The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 231 | On Whilce Portacio’s Stone and the challenges of adapting Filipino folklore for Western comics readers

Leaving Proof 231 | On Whilce Portacio’s Stone and the challenges of adapting Filipino folklore for Western comics readers
Published on Thursday, July 10, 2014 by
In this week’s Leaving Proof: We remember Stone: The Awakening, Image Comics co-founder Whilce Portacio’s attempt to bring Filipino folklore to an international readership raised on American superhero comics.

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Already a fan-favorite for his X-Factor run, Portacio’s popularity skyrocketed with his stint on Uncanny X-Men.

At a time—the early 1990s—when the American superhero comics market was entering what was arguably its most profitable era, former X-Factor and then-Uncanny X-Men artist Whilce Portacio was among the most handsomely compensated illustrators in the industry alongside his Homage Studios partners Jim Lee (X-Men) and Marc Silvestri (Wolverine), as well as Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man), Erik Larsen (Amazing Spider-Man), and polarizing young talent Rob Liefeld (X-Force).

The story of how Portacio, Lee, Silvestri, McFarlane, Larsen, Liefeld and Guardians of the Galaxy writer-artist Jim Valentino simultaneously and suddenly decamped from Marvel in 1992, at the peak of their popularity, to found Image Comics, is one of the most brazen and successful acts of comics creators taking control of their work and sticking it to The Big Two (they were really sticking it to Marvel if you want to get all specific and technical about it, but it speaks volumes that they weren’t content to just move over to crosstown rival DC Comics). Regardless of how one feels about the quality of early Image Comics, the company’s formation and eventual rise as the third largest comics publisher in North America can be seen as nothing short of an unquestionable affirmation of the commercial viability of creator-owned comics in the mainstream space.

But while his fellow Image Comics founders eventually found their footing as publisher-creators—each forming his own stable under the Image banner—Portacio quietly sold his stake in the concern and the rights to what was supposed to be his Image Comics launch title Wetworks (in my opinion, the most novel among the originally announced Image Comics launch titles, with its symbiote-empowered Special Forces vs. vampires vs. werewolves conceit) to Jim Lee, as he focused his energies on tending to the declining health of a gravely ill family member (Jim Lee revealed the details of Portacio’s situation in a message to readers in the letters page of WildC.A.T.S. #3 or #4, if memory serves ).

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

Wetworks (vol. 1) #1, cover-dated July 1994 marked Whilce Portacio’s return to comics after a two-year hiatus. It was the 17th best-selling comic of 1994. Also, note the double-gatefold cover.

Wetworks was put on indefinite hiatus and by the time the series was resolicited in 1994, Portacio, listed as the series’ co-plotter and penciler, was for all intents and purposes doing work-for-hire for a company he helped establish, on a title he created. Despite the two-year delay in its launch (or perhaps because of the anticipation the delay created), Wetworks #1 became one of the biggest selling issues of 1994. It would rank #17 overall in Diamond Comics Distributors Top 100 list for the year, behind only the J. Scott Campbell-drawn Gen13 #1 (which was ranked #10 overall) as the top-selling Image Comics issue produced by the Jim Lee-led Wildstorm Studios and ahead of notable Big Two releases like Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men #316 (which featured rising star artist Joe Madureira on pencils and the introduction of the teen mutant team that would become Generation X) and DC’s Zero Hour: Crisis in Time #4 (the first issue of the “reverse-numbered” miniseries that was the centerpiece of the line-wide Zero Hour event). It would take some four years before Portacio would have the opportunity to launch another all-original IP, however, and this time, it would be something he wholly-owned.

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Stone: The Awakening #1, cover-dated August 1998. Note that the first issue of the series was published under the Avalon Studios imprint. Succeeding issues of the four-issue miniseries were published in association with Image Comics. While a modest hit—Stone: The Awakening #1 reached #44 in Diamond’s August 1998 sales chart—the Stone comics could not replicate Wetworks‘ commercial success nor its longevity, although this had as much to do with drastically depressed market conditions as anything else.

