to fans, Whilce Portacio looked the very picture of calm and composed.
So here you go boys and girls, A Conversation with Whilce Portacio, brought to you by The Comixverse and Leaving Proof.
Zedric Dimalanta: I remember noticing in your work very early on a strong and unmistakable Alex Niño influence. Was this something you consciously strove to incorporate in your art?
Whilce Portacio: Yeah.
There really wasn’t back then a big awareness of Filipino artists, but everybody knew Alex Niño, Nestor Redondo, Tony DeZuniga, but there wasn’t big recognition that they were Filipino. But especially if you look at our style, we’re more illustrative and decorative and Alex is that in spades. He just goes in there with the brush and does things that no one dares to do without penciling first: You can’t pencil that because it’s all about brushstrokes. That clean style appealed to me, but because there wasn’t a big awareness of Filipino stuff, I gravitated to the Japanese things. A lot of people say my style has a lot of Japanese influence in it, and I actually grew up for four years in Hawaii and almost all of my friends were Japanese. And so I got to see a lot of Japanese TV. There was Kikaider/Kamen Rider and the beginnings of the Power Rangers group. That stuff started way back then and that stuff influenced me because it was slick and it was cool, and that’s what I’ve always gravitated to as an artist.
ZD: I bring up Alex Niño because I remember seeing in your work on The Punisher, the way your characters splayed their hands looked like they came out of an old Warren comic book…
WP: You know, that’s interesting because for me it’s one of my rants that, you know, for instance, but Mang Tony just suffered a heart attack and is still in hospital, in the ICU, but for me and a lot of my group, and I’m not just speaking of Filipino artists, I’m talking about a lot of artists today, they know who Tony DeZuniga is, but in Manila, nobody really knows him.
ZD: Part of the reason, too, that guys like Rudy Nebres and Noly Panaligan, got kind of ignored in the Philippines is because there was really no easy way people in the Philippines could get American comics in the ’70s and the ’80s because of the declaration of martial law. I guess that plays into it because there’s this whole generation of artists there who haven’t really learned about their heritage…
WP: Yeah! Even this one year at the San Diego Comic Convention and I had this one diminutive person come up to me and he said “would you like to go to Manila” and I’d never really been so I go “Sure, why not,” and I find out it was Fil Barbosa, who owns like twelve comic book stores in the Philippines…
ZD: Filbar’s, right?
WP: Yeah, Filbar’s! And when I go over there, I find a lot of people coming up to me, but most of them were rich people, because again, they’re the only ones who can afford it. In fact, I think he was selling 25,000 X-Men at that time a month, there was a 14% tariff on imports, and that’s his mark-up, and that audience just grabbed it. It was a rich toy.
ZD: One of my favourite aspects of your run on X-Factor was how you drew Archangel’s wings. When Walt Simonson did them, they were just metal wings, but when you did them, they were all multi-planar…
WP: Well that was the Alex Niño in me. If you remember, a lot of his work was decorative. Instead of doing a bland background, he’ll try to make it spooky or scary or abstract or something like that and because his favourite tool was the quill and the brush, it was molding, you’ve got to mold that. [When using a quill or a brush, you] don’t think, “What can I do in pencil and graytones?” You’ve got to think in black and white. For a lot of artists, that’s a stress barrier, “If I put something down, I’ve got to go with it.” And that’s the power of Alex Niño, which is something that again, is noticed in “A-level” Filipinos. You have Efren “Bata” Reyes in billiards: The typical story there is Minnesota Fats is the legend, and he’s playing against “Bata,” and Fats would just do the regular spocking out of the shot, measuring it, and after two hours—I’m kidding—but after two hours, takes the shot. Efren goes up there and goes—PSSSH!—shoots it back down. He’s fearless. Manny [Pacquiao] is the same way with whatever opponent. He just smiles and goes “Okay, when does the fight start?” And Mang Alex and Mang Tony, they were the same way. Mang Tony is 80 years old right now. And we go over to his house and he goes, “Hey, let’s go paint.” They’re just fearless. It’s just what they do, ask them to do it and they’ll do it.
ZD: During your first run on Uncanny X-Men, a reader wrote in to the X-Mail letter column to thank you specifically for drawing Storm with clearly defined African-American facial features, which was in obvious contrast to how she was depicted back then where, if it weren’t for her brown skin, you couldn’t really to tell her apart from the other females. Was this something you deliberately set out to do when redesigning the character?
