The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 207 | State of the Art: Thoughts on the work of Leinil Yu and other Filipino artists working in today’s American comics

Leaving Proof 207 | State of the Art: Thoughts on the work of Leinil Yu and other Filipino artists working in today’s American comics
Published on Friday, November 15, 2013 by
We take stock of the current trends in Filipino art in American comics and ponder the question: Does a “modern” Filipino comics art style even exist? ALSO: Learn how you can help the survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan.
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Cover art for Trial of the Punisher #1 (cover date Nov. 2013) by Leinil Francis Yu (colors by Sunny Gho)

Leinil Francis Yu and Mico Suayan’s turns on Marvel’s recent Trial of the Punisher miniseries represents, in a way, a closing of the circle for what can be called the “modern Filipino Wave” in American comics art: It was a quarter of a century ago that Leinil Francis Yu’s mentor, the Filipino-American illustrator Whilce Portacio, debuted as the lead artist on a major superhero title with The Punisher #8. (It should be noted that Portacio’s penciling debut for Marvel Comics actually occurred eight months earlier, with Strikeforce: Morituri #10, and his first inking work for Marvel, on Epic Comics’ Alien Legion #6, appeared in print in February 1985, but The Punisher #8 was the future Image Comics co-founder’s first regular, high-profile, superhero comics penciling gig.)

Of course, it can be argued that there is no such thing as a modern Filipino Wave in today’s American comics, or if one does exist, it’s less a wave and more of a tiny swell or a ripple. The original “Filipino Wave” saw over 100 Filipino artists—the vast majority of whom got their professional start in the Philippine komiks industry—working for DC, Marvel, Warren Publishing, and other American comics publishers in the 1970s through the mid-1980s as pencilers, inkers, and letterers, led by the likes of “First Wavers” such as Jonah Hex and Black Orchid co-creator Tony DeZuniga (Inkpot Award recipient, 2011), the idiosyncratic Alex Niño (Inkpot Award recipient, 1976), lifelong rivals and komiks legends Alfredo Alcala (Inkpot Award recipient, 1977) and Nestor Redondo (Inkpot Award recipient, 1979), pen-and-ink wizard Ernie Chan (a.k.a. Ernie Chua; Inkpot Award recipient, 1980), Neal Adams and John Buscema favorite Rudy Nebres, Star-Lord co-creator Steve Gan, and the versatile Romeo Tanghal.

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Double-page spread from Trial of the Punisher #2 (cover date Dec. 2013) by Mico Suayan (colors by Sunny Gho).

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Cover art for Untold Stories of Punisher MAX #5 (cover date Dec. 2012) by Mike Del Mundo

By contrast, perhaps fewer than a dozen Filipino artists, if that, can be considered as illustrators with regular assignments as lead artists on Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, or Dark Horse titles today, although a fair number of them, such as the aforementioned Yu, along with Lan Medina and 2013 Joe Shuster Outstanding Cover Artist Mike Del Mundo, are considered some of the best illustrators active in comics right now: No less than Howard Chaykin himself declared Yu as one of his favorite current comics artists, placing him on the same level as international comics luminaries like Spain’s José Luis García-López, Argentina’s Eduardo Risso, Italy’s Vittorio Giardino, and the United States’ Sean Murphy and Dave Johnson.

It’s 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 of Filipino artists working in the American comics industry count as “Filipino comics art” only in the sense that they’re produced by artists who can claim Filipino ancestry, but who owe little, stylistically speaking, to DeZuniga, Niño, Alcala, Redondo, et al. The British comics artist David Roach went so far as to say in a 2004 Comic Book Artist article that “the traditional Filipino style is all but dead.” This is a view that I strongly disagree with, at least in the cases of artists like Whilce Portacio, who counts Niño and DeZuniga among his biggest influences, (and frankly, anyone familiar with Niño’s work would have to be ignoring the evidence provided by their own eyes not to see his obvious influence on Portacio’s rendering style), as well as Lan Medina, Gerry Alanguilan, and Jay Anacleto.

It is true that many Filipino artists born in the 1970s and the 1980s—Yu and Suayan among them—grew up largely unaware of the local and American comics work of the “First Wavers” and seemingly draw more upon Western comics influences than indigenous ones, but that has more to do with a combination of social, political, and economic factors rather than a deliberate turning away from the traditional Filipino comics illustration style. As we’ve discussed before in this space,

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.

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.

It has become quite clear to me however, that Yu and many of his peers have begun studying and incorporating many of the technical rendering and stylistic hallmarks of artists like DeZuniga, Alcala, Redondo, and especially Niño, no doubt due to the influence of Portacio as well the tireless efforts of current Avengers inker and veteran illustrator Gerry Alanguilan in promoting and preserving the legacy of the earlier generation of Filipino comics artists.

