For almost three decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the Filipino comics industry was the biggest in Asia. They were so popular that each week publishers would put out hundreds of thousands if not a million copies of each issue. The most popular comics magazines came from Atlas Publishing (Pilipino Komiks, Hiwaga Komiks, Darna Komiks, True Horoscope Stories) and Graphic Arts Services, Inc., or GASI (Shocker Komiks, Pioneer Komiks, Pinoy Klasiks and Bata Batuta). Among younger readers, Pilipino Funny Komiks from Islas Filipinas was the most widely read.
It was a time when comics were Filipinos’ primary source of entertainment, especially in the more remote provinces where television was not yet common. Almost 80 percent of Filipino families read comics. They were in such high demand that some magazines — Pinoy Komiks, Pinoy Klasiks, Silangan Komiks, to name a few — even started publishing twice a week.
Comics got their start in the Philippines via the American reading materials that flowed in from across the ocean in the early-to-mid 20th century. The first Filipino comic strip, Kenkoy, by Antonio Velasquez and Romualdo Ramos, debuted in 1927 in Liwayway magazine. Kenkoy was the Philippines’ answer to the Sunday Funnies that came out in US newspapers every week. The title became so popular that Liwayway devoted two pages of every issue to it. Eventually, the term kenkoy became part of the pop-culture lexicon meaning comedian, always laughing, sarcastic. In the 1970s, rock icon Mike Hanopol released a song called Mr. Kenkoy.
Halakhak Komiks, founded by illustrator Isaac Tolentino and lawyer Jaime Lucas, came out in 1946. It was the Philippines’ very first comics magazine — a publication dedicated to comics completely, as opposed to something like Liwayway, in which comics were just filler. Distribution problems forced Halakhak to fold after just 10 issues, but Ace Publications’ Pilipino Komiks (later published by Atlas after Ace’s closure) followed in 1947, spearheaded by Kenkoy creator Velasquez. Other Ace titles, such as Hiwaga, Tagalog Komiks and Silangan, soon followed.
As the industry evolved, many writers and artists became well-known, and they went on to pioneer Filipino comics’ independent scene. The famous novelist Pablo Gomez opened PSG Publishing in 1963, with United Komiks its lead title. That same year CRAF Publications was created by a group of established artists that included Nestor and Virgilio Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Amado Castrillo, Tony Caravana and Jim Fernandez.
Independents had a tough time, though. The publishing monopoly of the Roces clan — Atlas and GASI were among their holdings — made things difficult for them, and independents ultimately could not compete.
THE FILIPINO INVASION
In 1971, executives from US-based National Comics (now called DC Comics) went to the Philippines in search of new talent. Filipino artist Tony DeZuniga had by this time made a name for himself in the United States with his work in comics there, and National’s Carmine Infantino and Joe Orlando wanted more. Some of the artists the two of them discovered, including Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala and Alex Nino, won honors at the annual Inkpot Awards in the 1970s.
Those artists’ success boosted the reputation of Filipino talent, paving the way for artists like Gerry Talaoc, Steve Gan, Ernie Chan, Vic Catan, Nestor Malgapo, Abe Ocampo and Rudy Nebres to make the jump to the United States. They were followed by Whilce Portacio, Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Carlo Pagulayan, Rod Espinosa, Philip Tan, Jay Anacleto, Lan Medina and many others.
COMICS DURING MARTIAL LAW
As veteran artists moved to the United States in 1970, it was expected that comics in the Philippines would deteriorate. But the opposite happened, and Filipino comics became stronger than ever.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Filipino comics reached all corners of the archipelago. They became a tool for people in places like Visayas and Mindanao to learn Tagalog, the national language along with English. According to the Commission on the Filipino Language, comics were the primary reason Tagalog became prominent in the provinces, a feat radio and television had not been able to manage. This period saw the rise of names like Carlo J. Caparas, Elena Patron, Gilda Olvidado, Nerissa Cabral, Hal Santiago and Mar Santana.
COMICS FALL OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Filipino comics dropped off. Five factors explain the decline:
Economics - Lower quality of living in the Philippines made Filipinos more practical with their expenses. When money is tight, buying comics takes away from basic needs like rice, food and transportation.
Alternative entertainment - Television became a normal part of Filipino households, and a major threat to comics in providing entertainment. TV shows can be watched for free, the stories are longer and the actors are more realistic than static images on paper.
Quality - There had been no improvements in printing quality since the earliest era in comics. Quality deteriorated even more when cheaper newsprint paper started to catch on.