Stone, the short-lived fantasy comic written by Portacio and Witchblade co-creator Brian Haberlin and featuring art by Portacio and Filipino cartoonist Gerry Alanguilan, was a comics milestone in more ways than one: The first miniseries, Stone: The Awakening, was the first title to be produced by Avalon Studios, the Manila-based atelier Portacio founded soon after he and his family relocated to the Philippines in 1995. It was also the first American comic (that is, a comic published by a major American publisher and distributed in North America by the dominant direct market distribution channels of the day) to be set entirely in the Philippines, featuring a Filipino cast of characters. By and large, Stone: The Awakening‘s narrative followed the monomyth convention—protagonist discovers a world of supernatural wonder, overcomes a succession of trials that severely test his mettle, emerges from the experience a changed man and a genuine hero—but its unique conceptual hook was its incorporation of Filipino folklore and myth in its character designs: The comic’s lead derives his superhuman abilities from an agimat (what would be called an amulet or talisman in English), and he is aided and opposed by a host of mythical creatures native to the Philippines, including duwende, tikbalang, engkanto, and mananaggal.

While it is true that by Stone: The Awakening‘s 1998 debut Portacio had long been established as the face of Filipino art in American comics in the post-“Filipino First Wave” era, it is also true that unlike First Wavers Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, and major influence Alex Niño, the Filipino-born, American-raised Portacio had spent almost his entire life to that point living in the United States. Portacio grew up in a Western cultural context, and to a certain degree, his interpretation of native Filipino folklore in Stone was still informed by an outsider’s perspective. As Portacio candidly admitted during our exclusive interview at the inaugural Fan Expo Vancouver in 2012:

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 [the creatures of Filipino myth and folklore]. 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 [them].

As someone who grew up in the Philippines listening to folk stories featuring the supernatural and the fantastical, I will say that there is something foreign (for lack of a better term) about how the Filipino folklore elements are depicted in Stone.

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The dwende from Whilce Portacio’s Stone: The Awakeing bear similarities with the dwarf of Germanic myth and the duende of Spanish/Latin American folklore. [Image from Stone: The Awakening #4]

Part of it can be attributed to the vagaries of language and how certain concepts can be changed in the translation. The dwende of Stone: The Awakening, for example, seem to owe more to the dwarf of Germanic myth and the Spanish/Latin American concept of the duende. In a sense, Portacio and Haberlin’s dwende is fairly accurate as far as the relatively recent, Hispanicized version of the many indigenous types of nature and ancestral spirits in Filipino myth such as as the (ni)nuno sa punso (literally translated as “ancestor in the mound,” an occasionally malevolent ancestral spirit bound to earth and rock formations), diwata (etymologically related to the Hindu-Buddhist devata, these female nature guardian spirits are said to reside in forests, mountains, lakes, and other natural features), and anito (household guardian spirits, often male and ancestral in nature). Over Spain’s 300-year occupation of the Philippine islands, Spanish scholars, translators, and priests, unfamiliar with native beliefs that combined animism and ancestor worship, simply lumped together the concepts of the nuno sa punso, diwata, anito, and other indigenous supernatural creatures with Iberian folklore‘s duende, or even the Judeo-Christian demon or ghost, and it is this hybrid version—the goblin-like dwende or duwende—that found its way to Stone: The Awakening.

In many other parts of the country, however, particularly those that resisted the Spanish colonizers’ attempts at converting them to Catholicism long after other areas had capitulated to Spain, the belief in nuno, diwata, anito, and other spirits has survived to this day in some form, even if it is in just ritualized folk practices and habits. I remember being instructed as a child by my grandparents to not to go tramping about in isolated, wooded areas, lest I irk these sometimes capricious beings and to ask permission from resident spirits before “trespassing” on their territory.

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Stone: The Awakening received a four-issue sequel miniseries, simply entitled Stone. [Pictured: Stone #4, cover-dated May 2000]

Beyond the quirks of language and accounting for the effects of centuries of Hispanicization, I think it was this thematic lack of what could be described as an animistic respect for nature that was at the root of my impression that Stone was a “foreign” comic, despite its setting, cast, and use of Filipino folklore elements.

