Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Comic Reviews: And Comics by Mr. and Mrs. Yumul, Dirty Laundry 2 and Other Stories by danielle riña, Minkowski Space Opera Chapter One by Aaron Felizmenio

And Comics by Mr. and Mrs. Yumul

Mr. Yumul has gorgeous stylized art; Mrs. Yumul has powerful prose. Unfortunately, comics is about the synthesis between the two, and most of And Comics simply lack synergy. The end of the comic explains the rationale for this--Mrs. Yumul crafting the narrative after Mr. Yumul had drawn the panels--and while it's an interesting creative exercise, it can be a frustrating reading experience for the discerning reader. Occasionally, you end up with profound gems like "The Box" which resonate even once you've put down the comic, but there are a lot more misses than hits. Which is a shame because And Comics is ripe with potential, and if the two creators had coordinated, they could have produced memorable comics.

Dirty Laundry 2 and Other Stories by danielle riña

Dirty Laundry 2 and Other Stories is one of those comics that really comes together: rough stylized art that's appropriate to the creator's narrative, a personal story that's compelling, and a tight theme. Dirty Laundry 2 does feel like danielle riña's dirty laundry, whether on the literal or metaphorical level, and it's peppered with telling details and intimate scenes that tug at your emotions. The only complaint I have is how the lettering could use some improvement, although the fact that it's handwritten also adds to the charm.

Minkowski Space Opera Chapter One by Aaron Felizmenio

I'm still hesitating when it comes to Minkowski Space Opera Chapter One. It has potential, but there's also room for improvement. The weakest element of the comic is the art for while it's passable and has its fair share of stunning panels, there are scenes where the lack of polish detracts from the story. In panels that feature several characters, it's difficult to distinguish who is who. Or in one instance, a character suddenly pops out of nowhere. But the good news is that the story has legs. Aaron Felizmenio is fusing sensibilities of Western fantasy with Filipino myth, and while it's too soon to tell whether the payoff is worth it or whether the combination is handled with finesse, there's enough substance to provide readers with hope.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Comic Review: Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers edited by Rob Cham

Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers is one of those anthologies that's raw, unfiltered, and born from passion. It lacks a certain polish, not in terms of art or design, but in terms of editorial direction that can leave the reader baffled. But one could argue this lack of polish is what gives some of the stories their edge, the courage to experiment and fail if need be.

Thematically, Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers is Rob Cham's breakup anthology. Or at least that's the expectation established by the title, the opening comic, and the epilogue. Where it starts to stray are Cham's collaborations with Petra Magno ("Spooky Tales of the Here and Now") and Auti Nones ("Comics for Millenials"), which are actually quite entertaining and witty, but don't seem to fit with the larger arc that Cham initially pitches to the reader. It might have been an attempt to break the monotony of heartbreak-after-heartbreak, but that's what the single-page strips of Apol Sta. Maria already accomplishes with its insertion before each piece.

The challenge of any anthologist working with a theme is to make sure not every story reads the same. And in many ways, Cham's selections fail in that accord, as what we often end up are literal heartbreak stories juxtaposed with images. At its worst, we have "Untitled" by Carljoe Javier, which simply does not work on several levels: the lack of a title is undeserving, and there's no build up for the narrator we're supposed to feel empathy with. Thankfully, the other contributions make better attempts. "Un-You" by Petra Magno tries to engage with the concept of heartbreak via metaphor, and it barely works. What salvages it are the telling details that convey Magno's personal investment in the narrative. "My Favorite Christmas" by Mihk Vergara plays with two different stories, one told by the text, and the other by the images. They're supposed to converge and be related, but it's an all-too transparent ploy.

What follows suit is either intentional genius on Cham's part or serendipity borne from modesty. In many ways, I think one of the stronger comics in the anthology are Cham's, especially the opening comic "Break Up 2013". It doesn't pretend to be anything else other than Cham's state of mind, sprinkled with the occasional conflict of how he says one thing but feels something else. Then compare that to what should have been Cham's epilogue, "How I Live Now," which provides perfect closure for the comic. It's also interesting how there's a subtle change in the art between "Break Up 2013" and "How I Live Now," showcasing the transition from one state to another. The last story is what everyone should read read read and buy buy buy: "Beehive Heart" by Petra Magno. Magno employs the best tools of metaphor--or even speculative fiction for that matter--to convey the turmoil of experiencing relationships. I spent P250.00 on Sad Comics for Dirty Lovers and "Beehive Heart" makes it a bargain. What makes this the genius part is that if this was intentional, what seems like Rob's story (his character opens and "ends" it after all) is actually giving way for Magno's, which is the superior story. From a structure perspective though, "How I Live Now" provides better closure and should have ended the comic (with "Beehive Heart" somewhere in the middle of the book), but it's the rawness of publications like these that highlight the gems.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Comic Review: Tabi Po Isyu 1 by Mervin Malonzo

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.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Comic Review: Abangan: The Best Philippine Komiks 2014 edited by Rob Cham, Adam David, Carljoe Javier, & Elbert Or

How important is context? On one hand, Formalism values independence, self-sufficiency, and personal interpretation. On the other hand, some of the most potent art is its interaction with the zeitgeist, at how it builds on what came before it, and how its contribution causes ripples.