Comics creators - Writers and illustrators had long requested more money for their work, but publishers generally ignored them. That led to widespread protest in the early 1990s, when the going rate for an illustrator was 75 Filipino pesos per page, the same rate as 20 years earlier. It thus wasn't surprising that the best artists switched to animation and advertising. Writers shifted to romance pocketbooks, which flooded the market in the 1990s, as well as television and movies.
Business - Don Ramon Roces’ monopoly on publishing Filipino comics began in the 1930s. Atlas, GASI, Counterpoint, Kislap, Sonic, Infinity, Islas Filipinas and API were all owned by the Roces family. It was an immense concentration of power, and it hindered creativity in the industry. Innovation stalled for almost 40 years.
All of these forces are intertwined. Because of the flailing economy, for example, artists had to move into animation and advertising to earn enough to support their family. The ones who stayed in comics thus had to produce a larger output each week, and quality was affected as overworked artists struggled to meet deadlines.
ERA OF INDEPENDENTS
It seemed fated that the world of comics would undergo great change in the early 1990s. At the time, mainstream comics were losing popularity while underground and alternative comics were on the rise. These early alternative comics established themselves as once-popular titles from Atlas and GASI started to disappear, and they drew their influence from American and Japanese comics. Some of the earliest pioneers were Flashpoint, Alamat, Zenith Graphics, Exodus and TaekwonDoggs.
The new comics experimented with different forms and layouts from their predecessors. Aside from being written in English, they also included styles and models from American and Japanese storytelling. The release of the bi-monthly magazine Culture Crash Comics marked the rise to prominence of Filipino manga, with its huge readership and following, especially among high school and college students.
MARKET VERSUS CULTURE
Globalization had a big impact on Filipino comics. Via the Internet, Filipino comics creators could see what else was out there like never before. They saw exactly to what level contemporary comics had risen, and with that knowledge they brought their own craft up to speed.
Nowadays, readers are more particular. Printing quality, illustration renderings, color strokes — all should be in line with the likes of Marvel, DC and the Japanese platforms. The new generation of readers doesn’t go for newsprint or the old color separation printing, nor do they accept scratches or glitches in the final product. Their vocabulary includes terms like “mint condition” and “plagiarism.” Design standards have shifted as well; square panels are no longer enough. Visual storytelling has become more playful.
Fans drive comics culture today more than ever before. Part of that is the fan-turned-creator mentality. Where once the Filipino readers of comics were tricycle drivers, nannies, food vendors, clerks in small stores, etc., now they are largely younger types who attend events like Komikon, the Filipino comics convention, and dream of one day creating comics themselves. The former do not read comics like they used to in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Marketing used to be more of a driving factor. Distribution by big companies spread comics across the country, and people read what they were spoon-fed. Comics were cheap, and for many Filipinos they were the only source of entertainment. Today the opposite is true: it is comics culture that drives marketing and distribution, not the other way around. There are comics events and gatherings such as conventions, school talks, conferences, gallery exhibitions and writing and illustration workshops. Publication follows from that, so it’s no surprise that bookstores usually carry just a few titles. The only place you can see many titles in one place, especially from independents, are conventions and other events. The titles that do make it to bookstores come from companies like Visprint, Psicom and Lampara Books, which are oriented more toward books than comics.
In the 1930s, FIlipino comics were influenced by American comic books and newspaper strips. The industry grew into being via the work of Filipinos like Francisco Coching, Mars Ravelo, Pablo Gomez, Tony Velasquez, Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, and Ruben Marcelino. There developed a reading culture centered on Tagalog. For people in the provinces, Tagalog became a reference point for Manila as the country’s capital and prime source of entertainment. Manila became a melting pot of ideas and experiences, the “golden eye” for Filipinos in the outer areas.
Now the world is entirely different. The Filipino identity can be read on posters, T-shirts and achievements of world famous boxers and singers. This is the time of product nationalism, where identity lies not only in who the members of a society are as individuals but also in the products they share with others peoples.
Filipino comics are not immune to these forces. On one hand, globalization and open markets are good because the potential for competing with other countries’ comics has increased due to international distribution and online marketing. Filipinos must accept the fact their comic industry cannot survive only locally, where readership capacity is limited. The market for Filipino comics will grow if they are distributed worldwide.
Open markets have also accelerated the search for global talent by big companies like Marvel and DC. Offering higher pay and prestige, these firms can easily get the most talented comics creators to work for them. More Filipinos become Overseas Filipino Workers or OFWs, sending money home that boosts the Philippines’ economy. Meanwhile it has become a mantra that an excellent creator should go work for foreign publishers.
Today’s comics creators would do well to reflect upon these conditions. Whatever the case, it is clear that when it comes to making comics, Filipinos are world class. That standing connects all Filipinos. Notwithstanding any crisis, calamity or challenges the country might face, Filipinos can still rise up with dignity.