Sunday, August 13, 2006

On Komiks and Manga

One of the blogs I follow regularly is Gerry Alanguilan's. Gerry is a comicbook artist, formerly the inker on Superman comics and currently creator and publisher of the quirky Elmer. More importantly, Gerry is also the custodian of our unique heritage that is komiks by way of his Philippine Comics Art Museum.

A few days ago, Gerry posted a long essay on "The Filipino Comics Artist and Manga". I thought it was an important piece because it tackled the differences between komiks -- Filipino comics done in the manner of traditional Filipino artists -- and manga -- comics done in the Japanese fashion. To a wider extent, it also touched on the Filipino identity, one which finds expression in comics. That's why I'm a little surprised that there's not much feedback on the issue on the local comics-oriented blogs. Perhaps all the action is taking place in discussion forums elsewhere; unfortunately, I don't participate in those.

Gerry's analyses deserve some comment. As a longtime reader of comics and komiks, here's my attempt at a response. Mind, it's helpful to read Gerry's original post before you proceed.

Now, it seems like such a trivial discussion, this thing between komiks and manga. What's the fuss? They're both only comics and they're both kid stuff, after all, right?

Not exactly. Comics as an art form are an important part of a nation's culture and heritage. They may not get the same level of academic credibility as poetry or sculpture or painting; in fact, comics are very masa and that's why they're crucial as art. Comics represent the tastes and sensibilities of the larger cross-section of the people; that, in turn, reflects their identity.

The conflict stems from the entry of manga into the Filipino comics scene. Manga originated from Japan and is distinctively Japanese. It's become very popular worldwide and has taken deep roots in a dedicated fanbase. The Philippines is a significant part of that.

Spurred on by the popularity of its close cousin anime, the manga art style has become so popular that almost all of the new Philippine comics that have come out recently have been done in that vein.

Gerry laments: manga, a foreign influence, is edging out our native comic art styles. Are we in danger of losing yet another part of our identity and our culture?

Quoting from the essay: a Filipino artist, I find it inappropriate to use a style that is so uniquely a product of Japanese culture and history, and indeed any art style that is the product of the culture and history of any other country, to create comics and then call it “Philippine made comics”. I only make a distinct example of manga because as I have carefully demonstrated, it is the strongest and most recognizable "group style" in comics

And a little later:
In this kind of environment, few people will ever be inspired to create something new and fresh. Few people will try to walk their own path, busy as they are being careful to follow the footsteps of others. We will never be originators, inventors and innovators. We will never be trend setters that set the standard for other people to follow. We will always be the followers.

I can appreciate where Gerry is coming from. Comics, as I've said, do form part of our identity, and to disregard our native forms would be a great loss.

For the most part, though, Gerry focuses on the art styles. There are other dimensions that Gerry doesn't cover. While I don't profess to have the definitive word on these aspects of comics, they might be worth investigating in order to get a more complete picture.

First is the matter of the audience. Comics get published because they have a potential market of buyers. Perhaps more accurately, comics of a certain type get published because the publishers think they have that potential market. I think that rule applies to manga-style Philippine comics as much as it does to the traditional komiks.

The first manga-style comic to hit the bookshelves was Culture Crash, and it was very popular with its audience. To this day, fans remember it with some wistfulness. Culture Crash ultimately folded, more as a a result of business decisions rather than a lack of readers. What's surprising to me is that it lasted as long as it did. Culture Crash featured no ads whatsoever, so presumably all their income derived from sales. If someone has a more complete story on this, I'd love to hear it.

These days, you have other manga-style comics. The art of Mango Jam clearly has some Japanese influence. So does Cast, to a lesser extent, possibly through the circuitous route of W.I.T.C.H.. A newcomer, Neo Comics, introduced two titles, Epics and Fables.

Honestly, I don't care much for this current crop of local offerings. That, however is beside the point. These comics see the day because their publishers and advertisers think they are addressing a particular demographic; whether the demographic actually exists and can sustain the comic is a matter for a very hard lesson. A case in point is the extremely short-lived Fantasya, which featured a mix of both manga- and komiks-style art.

Why does this demographic exist? With two generations that's been heavily exposed to anime, there's a strong Philippine affinity for the Japanese art style. While many Filipino artists have been heavily influenced by anime, so have Filipino audiences. A publisher, expectedly, would hope to profit from the association.

Unfortunately, we no longer have the thriving komiks industry we once did to see how manga fares vis-a-vis other Filipino comics styles. But I am fairly certain, though -- what with the steady bombardment of animation on TV and related merchandising in the shops -- that any vacuum in local manga would quickly be filled.

Continued in On Komiks and Manga: Style