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Art from The Punisher #43 (cover date Mar. 2007) by Lan Medina (inks by Bill Reinhold, colors by Raúl Treviño).

In a very strict sense, yes, it can be said that the traditional Filipino comics art style, at least as seen in the American comics of the 1970s and early 1980s, no longer exists. But that is because the traditional Filipino comics industry, while still a font of creativity, has itself been in a state of contraction since at least the mid-1970s in terms of readership and reach. The highly competitive (some would even describe it as “cut-throat”) komiks environment of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s that served as a working laboratory and proving ground for the development of a hybrid illustration style informed by the work of indigenous artists like “The Dean of Filipino Comics” Francisco V. Coching, the muralist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, and painter Fernando Amorsolo as well as early 20th century North American illustrators such as Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, J.C. Leyendecker, and Carl Barks, has a much-diminished role in the continuing professional education of the Filipino comics artists toiling for American publishers. In addition, the arrangements that saw komiks artists fast-tracked into freelancer positions at DC, and later, Marvel and Warren Publishing, are no longer in place. Of today’s generation, only older artists like Lan Medina and Gerry Alanguilan can probably be described as professional komiks illustrators who have made the successful transition to working in American comics—Yu, Suayan, and many other Filipino artists working for Marvel, DC, IDW, Image, and Dark Horse pretty much made the jump into the American comics scene without getting much work published in the Philippine comics industry, if at all.

A Modern Filipino Comics Art Style: Does it even exist?

Does it make sense, then, to even talk about a modern “Filipino comics art style,” if most of today’s Filipino artists working for American comics publishers no longer have the professional lineage of their forebears? I think it does, but more than anything, what is more important now is the maintenance of a vibrant Filipino comics art community than any calcified style.

Any discussion of the identifying hallmarks of Filipino comics art should begin with an examination of the work of “The Dean of Filipino Comics,” Francisco V. Coching (1919–1998). Just as “The God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka codified the look of early comics in Japan, the same can be said of Coching’s influence on the komiks of the Philippines. (Coching, perhaps owing to his age and stature in the komiks industry as its leading artist-writer—50 of his 53 komiks serials were adapted into feature films—expressed little desire to work as a pencil-for-hire for DC Comics by the time editor Joe Orlando started recruiting Filipino artists in 1971.) It never ceases to amaze me how Coching’s work looks both classic and timelessly contemporary, some six decades after they were first published:

The most salient features that defined Coching’s work, and the work of those komiks artists who came after him in the 1960s and 1970s, can be summed up in the following four points:

  • 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.
  • An emphasis on naturalism and a relatively limited range of stylization influenced by the work of early 20th century North American illustrators like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, and J.C. Leyendecker.

Those same qualities can be seen in varying degrees of expression in the recent work of Yu, Suayan, Iron Man artist Carlo Pagulayan, and others, even if they weren’t quite in evidence before. But what of Filipino artists like Rod Espinosa, Honoel “Hai!” Ibardaloza, and Jinky Coronado, illustrators who are clearly incorporating manga influences in their work? Is their work in any way “inauthentic” with regards to the Filipino comics art tradition?

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Some Filipino artists working in the American comics industry today incorporate clear manga influences. From left to right: A page from Rod Espinosa’s Eisner-nominated The Courageous Princess (Antarctic Press), a page from Hai!’s Pandora: A Death Jr. Manga (Seven Seas Entertainment), and the cover to Avalon High, Vol. 2 (HarperCollins/TOKYOPOP), illustrated by Jinky Coronado.

Debate has been waged online about the merits of manga-influenced Filipino comics art (complicated, no doubt, by lingering feelings over Japan’s actions in the Philippines during World War II), with the argument being put forth that the work of today’s Filipino artists are losing their cultural identity because of the oppressive crush of manga and other foreign influences. In my mind, however, the traditional as well as any putative modern Filipino comics art style is as much about all-out effort, reliable productivity, and an open-minded approach to incorporating foreign influences as it is about the use of specific rendering and storytelling techniques. What the late John Buscema once derisively described as the “artwork by the pound” approach taken by Filipino artists like Alfredo Alcala and Ernie Chan is an expression of an ingrained dedication to practice and craft. And just as Coching, Alcala, Redondo, DeZuniga, and Niño drew certain elements of their personal style from the popular pre-WWII North American magazine and comic strip illustrators, so is it only to be expected that the individual styles of today’s Filipino comics artists are shaped by interactions with the milieu of the larger contemporary comics art world. Had Coching been born six decades later, I have no doubt that he would have tried to learn all he could from comics artists from all over the world, not just from North American ones.

