The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 253 | Identity Crisis: On Expression, Colonialism, and Filipino comics art

Leaving Proof 253 | Identity Crisis: On Expression, Colonialism, and Filipino comics art
Published on Tuesday, January 27, 2015 by
After a two-week trip to the Philippines, Zedric is back with with further reflections on the Filipino comics art tradition.

Identity is the history that has gone into the bone and blood and reshaped the flesh. Identity is not who we were but who we have become, what we are at this moment. And what we are at this moment is the result of how we responded to certain challenges from outside.

Nick Joaquin, Culture and History

A legitimate (if somewhat controversial) argument can be made that the Philippines, as a united and discrete political entity (and by extension, the Filipino), is a product of colonialism. There is very little in the way of reliable evidence that the country we now call the Republic of the Philippines was ever a formally organized unitary territory before the Spanish began consolidating the archipelago as a colony in the 16th century. On the contrary, there is every archaeological indication that before the arrival of the Spanish, the Philippine islands weren’t so much part of a united nation as they were holdings of various small independent kingdoms and warring tribes.

And therein lies the root of the neurosis that plagues the modern Filipino in search of his cultural identity. The modern Filipino is taught from an early age that colonialism, be it the 300+ years of Spanish rule, the half-century of American dominion that followed, or the brief period Imperial Japan held the country under the tyranny of its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, is incontrovertibly bad and that the “colonial mentality” centuries of foreign subjugation has instilled in the Filipino psyche should be excised. But while we cannot and should not dispute the fact that the various colonial powers did much to harm the natives of the Philippine islands during their respective periods of occupation, it is similarly impossible to disregard the reality that much of what we think of as “Filipino”—the language, the art, the food, the music, the religion, the geography, and even the martial arts—is intimately tied up with the country’s colonial past. One could even say that the Filipino identity was born as a reaction to colonialism. To try and cut out that which is colonial and supposedly alien from the current culture would be to dismantle the very idea of the Filipino.

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

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

We see this problem, writ small, in the ongoing debates about the creative direction contemporary Filipino comics art seems to be headed, both in local komiks and in the work of Filipino artists working for overseas comics publishers.

As we’ve previously discussed in this space, what can be called the traditional Filipino comics art style is, by and large, a local interpretation of what was then a primarily North American art form. Just as the late “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka took certain stylistic cues from Walt Disney and Milt Gross, so did universally-celebrated Filipino komiks pioneer Francisco V. Coching draw early inspiration from the work of Canadian-American illustrator Hal Foster. Would Coching have independently developed an indigenous Filipino comics art style had he not been exposed to Foster’s Prince Valiant? It’s certainly possible for a man of his prodigious talents, but the fact of the matter is, what we now call komiks and the traditional Filipino comics art style did not lack for foreign influence.

It is more than passing strange, then, that Filipino artists like Leinil Francis Yu, Jay Anacleto, Lan Medina, and Gerry Alanguilan would be criticized as being dismissive of their “visual heritage” by Western comics historians like David A. Roach for incorporating more modern American influences in their work, when what they are really doing is continuing and updating, knowingly or not, the process Coching developed 80 years ago. Komiks artists who’ve taken to adopting some of the stylistic quirks of manga and manhwa are decried as unimaginative copycats by peers and critics alike, but take a step back and what one might see is that they’re simply applying Coching’s process to the comics of the Philippines’ Asian neighbours.


The younger generation of Filipino comics artists have taken to appropriating, to various extents, stylistic hallmarks often identified with manga, the way earlier artists took some of their cues from Western comics. (Pictured: Art from Trese artist Kajo Baldosimo)

Is there danger that Filipino artists’ individuality and expressiveness may become subsumed under the force of influence of foreign works? Of course! In today’s digital age, it’s never been easier to cross over from inspired appropriation into unthinking and bland mimicry. But the greater peril, in my mind, is that Filipino artists may end up shackled creatively when critics and historians attempt to lay down firm, immutable rules definitively stating what Filipino comics art should look like. The heart of Filipino comics art resides not in a set of strict rules of composition, but in a philosophy that encourages openness to external ideas and a dedication to polished technique.

Yes, it is of paramount importance that Filipino comics artists learn as much as they can about the history of Filipino comics art and that they develop their own artistic identity, but a respect for the past and tradition should not mean that artists restrict themselves to drawing solely in the same style as their forebears, or that they should insulate themselves from outside influences—that way leads to repetition and irrelevance. To stay vital, Filipino comics art should continue to be dynamic, undergoing an active process of transformation, reacting to its environment and responding with a variety of expressions, absorbing what works, discarding what does not. The by-products of that never-ending evolution may not always be pretty—I saw some fairly disappointing examples of so-called “pinoy manga” when I visited a small bookstore in Baguio City—but the true beauty of Filipino comics art is found in the process as much as in the final piece.

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