A lot of the folk stories that I heard in my youth were built around a recurring theme: An arrogant, unthinking human does something rash and disrespectful to the natural order of things—he chops down an old tree or dumps refuse in a lake or kills a forest creature for no good reason—and is subsequently punished by an angry nature spirit or ancestral spirit with misfortune such as an illness or a grotesque tumor on a prominent part of the body (the tumor’s location and shape would sometimes be a clue as to the person’s offense… these spirits have a peculiar sense of humor). If a similar thematic throughline was to be found in Stone: The Awakening or its four-issue sequel miniseries (simply entitled Stone), it was either buried underneath the comic’s own original mythology or it had been changed so much to accommodate prevailing trends in American comics so as to be unrecognizable. (As Portacio mentioned in our 2012 conversation, Stone: The Awakening was conceptualized for “an international and American audience,” which required that some designs and story elements be repackaged in more familiar forms.)

Of course, the greatest challenge in authentically translating Filipino folklore and myth to the medium of Western comics lies in the nature of the source material itself. Indigenous Filipino folklore is extremely variegated, which should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the multiplicity of distinct native languages spoken in the archipelago, the Filipino people’s syncretic approach to religion and myth, and the varying extent different regions have been impinged upon by Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Spanish cultural influences over the centuries. Traditions and folk stories popular in one province may be virtually unheard of in an adjacent province. Adapting elements of Filipino folklore so that they are instantly familiar and come off as authentic to a Filipino reader from any region of the country while still being easily accessible to the international/American comics reader is certainly possible, but it’s probably not going to be easy.

As to the future of Stone, Portacio had this to say back in 2012:

[Revisiting Stone] is one of my ultimate goals… … When I release it 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.

I haven’t heard of any Stone updates from Portacio since then, but I’m still as intrigued as ever anticipating his revamped take on the property.

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Digressions

Stone: The Awakening actually had a soundtrack album, sold separately and released exclusively in the Philippines by Sony Music Entertainment Philippines in CD and cassette (remember those?) format. It featured a mix of big beat, trip-hop, alternative rock, hard rock/metal, and nu-metal (ugh!) tracks from a variety of Filipino, Japanese, American, Canadian, and British artists. The soundtrack only had one original song recorded specifically for the album, “Stone” by Filipino blues-rock group Razorback (featuring the rapper Chill on vocals), while the other songs on the record were culled from previously released albums published and distributed by Sony Music. I actually saw Razorback and Chill perform “Stone” live in 1998, during Whilce Portacio’s Manila mall tour in support of the launch of Stone: The Awakening (it was there that I also managed to get my copy of Stone: The Awakening #1 signed by Portacio and Alanguilan, and it’s one of the few comics I brought with me when I moved to Canada some three years later). Anyway, I’ve tried to recreate the soundtrack below in the proper track order, using embedded videos from YouTube.

“Sanctified” by Wolfgang

“Voodoo Who Do” by Razorback

“Paranoid” by Bedlam Ago Go

“Dub Me Crazy” by Boom Boom Satellites

“Final Home” by DJ Krush feat. Esthero

“Vitamin” by Incubus

“Hello Oskar” by Our Lady Peace

“If They Move, Kill ‘em” by Primal Scream

“Hell Looks” by Wolfgang

“Stone” by Razorback (feat. Chill)

“No Place to Hide” by Korn

It’s a very uneven and random mix, listening to it. Apart from “Stone” and perhaps “Voodoo Who Do,” it’s hard to tell what, if anything, the songs have to do with Stone: The Awakening‘s premise or themes. Still, I find a lot of nostalgic charm in “Stone” and I’m always down for some DJ Krush.

I started watching Knights of Sidonia, Netflix’s first original anime series, a couple of days ago. I’ve only made my way through the first two episodes so far, and the story seems solid, if not particularly spectacular at this early juncture. The quality of the animation by the Polygon Pictures team is feature film-quality, though. It looks absolutely gorgeous. While I have a huge backlog of manga (including A Bride’s Story and Appleseed, as mentioned in last week’s column) I promised myself I would read through before starting on any new titles, this show has gotten me interested in checking out the manga it’s based on, created by Tsutomu Nihei and published in North America by Vertical, Inc.

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