WP: Let me put it this way: If you draw a regular comic book that’s 22 pages—23 plus the cover—you’ve got to lay out, pencil, and ink it and send it in. And then you gotta do it again, and again, and again. And Jim [Lee], cause he’s a good mathematician, he averages out to about a hundred panels per issue. So imagine basically drawing a hundred drawings every month, year in, year out. Especially if you’re on a book for a long time, let’s say Superman. That means you’re drawing Superman like this [positions arms in the "flying superhero" pose] 200 times, and like this [takes a punching pose] 200 times, or just a head on the left, a head on the right, head with this shadow, head with that shadow, you can get into a system rut.
My feeling is, if you did, doing that day in and day out that much, you would get very bored and it would show in your work. So I always try to find different things. So that went to doing faces. Trying to figure out different faces, because if I did the same girl every time, or the same heroic guy every time, it would get very boring and with a very big deadline crunch, I’d forget that I’m drawing Superman, and I would draw Reed Richards or something. So yes, it was very conscious. Getting into who the character was and trying to figure out what she really, actually looked like.
ZD: When you were initially designing the character that would become Bishop, word was that your original intent was for the character to be Filipino. There are even unconfirmed reports online that international versions of the 1991 Fleer X-Men cards listed his birthplace as Manila, but it was decided that the character would be better off being depicted as African-American. Did that bother you at all?
WP: [Pauses] The short answer is no, not really. Because… well, it’s better illuminated through what’s happening now and the differences back then. Now, because [intellectual] properties are so—or can become—expensive, I mean it can be worth so much. Like Walking Dead five years ago was just some black & white comic book some people read. Now it’s this “Wow, this is happening, this is it, this is the finger [on the pulse] right now.”
Now because of that, people, especially upstairs, are really conservative with how they deal with that. So now, there very rarely is a moment where you ask somebody in on the creative process, and you’re actually saying “And what would you do?” I mean, I remember back then, in the X-Men days, no matter what book you got on there, it was considered status quo that you would put your mark on the costume. Now it’s gotta be approved [by management].
So going back to the original question: Back then, we had this synergy that I don’t think existed everywhere else, even in light of that more open approach to doing work. There, every other X-Men story was a story Jim and I wanted to draw. And we traded that off with, the other story was the story the company wanted us to draw. So they gave us that back-and-forth. And so the actual real timeline is, [editor Bob Harras] says “Okay, we’re going to do this X-Men #1 thing and we’re going to do this two-team deal, and the perception is that the old, original team was underpowered, so we need another X-Man in there.”
So I go, “I’ll do that, I’ll create it,” and I go, “Are there any parameters?” And he said, “We just want something very powerful and someone that everyone will react to.”
And so that’s what I did. I designed him, I took each character one by one and said “What kind of personality would make him react in a natural way and what would then make all of them have a similar reaction?” So you didn’t just have somebody coming in and two or three characters going, “Hey, you’re a pretty cool guy.”
Everybody had an issue with how we were building him. And while we were building him, Karl Altstaetter helped me design Bishop and we wanted to make him Filipino. I was trying to do Filipino gimmicks and stuff, I drew Cyclops with a leather jacket with a Filipino flag which a lot of Filipinos reacted to (author’s note: Portacio might have been referring to this image from Uncanny X-Men #290 showing Colossus, not Cyclops, wearing a jacket with a Filipino flag patch).
So we decided, since they didn’t “parameter” it, to make him Filipino. Well, when we then finally sent it up and we called up Bob Harras to pitch it, he loved it, and then he said, before I could mention that he’s Filipino, that [marketing] wants a black character, because [the X-Men] had a huge black following at the time wondering why there wasn’t a black [male] X-Man.
And so [we decided not to fight for it because] there was nowhere else where we could get the creative synergy of what we had there, and, I mean, especially back then, the X-book was the book to get noticed. We were shot to the top. If the situation was different, or if we were having a tough time there, trying to get our voice out there, it would have been a big deal.
But see, I believe anybody who is an artist is just a creative person. You can create until you die. I’m not one of those people who believes they only have five or seven ideas and they have to hold them close. My thing is to collaborate. To work with other artists. To have fun. And creating a character here, creating a character there, that’s easy. I’ve created a lot of characters and it’s all the same thing. None of them were like—BOOM!—like you had a stroke and suddenly “The world’s changed now, I’m changed now, this is the character that’s going to blow the world away and it’s mine!” [laughs]
ZD: It’s sort of like if you consciously go looking for a hit, you’re never going to find one…
WP: You just have to go with where your instincts are.
ZD: Have you ever considered revisiting [1998 self-published title] Stone? With the recent success of animated shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, it seems like there’s real interest out there among young Western audiences in streamlined but authentic adaptations of Asian themes and Asian folklore.
