Graphic novels and comics always make me feel like a newbie, always discovering new works by old people, old works by new people; always overwhelmed by the amount of talent that there is, mainstream and independent. I stopped going to Komikon because I would horde everything: comics, chapbooks, xeroxed works, and come home even more confused about which ones I like and why.
There was no such crisis with Arnold Arre’s Halina Filipina (Nautilus Comics, 2015), a graphic novel which is as commercial and mainstream as Arre comes, and which seems to have gone over the heads of many, for probably the same reason that I loved it.
It’s about romance.
Doing archetypes better
As love story, it necessarily fell upon archetypes. Except that in the case of Halina and Cris, these are layered with more complexity than your run-of-the-mill romantic-comedies, or even, local chick lit.
Cris is your every Pinoy man, struggling writer, with not much going for him except a shitload of information about music and film, with a preference for the indies, and the insistence that writing be critical. He’s no metrosexual, but there is an easy charming smile, a slouch that can make your heart flutter, smarts and intelligence, maybe some wit, that makes him lovable. Cris’ discomfiture is one that is familiar to any Pinay who’s been faced with the archetype of torpe—complete with the urong-sulong of almost, not quite, maybe courtship.
Halina, meanwhile, is the now dime-a-dozen half-Filipina half-American, finding her roots, trying life out in the Philippines. She is a beautiful woman, whose looks bring her places in a country that is enamored with the Fil-Am—the white, the tall, the usually not heard. And here is where Halina’s complexity is interesting: she is intelligent. She does not care about how she looks, as much as she cares about understanding this culture better, spending time with relatives, seeing what the nation she does not know has for her.
The way it is written out in Halina Filipina, this combination is actually more believable than those Sam Milby films (yes, he’s our every Fil-Am guy). Here, it’s not just some regular guy falling in love with the bombshell. Instead it becomes a relationship that is premised on real conversations: about being Pinoy, about family, about the difference between growing up in the Philippines and elsewhere. About this Fil-Am girl who is without the trappings of entitlement even when she lives off privilege, and this every Pinoy man who is financially challenged, but uncompromising in his craft.
It’s a perfect, because complex, pairing.
Then there is contemporary Filipino culture that Arre layers this story with, one that makes it an enjoyable read, but also one that makes it more believable as a love story that is set in the crazy urbanity of Manila, class crisis and struggle included.
And so there are conversations over the phone, where Cris wades through a flood, and Halina happens upon a fair at the park alone, and decides to have a beer, eat some streetfood, walk barefoot. There is the song that catches her fancy, but which she cannot sing nor understand to save her life; and there is this moment when it finally plays again, and Cris translates every line for her.
There is that time when Halina is brought by her relatives to the (in)famous, tacky game show du jour, which of course picks her from the audience and has her stand on stage, to be laughed at for not understanding the Tagalog that is happening around her. Her cluelessness is borne of the lack of entitlement, her sense that this is all worthy of being experienced, her denial of the notions of social class upon which the existence of this game show is based.
Cris watches her and his educated, necessarily elitist, take on this product of contemporary pop culture is revealed. He is angry for no reason other than that he is Filipino “critic” who looks down on these TV shows in the way that Halina does not—stranger as she is to nation, fascinated as she tends to be with it. It is also nothing to her, she is passing through. It’s not that she doesn’t know better. It’s that she doesn’t need to know better.
The rift is real, and as with many of the more important things about love (that we like to deny), it is bound to the fact of a class divide.
That Arre decides to write it into this love story was daring in itself; that he did so carefully, without judging one to be better than the other, without the requisite moralizing and grim-and-determined polemics, was wonderful to read.
Man writes/draws love
One realizes that as with the rom-com, there is so much to learn when men write creatively about love.
And no, it’s not the old idea of a different perspective, nor is it about men being from mars, etc. etc. It’s really about the kind of romance they bring to the table, where in the case of Halina Filipina, it is not just about the tried and tested kilig moments, nor about the usual crises of other loves, departures, distance.
Instead there is a sense here of the many other things that are in the romances we decide to engage in, if not the loves that we decide to keep. There is sense of humor, for example, the ability of people to laugh at themselves, and to laugh at the world together. There is difference, and distance that highlight what remains instead of what is lost. There is redundance, where what is repeated is not so much a sign from the heavens (which is what girls would think), but also a signal to do something, do it now, lest the moment suddenly stops repeating itself.
Or you can just take the bull by the horns and make sure it will repeat itself.
Love and romance can be about that, too.