Comics: a cultural tonic

Comics: a cultural tonic
Pages from Palestine by Joe Sacco

That the medium is the message when it comes to storytelling emphasizes that the vehicle is more important than its passengers. But how we cultivate people to become empathetic to our cause is significant to social transformation. 

During the last election campaign, the urgency to reach different publics required creative ways of transmission and communication. For instance, the production of comics was a popular strategic tool to help highlight crucial points regarding the candidates. At the height of the sorties, the few that I came across were about Leni Robredo (Leni: Mula’t Mula Pa, May Tugon sa Pandemya and Servant Leader) and Isko Domagoso (Iskomiks!).

The sequential visual narrative of comics is digestible and understandable, more than text-heavy pamphlets, even if, materially, both can be cheaply produced. Active volunteers in the house-to-house campaign shared with me how they experienced better engagement with the people they wished to interact with when they distributed comics. Directly discussing burning issues with strangers could not be fruitful and easy if there was nothing to casually ease them into conversations. Of course, the more immersed community workers have long included text and visual aids in their dialogues: The debate on the Rice Liberalization Law, for one, actually gets less complicated in comics format.  

Philippine comics isn’t a new mode of communication. It has been around since the 1920s as part of our culturally inherited hand-me-downs from the Americans. Throughout the century, comics were among the tools used to engage with the general populace. Our (great) grandparents were probably first introduced to comics through Tony Velasquez’s character, Francisco “Kenkoy” Harabas. Compared to today’s contemporary setting, the commitment to binge-watch television episodes now is perhaps equal to the older-generation readers’ drive to keep track of how Kenkoy (humorously, frustratingly, or sadly?) navigated the everyday under the American colonial period. 

Reading images

In our conversations, writer/artist, teacher and publisher Adam David spoke of studies that the US Army had initially used comics as a technique to spread information and propaganda to people who didn’t speak English. Because, he said, “even [so-called] illiterates can read images.”  It was also during my time in grad school when research on art and the Cold War surfaced, indicating that creative work has been used as a cultural weapon (Google abstract expressionism and its links to the CIA).

The Philippines stuck with the term “comics” and adapted to it with only a spelling change: “komiks.”  But overseas, the Mexican word for comic books is “historietas,” which literally translates to “little stories.”  The Spanish phrasing does away with the belief that such a genre is all about being funny, hilarious or amusing, as the English word “comic” implies. Often, these komiks and historietas are pocket tales of regular people with seemingly regular and “normal” lives.

The way comics have been part of our lives also varies from person to person. Some friends tell me of how they spent their childhood summers renting a series of komiks for a few pesos from the local sari-sari store. After reading (and before returning them to the store), they traded the komiks with their neighbors, who also rented another set. To make it worth their while: “Para sulit bayad,” they said.  With the sari-sari store serving as a hybrid neighborhood public library, reading komiks as entertainment back then was what the current attachment to online gadgets is today.

Growing up, I got my very limited supply of comics from commercial bookstores, or by way of older distant relatives randomly giving me one or two from a series—which means I was never able to read a complete set. There were, though, the full-page comics in newspapers such as the Manila Bulletin (the comic strips Nancy and Cesar Asar were favorites, and so was Calvin and Hobbes which was syndicated in Philippine Star). The Sunday specials of the Philippine Daily Inquirer also came with the hodgepodge of local and foreign comic strips. 

Later, in my young adult life, the specialty shops for comic books in the old Greenhills Shopping Center and on Katipunan Avenue became my place to window-shop because I was a student without wages and I wasn’t always able to afford what they were selling anyway—the glossy and pricey kind. So, even the desire and motivation to “collect” and even aspire to be a comic book pedant (or geek) did not prosper.

And by then, a younger breed of artists and writers (some of whom were my university schoolmates) were being introduced to the market, with the likes of Filipino-American Whilce Portacio coming into the country to import the artists that would be cogs in the wheel manufacturing American comics.

Related: Growing up on anime, cosplay and video games

Personal access

When the Vertigo comics Sandman, in its drama series iteration, was (re)popularized almost 30 years later because of Netflix, a flood of memories of how one read them back in the 1990s pointed yet again to notions of personal access. Obviously, the politics of being able to read the original print format is also connected to one’s existing (or lack of) economic flexibility. In this case, my gateway to such pieces was the generosity and mercy of friends who had more buying power, and who didn’t mind me actually getting my fingerprints on such collectibles. Next to Sandman (including its special editions), there was also the risqué Japanese manga such as Crying Freeman to borrow. 

After straying from reading mainstream comics for many years due to my dwindling interest in the published stories, I regained my curiosity when, in my foray into acquiring knowledge about historical events, I truly became more empathetic to the research data by reading the comic books’ cousin—the graphic novel (the stand-alone and much longer in sequential art format). 

