Disclosure: The company I work for is the eBook publisher of the English translation of Tabi Po.
If we want to talk about the best that Philippine comics has to offer, then we need to discuss the symbiosis between independent publishers and major publishers (and I use the word "major" loosely because a major publisher in Manila doesn't produce a print run comparable to a major publisher in the US). While there have been some competent and good comics published by mainstream publishers, if we want to discover the stories that are exciting, innovative, or simply excellent, then we need to look for them from independent creators. Sometimes, those with merit never gain acclaim or an additional print run. But occasionally, an indie comic is picked up by a publisher who then introduces it to a wider audience and keeps the title in circulation. That was the case with Carlo Vergara's Zsazsa Zaturnnah and Gerry Alanguilan's Elmer. Success builds upon success. Even this early on, Tabi Po Isyu 1 by Mervin Malonzo feels like one of the most important Filipino comics in the past few years.
The last statement is a pretty bold claim to make, but Tabi Po is a rare work that arrives at an ideal time and makes a commentary on the industry, in addition to its value as a text.
From the perspective of craft, Tabi Po hits all the right beats. Let's take the art for example. It's gorgeous and visceral, evoking primal emotions while still maintaining a unique style that's identifiable. My problem with some art is that it can become too stylistic that it is difficult to distinguish one character from another; that's not the case here. And when we talk about Filipino comic art, a common failing or absence is color: either creators eschew the medium because it's outside the means of Risograph and photocopier production, or its usage is superficial and shallow once it moves beyond covers and pin-ups. Malonzo employs color here to its full potential, not by using the entire palette he has access to, but keeping it thematic and appropriate for the mood--and does so consistently.
Another pitfall of local comic creators is the integration of the Filipino language with their art. The usage of Filipino in comics can be challenging because the language is polysyllabic and can lead to reader exhaustion or take up a lot of physical space. At its worst, you have a title like the first issue of Bayan Knights, where captions and text boxes cover the artwork. On the other hand, if pulled off correctly, you have something that sounds organic and smooth, which is the case with Zsazsa Zaturnnah. Where I've seen it succeed is in Aaron Felizmenio's Gwapoman 2000, which sounds lyrical at times despite the verbosity of the author. Tabi Po feels just right, giving enough room for readers to digest the text, while still showcasing Malonzo's art. And language in Tabi Po matters, having read both the original and translated versions of the comic. Just look at how Malonzo navigates through the etymology of the word aswang and incorporates it into the narrative, creating this dialogue between the comic and the reader.
Then there's the story and lore of Tabi Po. When we talk about mythology, there are typically three kinds of storytellers. There are those that simply retell them, employing tools like characterization to make the story compelling and interesting. Then there are those that adapt it for a modern setting, appropriating what they see fit and infusing it with sensibilities from modern pop culture. If we talk about Filipino artists and myth, the two (well, three) popular creators people will mention will be Arnold Arre (for Mythology Class) and Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo (for Trese). My problem with these two works is that they're divorced from the source material and employed with different aesthetics in mind. Not that it's wrong per se, but there's a significant lack of literature, let alone comics, that deals with Filipino folklore outside of the context of urban fantasy. The Trese series for example simply treats our bestiary as either tools useful for the protagonist, or enemies that are easily dispatched in a panel or two--sensibilities that have more in common with today's Western TV shows where monsters are simply executed instead of being appeased, respected, or competed against. Then there is the third kind, where a creator produces a myth that sounds plausible and real, despite being fictional. And Tabi Po belongs to that category: the story of Malonzo's aswangs sounds like a folk tale we might hear during a visit to the provinces. This is myth building at its finest, employing the most potent of storytelling tools. You have characters that are literally The Other and embracing that concept. You have origin stories that combine not just the modern renditions of the monsters we know, but incorporating elements of our colonial past and making them integral parts of the story. Malonzo doesn't need to explicitly mention when and where the story takes place: readers glimpse it through the art, via the environment, or the language the characters uses.
When it comes to the industry, Tabi Po feels like the future. As previously mentioned, we don't get a lot of colored comics because most comic creators prioritize print publication and for independent creators, that usually means photocopiers. Tabi Po circumvents that limitation by publishing it as a web comic. While Malonzo isn't the first comic creator to be picked up by a print publisher after a successful online run, it's the serial I know that wouldn't otherwise have been possible elsewhere, especially due to the graphic content of the work.
There's a lot to parse when it comes to Tabi Po, whether on the fiction itself, or the cultural level it finds itself interacting with. The asset of Tabi Po Isyu 1 and Mervin Malonzo is that while they reflect and respect what came before, they continue to evolve and innovate.