Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Adopting a Nation

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

It's not uncommon for influential people to serve as mentors: a teacher might nurture a particular student, an entrepreneur scout for a promising employee. But what I find peculiar in the case of Neil Gaiman is that he took an entire country under his wing. Now it's not like Neil Gaiman hasn't been to other countries nor is the Philippines the only country blooming with potential. But the Philippines is a country in which he's using money out of his own pocket to sponsor an event--not just once and apparently not just twice. All to promote speculative fiction, comics, and soon, short film.

First I'll go to comics. I don't think anyone is denying that the "golden age" of Philippine comics has passed. Times have changed and comics aren't being produced in the quantities they were decades ago, whether here or abroad. Yet I think it's a testament to our nation's that we've made such a huge impact in the West when it comes to comics, thanks to the likes of Alfredo Alcala, Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo, etc. Of course having said that, that's not to say our current generation is deprived of such talented artists. Internationally, we have the likes of Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Wilson Tortosa, Lan Medina, etc. Locally, we have our mainstays like Pol Medina Jr., Lyndon Gregorio, Arnold Arre, Carlo Vergara, etc. in addition to budding artists like Marco Dimaano, Jonas Diego, Andrew Drilon, etc. Despite this huge pool of talent, we've never managed to reclaim the numbers comics enjoyed in the past and while there are a few individuals who are making names for themselves in the international scene, one can't help but wonder if there's more we can do. And then there is the dilemma I think of comic writers since comics isn't solely about the art.

When it comes to prose, speculative fiction is not totally absent but the academia obviously has a preference for social realism. Sure, we have the likes of Greg Brilliantes, but few others dare to dabble in genre--or at least get respected for it. When Neil Gaiman visited the Philippines in 2005, Dean Alfar had yet to release Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 (it was released later that year although it was planned way way before). I don't think speculative fiction is absent in Philippine literature but it's not huge or popular either. It honestly could have been better--at least several years ago. These days, it's a pleasure reading and meeting fellow speculative fiction authors although we can't remain complacent since there's still an entire world ahead of us.

I think the question that first comes to mind about next year's Graphic/Fiction awards is why short film? I mean comics, prose, and short film are all forms of media but why the last one? I think the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards is easily a reflection of the personality sponsoring the event--Neil Gaiman himself. Most people recognize him for his comics work, to the point that most articles and blog entries will probably associate the words "Dream" and "Neil Gaiman" together, most likely somewhere in the title. Then he made his transition to prose, whether it be his short fiction or novels although by the time he did visit the Philippines, he wasn't a stranger to TV or film. Still, considering Neil Gaiman's latest (and future) repertoire, short film seems like a natural progression. I think the dream team would be Neil Gaiman and Quentin Tarantino teaming up together to sponsor and judge competitions here in the Philippines but fans will settle for one or the other.

Again, Neil Gaiman didn't have to do this yet here we are, celebrating the success of the second Graphic/Fiction Awards and preparing for the third. If I'll be honest with myself, there's a part of me that's disappointed at all this. I mean why must it take a foreigner to acknowledge local talent? And it's not like Filipinos don't have their respective "champions", be it for comics, prose, or film. Yet I'm also practical: Neil Gaiman draws in more fans and support than any local author, artist, or director could... at least for now. For example, in Book of Dreams, someone asks "What is the Expeditions book and what's Neil's contribution in it?" Now I'm not chiding the poster, merely pointing out at how this is an opportunity to feature local talent and make others more aware of them. I think the problem with the Philippines isn't necessarily a lack of talent but a lack of awareness. And at the end of the day, promoting literature and creativity and the imagination isn't a zero-sum game where there are clearly defined winners or losers. I think first and foremost, the competition is more about honing the craft. So we have Neil Gaiman along with other local champions helping promote the production of not just satisfactory but great comics, fiction, and film.

I think the most touching part about Neil Gaiman however is his sincerity. It can be seen in the way he addresses his fans, how he takes the time to sign stuff for them, how he bears at what's thrown at him (if I remember correctly, in 2005 there was a rally, while last Sunday there was a not-quite-typhoon). Sincerity for me is an important quality and I think that's one of the reasons why Neil Gaiman is respected very much. For example, this year's Graphic/Fiction Awards doesn't have a 1st place winner when it comes to comics. Now I don't know who made the decision, whether it was the judges, Neil Gaiman, the organizers (God bless Jaime Daez and the staff of Fully Booked), or some communal decision by all of them but honestly the easy way out would have been to declare a 1st place winner. But they didn't. Now I can certainly imagine some people taking this as a slap to the face--that we're not good enough. But I honestly think too much patting our backs leads to stagnancy and decay. Maybe we're good enough, maybe we're not. What I'm certain is that we can do more--there's always room for improvement. And what's great was that Neil Gaiman explained reasons for the decision, giving comments on each and every entry (that won an award). What's actually refreshing about last year's and this year's comics category is that there's lots of new and previously unheard of comic artists and writers (or it might just be my ignorance but either way, it's a good opportunity to spread awareness). For prose, I feel it's a 50/50 thing. On one hand, Yvette Uy Tan and Ian Casocot probably don't need the ego boost (although meeting Neil Gaiman himself is an opportunity of a lifetime for them I'm sure) and have proven themselves in the past but on the other hand, without this contest, we probably would have never have heard of Michael Co or Erin Chupeco (of course I'd like to make a disclaimer that I've always known the latter to be an excellent writer although she definitely needs to write more). It can't help but make me feel excited for what's in store next year, especially for the short film division.

Getting adopted--as a nation and not as an individual--by Neil Gaiman is a weird feeling and is reminiscent of the Bible. I don't doubt that we're worthy of it but I do hope we prove him right sooner rather than later and sometimes I wonder if it's not a question of talent but courage. And once that's over, the real challenge begins. But in the meantime, let's take it one step at a time.


banzai cat said...

Heh. Which makes me wonder why don't we as a nation adopt Neil. Or at least send him to a nice vacation in Palawan or Boracay. It's the least we can do for him, right?

Charles said...

Sure. What's the plan?

banzai cat said...

Hah! I wish I had the money. (And trust, me, 100K is just cheap change for something like that.) *sigh*

Dom Cimafranca said...

Better idea: send him to Dumaguete. He'd love Siquijor -- what with the witches and faith healers and old churches and balete trees.

For a week: all for the low, low price of P20,000 (thereabouts.)

Anton said...

On the contrary, speculative fiction is decades old, and if we are referring to speculative literature (i.e., include drama and poetry), then it is hundreds of years old. The same goes for komiks.

There's no need for others to "adopt" our country or for us to produce new works. What we need to do is to publish and translate and read the tens of thousands of works that we've already produced during the past few centuries.

Go to Filipiniana sections in libraries and you will find out that many of them have been out of print for decades.

Charles said...

I'm sorry Anton, you've been working with an entirely different paradigm during the whole Philippine Speculative Fiction discussion. I don't see the point of discussing it further with you.