For instance, I gained deeper insight into the Holocaust by reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and I was first introduced to the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza through Joe Sacco’s Palestine. Even Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Chicken with Plums made me aware of Iran’s cultural setting, while Kate Evans’ Red Rosa offered me profound appreciation for the life and economic theories of Rosa Luxemburg. My interest in science was also enhanced by Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. Compilations of Nonoy Marcelo’s Ikabod Bubwit with its anti-politico punches, which were early gifts by my parents when I was younger, were revisited and informed by a sense of irony. 

With certain comic books as supplementary materials, the things I learned from academic books did not come across anymore as a list of impersonal and forgettable information. 

Social justice

From Sauron comics, Nakaw by Lizette Daluz, Pages 1 and 3

The last three years brought about the slow but steady rise of local comics that thematically tackle social justice in the Philippines. In 2019, close on the heels of the World Health Organization’s official announcement of the existence of Covid-19, I was gifted a copy of Sauron: Testimonya ng mga Saksi sa Pagpatay sa Negros 14—a comic book produced by the Sama-Samang Artista Para sa Kilusang Agrario (Saka).

When I received it, I looked at the first few pages and set it aside. I finished reading it two years later, when I felt psychologically prepared for it.

Sauron is a thin collection of two- to three-page comics made by various artists. The stories are extremely short, the dialogue subdued, and the drawings beautiful and endearing. But the emotional dread of knowing more about extrajudicial killings is piercing and searing.

From dawwang, Kababaihang Tagapagtanggol ng Kordilyera written by Gantala Press and drawings by Nina Martinez

Later, during the period of the hard lockdown, I purchased dawwang, Kababaihang Tagapagtanggol ng Kordillera by the women of Gantala Press. Their words bring to life the story of the indigenous women who fought (and are still fighting) against the Chico Dam project.  

With stylized drawings by Nina Martinez, the story brings the reader all the way back to the 1970s when the encroachment started. Early on the pages, the reader learns about ancestral domain and the effects of unjust land takeovers to the environment and the indigenous communities. I consider this particular comic book (such an oxymoron to call it “comic”) or this historieta as significant to unlocking our indifference to matters that surround us. What is tragic is that 30 years later, the painful aspects of fighting for one’s land remain. There’s no (permanent) cathartic resolution in this comic book, and there are no superhero characters to swoop in and save the day.

Last September, the organizations Unyon ng Manggagawa at Agrikultura and Saka also translated the 1985 Escalante Massacre into comics form. Their decision to distribute such comics for free to various communities was very much like an ode to the power of the narrative, mass media and the public. 

It’s been 37 years since the massacre—a horrible event that has, in many ways, been reduced to a mere footnote in Philippine history. While the story of the Escalante Massacre has been published in books, journals, documentaries, and newspapers, the impulse to continue telling it reiterates the necessity for such compelling stories to be reinterpreted into other popular platforms. 

Dugo at Tubo, Mga Alaala ng Escalante Massacre sa Panibagong Rehimeng Marcos involved the work of 10 Filipino artists who were invited to each render a page retelling the killings. Guided by panel divisions and with dialogues written by Angelo Suarez and Julius Villanueva (based on the survivors’ testimonies), the 10 pieces were pieced together to narrate the events leading to the death of 20 people on that fateful day in Escalante, Negros.

To further push the message is to undergo yet another transformation: The Dugo at Tubo pages were enlarged into mural-sized tarpaulins and (are to be) consequently staged in public places. 


From Dugo at Tubo comics, Page 4, by Apol Sta. Maria and page 5 by Mervin Malonzo

The historieta aspect of comics was also activated in a workshop titled “Samantala” (in English, “meanwhile”), which was recently conducted by Adam David with artist-writers Josel Nicolas and Apol Sta. Maria. Teaming up with the organization Rural Women Advocates, the artists taught the participants—among whom were children of farmers—on how to translate their personal stories in comic-page formats. It was an affirmative action to compel us (eventual) readers to be conscious of their existence in this society where influencers and celebrities occupy much of our social consciousness.

How comics have come into play in the last century clearly indicates their expressive potential. But as in all movements, the evolution of comic books—from American propaganda to instructional materials, and as placements that provide paths to representation and remembrance—is testament to the importance of rescuing stories from obscurity and apathy.

There are many more stories to tell and read about. But how they are brought forward in a form that will draw our attention is always dependent on the capacity to produce and position such stories. For now, in this world that collapses itself by erasing the past, to encourage the marginalized to tell their stories in comic-book format is a step towards visibility. I genuinely hope comics like these achieve substantial mainstream traction.

The artists that worked on Sauron are: Julius Villanueva, Josel Nicolas, Emilia Kampilan, Lizette Daluz, and Mervin Malonzo. The artists for Dugo at Tubo are: Allan Balisi, Hulyen, Apol Sta. Maria, Mervin Malonzo, Patricia Ramos, Julius Villanueva, Josel Nicolas, Malayo Pa ang Umaga, Erin Abanador, and Lyra Garcellano. The output of the Samantala workshop will be exhibited starting Oct. 17 at the Cubao Shoe Expo in Quezon City, to mark October as the month of peasants. —Ed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.