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Gerry Alanguilan’s satirical graphic novel Elmer was published stateside by SLG Publishing in 2010. Click here to download a CBR file of the book’s first chapter.

To insist that today’s Filipino comics artists restrict themselves to drawing a certain way in personal and commercial projects, based on how the Filipino illustrators of a bygone century drew, strikes me as a case of well-meaning but terribly misplaced sentimentality, an endorsement of a parochial view that could exert an ultimately detrimental effect on the continued growth of the Filipino comics art form. To think that art has somehow “peaked” at a specific point in time and that things can only get worse from there is a road that leads to certain stagnation and inevitable irrelevance. We don’t demand that all American comics artists draw like Jack Kirby (nor should we), we don’t expect all Japanese comics artists to draw like Osamu Tezuka (nor should we), and we don’t think that all French artists should draw like Moebius (nor should we), so why should the demands be any different for Filipino comics artists? Such a stringent and inflexible definition of what is and isn’t “Filipino comics art” is antithetical to the diversity and syncretism that is at the heart of Filipino culture. Instead of focusing on the task of qualifying cultural authenticity, I think the only real important questions to ask of a Filipino comics artist’s work are the same questions we ask of any comics artist’s work, regardless of their nationality, cultural heritage, or their influences: Can the artist tell a story with the use of visuals alone? Can the artist draw distinct and varied characters with a variety of poses and expressions? How is the artist at drawing backgrounds, props, and environments? Does the artist have a working understanding of perspective, lighting, and distance?

Coching did not explicitly set out to define the rules for what Filipino comics art should be when he started making comics all those decades ago. He just wanted to make the best comics that he could, compromising nothing, every time he sat down at his drawing table. And as long as today’s Filipino comics artists approach the medium the same way, I think Filipino comics art, in publications in America and elsewhere, is going to be fine.

Odds and Sods
  • If you’re in the Greater Manila area in the Philippines, note that Superior Carnage artist Stephen Segovia will be selling limited edition prints at the Robinson’s Galleria branch of Comic Odyssey (Basement Level Robinson’s Galleria, EDSA, corner Ortigas, Quezon City, Philippines, tel. no. +632 914-0040). Individual prints are priced at PHP300.00, with all proceeds going to a charity fund for victims of typhoon Yolanda (known internationally as typhoon Haiyan). Check out the prints below:
  • Iron Man artist Carlo Pagulayan will be selling art prints at Komikon (Nov. 16, 10AM–7PM, Bayanihan Center, Pasig City, Philippines), with all proceeds going to the Philippine National Red Cross’ typhoon relief efforts. Check out the prints below:
  • Yale Stewart, creator of popular webcomic JL8, is auctioning off original JL8 art, with all proceeds going to UNICEF Philippines’ typhoon relief efforts (auction ends 18 November, 2013, 15:51 PST). He’s also offering a wallpaper and Facebook cover photo set (no minimum donation required), with all proceeds again going to typhoon relief efforts via UNICEF Philippines. As Stewart noted on his Tumblr: “What many of you may NOT know, is that the Philippines is the second-largest readership of JL8, only surpassed by the US. Not that I wouldn’t step in for a tragedy of this magnitude regardless, but as such, it hits a little bit closer to home than most.”

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  • Leinil Francis Yu (Avengers), Carlo Pagulayan (Iron Man), Harvey Tolibao (Danger Girl: The Chase), Stephen Segovia (Superior Carnage), Romulo Fajardo, Jr. (G.I. Joe), and other Filipino artists will also be drawing and selling sketches on Nov. 23 (starting at 1 PM) at DK Comics (3rd floor, Fort Strip, Bonifacio Global City, Philippines). Proceeds from sales will go to the Philippine National Red Cross.

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  • For our readers in the US and Canada, here are links to verified and recommended charities and relief organizations helping survivors of typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda:
    • The American Red Cross
    • The Canadian Red Cross
    • World Food Programme: WFP is mobilising quickly to reach those in need with High Energy Biscuits–helping ensure families and children have nutritious food in these first few days of the emergency.
    • Typhoon Haiyan Relief Fund (Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Canada): The Canadian government will accept and match donations from Canadian citizens and residents until December 8.
    • UNICEF: Click here to donate to UNICEF Canada’s typhoon relief efforts, here for the UNICEF USA donation page.
    • International Rescue Committee: The IRC has dispatched an emergency team to Manila and launched a $10 million appeal for donations.
    • Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders): Donate to MSF Canada’s relief efforts by clicking here. If you are based in the US, click here.
    • The Humanitarian Coalition: An umbrella group for several Canadian charities. The group includes Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, CARE Canada, Save the Children Canada and Plan Canada.
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