It would be insufficient to gauge Abangan: The Best Philippine Komiks 2014 based on the former; that's not to say it wouldn't pass with flying colors--there are several outstanding, standalone comics in this anthology including the excerpt from Windmills V by Josel Nicolas or Blue Dusk by Mica Agregado--but when we talk about a retrospective anthology, a "best-of" at that, what should be at the heart of the discussion is its dialog with the rest of the field. And at the very least, whether you agree with the editor's choices or not, Abangan creates this standard for talking about local comics. One tragedy of the Philippine comics scene is that often, unless your work is published by a major publisher (in the case of this anthology, Visprint), your work will eventually be forgotten and unarchived. The strongest benefit of Abangan is how it leaves a recorded footprint (and admittedly, in the case of some, getting reprinted results in better print quality compared to the original publication venue, just as some lose out in its transition from full-color to black and white).

Abangan addresses this much-needed gap in Philippine history, and in the context of frequent discussions in the local industry, hopefully puts an end to the thesis that Philippine comics is (un)dead, or that the golden age is past. There's a plethora of work that's been published in 2013, and here's the evidence.

But for anyone who doesn't want to talk about the larger implications, let's borrow the perspective of the Formalist and look at some of the comics in the anthology, much like any of the reviews that came before this. There's lots of impressive comics here, as well as problematic ones. On one end of the spectrum, you have the selected cartoons from Dead Balagtas by Emiliana Kampilan: four-to-five panel strips that hit the humorous beats while tackling issues like colonialism and imperialism. Or a title like excerpts from "Diwata" by Manix Abrera (and to a lesser extent, the excerpts from Wignaut by K.A. Montinola and Martha Maramara), which showcases how effective silent comics can be. On the other end of the spectrum is the excerpt from Filipino Heroes League Volume 2 by Paolo Fabregas, and I'm both impressed and disappointed at the scene selected for this anthology. In the context of the Filipino Heroes League series, it works; here, while I congratulate the editors in selecting a scene that stands on its own, the statement I'm getting from this comic is the subversion of the Edsa Revolution, at how a significant turning point in our history by the masses was retconned to be the machinations of a few, despite the best intentions underneath that gesture. And then you have the works that are somewhere in between--at the very least fun and entertaining and referential--like the excerpt from Darwin's Association of Delicious Evilness by Carlorozy and "Trese: Thirteen Stations" by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo.

That Abangan stands well on its own is deserving of praise and why it's been positively reviewed. But if we dig deeper, the anthology has several shortcomings, and it's perhaps indicative of the biases, whether conscious or unconscious, of its editors that also happens to be representative of the strengths and weaknesses of the local comic industry. To be fair, these are flaws that some readers will not notice, dismiss, or perhaps even afraid to point out. But this is where the value of dialog comes in.

While I'm not looking for objectivity--that is the point of editors after all, to provide a subjective vision or direction for the text--I do look for consistency. One complaint that can be levied against the local publishing scene for example is favoritism, and one example of this is how an anthology was reviewed in a broadsheet without the reviewer disclosing that they were a contributor to the said anthology. While that's not the case in Abangan, there are several instances here which defy standard expectation.

For example, my expectations for Abangan is that it compiles the best comics of 2013. It doesn't bother me that comics published in 2014 were included (the time frame of the anthology could easily be set to Feburary 2013 ~ January 2014), but work that hasn't been published yet does, which is the case with the comics of Manix Abrera, and Noel Pascual and AJ Bernardo. That's not to say that their work isn't deserving, but why is there this kind of exception, or at the very least, is not addressed in the introduction? These are also the first two comics featured in the book, so what kind of message does that convey? Related to this are the submission guidelines (or lack thereof) for the sequel: does it include comics published from April 2014 ~ March 2015, or can comic creators submit original work directly to the editors without needing previous publication? It also begs the question, maybe the comics on Abangan isn't based on previously published work, but based on the comic creators the editors judged to have stood out the most in 2013, which drives the discussion in a different direction.

Then there is the case of the four series editors, and while I can't begrudge having numerous editors working on the same book, this choice affects my other problems with the anthology. When we talk about the series editors in this anthology, namely Rob Cham, Adam David, Carljoe Javier, and Elbert Or, it's not quite clear what their role is. Not that the reader needs to know this, but when discussing the other implications of the book, it starts to matter. Typically, when running a series ala The Best American Series, there are typically series editors guiding and overseeing the work of the guest editors. In this case, do all four series editors take on the duties of the guest editors? If so, here are some points I want to discuss.

