Continued from On Komiks and Manga.
It was in the 1970s that I had my first encounter with the work of Filipino artists on Marvel and DC Comics. I had a taste of Redondo in DC's House of Mystery and House of Secrets; and over at Marvel's Conan the Barbarian I had a sampling of Alcala. Fond memories those: somehow I knew they were Filipino artists based on the style alone, and a look at the credits simply confirmed it.
There was a nagging question at the back of my mind, though: where were the Filipino artists on the superhero comics? The Filipinos of that time seem worked in the genres of horror, crime, sword-and-sorcery, and science fiction. That's certainly a wide spread for combined body of work, but the fact that the Filipinos were not as prominent from the superhero genre bothered me a bit. Why, indeed?
I think it boils down to a matter of style. Filipino artists of that period simply excelled in depicting the strange and the supernatural and evoking a sense of foreboding. It's something inherent in our culture because we grow up with tales of the dwende, the sigbin, and the engkantos. This is not to say that Filipino artists cannot work on other genres.* It's just that, if I think like an editor for a major comics publication, it would be criminal to waste such talent drawing spandex.
Comics isn't just about the art, it's about the total cohesiveness of plot, dialogue, storytelling, even the gutters and the lettering. Somehow, it all has to fit. And just as Filipino artists of yore had a style that met the dark moods of the stories they were drawing for, manga-style art is suitable -- and sometimes essential -- for some of the stories that contemporary authors are trying to tell. Correspondingly, a serious problem arises when Filipino artists use manga techniques when they are not called for.
Perusing some of the recently published Filipino comics that I have on-hand, I've come up with three categories pertaining to the suitability of the style of art with the story.
1) The style can be essential to the story, that is, the combination is optimal. If we were to change the style of art, it would totally ruin the mood.
2) The style can be complementary to the story. A story may be drawn in a number of ways, and each combination will produce a slightly different flavor of the tale. No one style is optimal, although some styles will not be appropriate.
3) The style can be in conflict with the story, that is to say, it is not appropriate. While this may happen to varying degrees, the story is better told in some other style. What is outside of the first two categories falls here.
These three categories can apply to any style, but for the purpose of this essay, I assessed samples of local comics either done manga-style or with hints of manga. My test subjects: the first issue of Mango Jam, early issues of Cast, and Siglo:Freedom.
Mango Jam is a collection of four ongoing series, all featuring strong female leads. It's a prime candidate because all the stories are done manga-style, well-executed. It gives us four samples in one go.
The first series is Leaves of Glaz, by Maisa Deluria and Cyan Abad-Jugo. It's a fantasy tale with a medieval setting, featuring kings, princes, princesses, and a touch of romance and magic. The artwork is recognizably manga, but with a touch of Disney. Art-wise, its main weaknesses are the sparse backgrounds and the computer-generated sound effects, which detract from its overall effect. That said, given its lighthearted tone, comedic moments, and quick pacing, I would say that the manga style fits the story quite well and is therefore essential.
The second series is Mish, Chief, by Glenda Abad and Kristine Fonacier. It's a comedy involving mischievous grade-schoolers and crazy experiments. The artwork is done mostly chibi-style, not altogether inappropriate for the characters and the subject matter. I actually think it's an optimal combination between style and story.
The third in the set is Kali by Mia Reyes and Karen Kunawicz, and in my opinion, it's the weakest offering of the lot. The titular Kali is a young girl with martial arts prowess and the unusual ability to talk to ghosts. Thus, it's a combination of action and the supernatural. Unfortunately, the pacing isn't well done and there are spots of sloppy character artwork and nonexistent backgrounds. Kali really could have used a more realistic style with lots of spotting. Sadly, Kali falls into the third category.
The fourth series, Twilight's Calling by Ellaine Guerrero and Nikki Alfar, is an ensemble teenage comedy about students putting together a band. With five main characters, one would think it's not easy to pull off, but it just so happens that Twilight's Calling is the best in the collection. The storytelling is very tight and the pacing is just right. In the same number of pages as the other stories, Twilight's Calling manages to introduce the characters and their quirks.
Does Twilight's Calling fall into the first category then? Suprisingly, no. While the manga-style artwork fits well enough, other styles would have fit just as well. A more realistic approach, not too heavy on the shadows and details, would have done. I'm even thinking that Archie-style artwork could have worked for the story.
So much for collections. Let's move on to some of the earlier issues of Cast. Cast, published by Nautilus Comics, is an ongoing series. It's a coming-of-age story for a group of friends in a Catholic high school. There's romance, rivalries, friendships, uncertainty, heartbreak, and the occasional comic relief; in short, it's a drama. Art-wise, the manga influence is fairly obvious, but there's a hint of Disney, too.
Cast has two contradictory weaknesses: the character types are somewhat inconsistent, bordering on shojou for the main characters and chibi for the supporting characters; but on the other hand, the main characters look a bit too much alike, a serious flaw in an ensemble story. All the lead females have the same facial features, marked only by slight changes in hair style. It doesn't help that they're all wearing your typical Catholic school uniforms worn in the Philippines.
These weaknesses lead me to think that the manga/Disney-esque combination is not the best art style for this kind of story. Cast would have been best served by a realistic style, considering the nature of its stories.
Finally, a quick look at two stories in Siglo: Freedom, an award-winning anthology published by Kestrel Publications. Since Siglo is an anthology, it's a mixed collection of art styles. By and large, the styles fit well with their stories.
For the purpose of this essay, the artist in focus is Marco Dimaano, whose artwork is featured in two stories. Marco's style isn't exactly manga, but it's close enough that if I were looking at it for the first time, I'd be tempted to say it was. That said, he has a very distinctive approach, marked by clean, simple lines. Almost manga, though not quite.
Marco's first contribution is Panay 1925, the story of the wife of an ambitious politico. It's a simple story about how the wife, at first feeling lost and abandoned, eventually finds herself; it's quite effective, too, not surprising as it was written by Nikki Alfar.
Because of the effective simplicity of his artwork, Marco's almost-manga approach isn't quite as obtrusive for the historical piece that it's used in. I can read it through the first time without feeling too bothered; however, subsequent readings tell me that the style isn't so appropriate for a story of this setting and theme. It would have been better served by a realistic approach.
But for his next contribution, Pasig 1998, the art style fits perfectly! This story, also written by him, tells of a frustrated teenager who finds solace and release in the world of arcades. It's a contemporary drama, but with fantasy and sci-fi elements as the lead character imagines himself as a superhero, a ninja, and a cannon-toting killer. Because of these imaginary sequences, the Marco's almost-manga style works. Perhaps the theme would accept some slight tweaks in style, tending towards a bit more of realism, but it's a fairly limited margin for adjustment.
A single artist featured twice in the same anthology using roughly the same style. One story works very well, the other story is acceptable but could be better served in another fashion.
Reviews of these works are only one reader's opinion, though; I'd be interested to hear in counterpoints to my observations. Given this spread of works, though, and looking at how appropriate the manga style is to each one, I go back to my original hypotheses:
Some of today's stories, even Filipino stories, are best told in manga style. On the other hand, manga is not appropriate for all stories. It must be used judiciously.
Above all, it is the overall cohesion of art and story that must reign supreme.
*In fact, I have copies of Alfredo Alcala's stint on the Batman in the 1980s. However, as I remember it, the stories were more about mood and less about the action.