Monday, January 23, 2012
Comic Review: Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila by Carlo Vergara
In retrospect, the original Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah graphic novel — first published a decade ago — was a product of its time. You had a superhero(ine) who was a parody of Darna, who in turn was a derivative of the Captain Marvel formula. The villains spoke in the same tone and inflection as celebrities that's part of the Filipino zeitgeist, and the comic was sprinkled with several pop culture references. But more than just a gag, Carlo Vergara subverted the expectations of what it means to be a successful mainstream title: your lead was a gay superhero, events took place outside of Metro Manila, and the language made good use of both English and Filipino, not simply in the mishmash Tag-lish that was prevalent.
The challenge of a sequel, especially one which took almost ten years (take note impatient George R.R. Martin fans), is to deliver something that progresses the narrative, instead of simply rehashing the same formula. Vergara could have simply done that, with few people rallying in protest. But Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila, at least the first of what is supposed to be a three-part book (the original was released in two parts), comes out as fresh and daring as the first series was. One trait I admire when it comes to Terry Pratchett is that his writing has evolved over the years: if his initial Discworld books was simply an extended comedy and commentary on the fantasy genre, his later novels include depth and layering that has legs beyond the jokes. That's the case here, as Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila has this sense of gravity that wasn't present in the original. To illustrate the seriousness, the first scene in the book is a monologue by Ada, who recounts his fears and expectations. It isn't a dilemma of how to defeat a super-villain, but rather how to deal with his current relationship, especially in light of his troubled past. The narrative starts out slow and the humor is downplayed early on. Another example of deviated formula is how Zsazsa's iconic costume is not to be seen save for the cover. Instead, the hilarity stems from her improvised outfits. In many ways, it's understandable if fans of the original will be shocked at the sequel: as I said, this is an evolution, rather than simply a rehash of what's come before. These past ten years, I've grown as a reader, the times have changed, and Vergara has "leveled-up" as a writer/artist as well.
Despite the changes to the comic, Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila retains the essence of what made the original wonderful, with its one-part parody, one-part social commentary, one-part romance, and one-part adventure. There are superhero fights, and there is a memorable scene where Zsazsa, in a chicken costume, fights a giant cockroach with a giant slipper. Class struggles is also a theme in the book, expressed in both explicit and implicit ways. What I appreciate about this comic is how Dodong takes a more prominent role in the narrative, a genuine co-star instead of simply being the McGuffin as he was in the original. And perhaps one of the problems of the portrayal of homosexuals in the Philippines is for the past few decades, it's revolved around one archetype: the flamboyant gay man. Dodong is a stark contrast to that model and hopefully becomes part of changing public perception.
When it comes to art, what's great about Vergara is he understands what makes a great comic work, and puts it into practice. One weakness, for example, of many local artists is how a lot of their artwork is covered by either dialogue or text boxes, especially when they underestimate how lengthy the Filipino language can be. That's not the case here, even when monologues are long. Vergara knows panel structure, and his four horizontal panel framework is well utilized. One good example of this is how the panel-less pages leave no room for ambiguity when it comes to reading direction. Where I'm skeptical is when Vergara switches to his "humor art", the equivalent of super-deformed characters in manga. That's not to say that I'm convinced on its effectiveness, but considering the default style Vergara uses, it can be jolting instead of a seamless experience. I'm on the fence with this one, and probably needs more deliberation on my part. There is also the question of cover design, for while I understand the rationale behind the retro look, it's also a far cry from the content of the comic.
Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila is a complex beast and might well be one of the most important comic releases for the year. Carlo Vergara is attempting to outdo himself and so far, he's on the right track.