From something that was deemed just for kids to something that currently enjoys widespread appreciation as a legitimate form of art, Filipino comics have come a long way. On print and online, the popular storytelling medium has featured all sorts of characters imaginable, covering everything from sci-fi and folklore to creative nonfiction and current events.
At a time when every corner of the artist’s mind seems to have already been explored, the question is, how do current storytellers manage to come up with original work?
Manix Abrera and Mervin Malonzo, two of the modern comics great in the country, tried to answer this question during Box Talks, an intimate creative workshop hosted by Beyond the Box Philippines.
Life is full of stories, and these stories all serve to inspire. For designer and cartoonist Malonzo, folklore continues to be a favorite source—after all, he is known for writing and drawing the National Book Award-winning comic Tabi Po, a graphic novel about Filipino horror culture.
“Take something familiar. Something people are intimately familiar with,” Malonzo shared.
“Stay true to the character’s core. Once you establish that connection, break the character and make it your own,” the comic artist further noted.
He presents as an example Elias, the main character from Tabi Po. Elias is an aswang, which is perhaps the most grotesque among local monsters—often portrayed in movies as a severed torso with bat wings. Elias’ aswang meanwhile, is given a facelift, and is presented to readers as a charming, innocent lad.
Tabi Po’s story also revolves around his human-like problems, which allows the reader to somehow identify with what would otherwise be seen as nothing more than a monster.
The hidden wells
Storytelling is often seen as a one-way street, one where the artist feeds the reader with a narrative. But this isn’t entirely the case, at least for Abrera. That’s how he keeps readers engaged, even if his two most popular comics—“Kikomachine” and “News Hardcore”—dwell mostly on the most familiar slices of everyday life.
The reader’s mind is an untapped pool of creativity, and it’s one that Abrera manipulates with great efficiency. He explains his fondness for the gutter—that blank space between frames—, which is where imagination takes place as the reader advances between scenes.
“Avoid spoon-feeding the audience,” Abrera noted. “Share the burden of storytelling.”
By strategically leaving out bits of the narrative, Abrera is able to engage the reader’s imagination as they are forced to fill in the blanks between well-defined scenes.
Abrera’s success has a lot to do with his knack for finding creativity in the most unlikely places. He explained how Kikomachine, for example, makes use of even the most mundane scenarios from college life.
“We’re all familiar with life in school, but we know it mostly through the point of view of a student. Have you ever thought about viewing it through the eyes of the teacher? The security guard? What about the POV of the frog on the dissection pan? Identify the most popular point of view in your story, then stay as far away from that as possible,” Abrera explained.
Sometimes, even the most creative geniuses find themselves staring helplessly at a blank piece of paper. When that happens, the easiest source of help is another creative genius.
It’s not just about scale. According to Malonzo, nothing squeezes creativity out of an artist like some good old collaborative work.
“Sometimes, the need to complement your partner forces you out of your creative comfort zone. It makes you come up with things that you otherwise would not have been able to even think of,” Malonzo explained.
And it certainly is easier to collaborate nowadays, since artists have options beyond the traditional pen and paper. Abrera, for instance, shared he doodles on his tablet whenever and wherever inspiration strikes.
“Digital art is also easier to share, so that means I can annoy my partners more often,” Abrera finally said with a chuckle.
Both artists are no strangers to collaboration, having worked with aplenty of other creative minds throughout their careers. Most recently, the two teamed up with international comic artist Harvey Tolibao to create “Beyond,” a compilation of comics drawn entirely using the iPad Pro.