WP: That’s one of my ultimate goals. Especially because it’s something there isn’t already an audience for. Only with Stone does my perfectionist streak show. I actually held back from [my original concept for Stone]. I started getting business partners and they liked Stone and they wanted to do [it differently]. We aimed the first Stone to an international/American audience. And so there were a lot of things that we had to do different. Because originally it started as a way to start up publishing in the Philippines. So there were a lot of things about the manananggals, the tikbalangs, the creatures of the night that we were using that you didn’t have to explain. Everybody [in the Philippines] knew about them. But for an American audience, you would have to explain that first. You have to build up to it. You have to allude to it. So that’s a different kind of book.
When I release [Stone] for the second time, it’s going to be whatever it is. It’s gonna be a Filipino book, and I think now, because American and international audiences are just hungry for different kinds of stories, they’ll understand it.
So to that point, I haven’t yet found, THE writer for it. I was raised in the States. Only in 1995 to 2000 did I actually live in Manila, and it was only then that I started to understand these characters. So I have only the visual approach to the characters. I know what my American mind thinks of these characters but I don’t have really in-depth ideas about these characters. So I want to find a Filipino writer who can do that, who can explore that for me. And I haven’t found that.
The basic concept that we were going with, an agimat is not just a gemstone, it is the psyche of the Filipino. You know [Philippine Army Scout] Rangers, which are the equivalent of SEAL Team 6, to this day, they truly believe that when they get an agimat—and not everybody gets an agimat—that will protect them. So you become a superman after that. And that is the tradition. That goes way, way back to our warrior roots.
So the basic concept of Stone was that those agimat gave you pure power and they were very, very ancient and that the amulets of Europe, the staff gems of European folklore, the power within Excalibur… everything that is magic around the world is actually an agimat, and is actually from the same power base. We could bring [different ideas] together under this one basic concept.
ZD: You sort of view magic through the “agimat filter” basically…
WP: Right. And once we bring in all that stuff that’s already known to the [non-Filipino] populace, the agimat is defined perfectly and the way it should be. I’m a good enough writer to do that, but I didn’t grow up with that, so I don’t know all those little details that seep into you from being a child [in the Philippines], learning all that lore. So I’ve been hunting, if you can find anyone for me…
ZD: [Laughing] Carlo J. Caparas?
WP: [laughs] (author’s note: the joke here is that Carlo J. Caparas is considered to be something of a hack writer in certain circles in the Philippines. There’s also controversy over how he has claimed sole ownership of the komiks character Panday and the critically-acclaimed komiks series Pieta, marginalizing co-creator Steve Gan… yes, as in Star-Lord co-creator Steve Gan)
ZD: When prompted, most, if not all, of the young comic book artists of Filipino descent working for American publishers today—popular artists such as Leinil Francis Yu and Carlo Pagulayan—cite seeing your work as one of the most significant things that spurred them into a career in comics. How does that make you feel, knowing that you’re basically this bridge connecting the Alcalas and the Nebreses to the Yus and the Pagulayans?
WP: You know, because I grew up in the States, it didn’t really mean anything to me until I went back for those five years between 1995 to 2000. That’s when I started my school that Leinil and Philip Tan came out of. Edgar Tadeo, Gerry Alanguilan, Roy Allan [Martinez], Jay Anacleto: All of those people that came out of that studio school—they bugged me [into starting a school], especially Gerry, just day in and day out, “Help us, help us.”
[It started to mean something to me] only in connecting to them. To this day they call my wife Até (“big sister”), we have that closeness. Being able to have been that bridge to get them into the industry, and see where they go, and see what they’re still like. Me and my wife, we almost feel like their parents, you know?
And the big realization that I did not know until I met those guys was that they didn’t know it was possible. And just that one fact, they kept telling me, day in day out, just that fact that “I’m a Filipino, they’re Filipino” that means they might be able to do it, too. That’s when they all just tried a little harder. And just that one little fact got them to me, and got them to the industry.
At the beginning, I was so surprised because I didn’t know that was what was happening. When I actually had time to think about what I was doing, I understood that it was actually a big deal. And ever since then I’ve been seriously thinking about it. For the last few years I’ve been trying to figure out, blocking some time, and getting money to start up the school again. Because it seems like that’s waning now again, that realization that you can go there and do it. One guy [from my studio school], his dad just drove a taxi. One guy had nothing. One guy was an architect. One guy was from a well-to-do, middle-class family. But you know, most of them were just regular, average, everyday guys who didn’t think they would become anything or anyone but they had this drive and love for comics and just that fact that they knew I did it, and I went to the Philippines and showed them “Hey, I’m not much older than you are, a little crazier maybe, but I’m just like you,” that pushed them to that edge so I’ve been trying to consciously push that with other people, too.
The author would very much like to thank Ashley Buck and Neesha Hothi of Mediatonic PR for their help in scheduling this interview.