First, there's the bias of the local industry towards the interests of the Catholic cis-male based in Metro Manila. The introduction to Abangan admits that, but just because it's admitted doesn't give them a free pass. When you have four editors working on an anthology, you couldn't make the selection of editors more diverse (since a more diverse set of editors can theoretically lead to more diverse selections)? And looking at the anthology, it's not really diverse, whether you're looking at it from a gender parity perspective (and also makes you wonder, whether intentionally or unintentionally, why Martha Maramara is the only contributor to have an omitted bio), or the fact that majority of the reprints were from print-based sources.

Second, the issue of favoritism can be raised. Typically, an editor refrains from selecting their own work as it can be interpreted by some as a conflict of interest. Abangan includes not just one, but two, works from Rob Cham. Now there are several valid reasons for doing so. It could be the editors wanted to showcase the talent of Cham's collaborators. Or it could simply have been chosen by Cham's co-editors, because Cham is a talented comic creator. But having a clear distinction on the editorial process (whether the traditional roles of a series editor or guest editor) could clear up this possible controversy, or at the very least, tackle it head on.

With regards to the editorial, there are also some choices that while it isn't erroneous per se, makes you wonder. The excerpt from the previously-unpublished Crime Fighting Call Center Agents by Noel Pascual and AJ Bernardo interests me because of the language chosen for this strip. While their series has previously been translated into English, Crime Fighting Call Center Agents is usually released in Filipino, and then translated at a later date. That English is the language of choice here defies expectations for their work, and makes you wonder at the choice.

And since this is the de-facto record of comics published in 2013--whether the editors wanted this burden or not--it's important to get the details right. While most of the copyright page is correct, I wish it was more comprehensive in the case of some of the works featured (a "previously published" or "originally published" here notice would work for example). There's also the previously mentioned lack of a biography for Martha Maramara (if the creator declined to have a bio included, it could simply have been stated). One could argue these are just nitpicks, but they go a long way when it comes to the academe or simply recounting our history.

For the most part, Abangan: The Best Philippine Komiks 2014 captures the macrocosm of the Philippine comic industry, including both its praise-worthy aspects and flaws. At certain points, it also captures the chopsuey nature of the industry, but it needs to be worthy of the conceit of its title: it needs to move the field forward as much as it looks back on what came before.

Not A Review: April 2014

Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel

Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson is a meaty, plotted graphic novel with a distinct art style and ominous atmosphere. What initially stands out is the art--and I'll admit, I wasn't impressed at first--but it fits the setting and the entire point of the graphic novel was that it was illustrated via charcoal. It takes its time to set the story, and the payoff is worth it. One complaint I was going to levy against this graphic novel is the lack of female characters--and it doesn't really pass the Beschel test--but there's a scene in Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson that tackles the patriarchy of the setting in an interesting manner.

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet, translated by Helge Dascher

If Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson relies on being literal to convey its horror, Beautiful Darkness does so with subtlety and finesse. It utilizes what seems like a simple premise--miniature people living inside a dead girl struggle to survive--but every element in the comic is carefully chosen and serves the overall theme. Reading Beautiful Darkness is a haunting experience, but it's not readily apparent how dark the story can get, mainly because we're shown bits and pieces here, but never enough to jolt us or to make us quit. And that's what impressive with Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet, for as powerful as the explicit scenes, it's what's implicit the carries the reader.

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

The title captures the mood for this anthology: fun, fun, fun. While the initial set of stories could be jolting as the authors unaninmously use the word "mad scientist," this feeling eventually goes away as it makes room for less-obvious narratives. Also helpful in the anthology are the introductions by the editor, which provides insight into the story without spoiling it. The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination is a refreshing break from tedium.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

There's a lot to unpack with Mr. Fox, and that's part of the fun reading Helen Oyeyemi's fiction. Suffice to say, the author successfully juggles various elements like elegant language, holistic characters, and an entertaining narrative with the desconstruction of a popular fairy tale, the life of an author, and the mosaic novel.

Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 2014 edited by Angelo R. Lacuesta & Dean Francis Alfar

Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 2014
feels like an inverted pyramid, with the lengthier stories frontloaded, yet this setup works. It's actually a rarity in the local publishing scene to find entertaining stories that manage to sustain their momentum past the 2,000-word mark, and several of the stories in the book successfully do so.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Studio Salimbal Comic Writers Panel

Last April 6, 2014, Studio Salimbal held a forum for comic creators at Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street.

Here's the recording of the first panel, which featured various comic writers. |MP3| (35 MB)