KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 3 — Did you know that many Filipino artists are drawing some of your favourite superhero comics? Hotshot illustrators from the Philippines include Leinil Yu (Avengers, Wolverine), Francis Manapul (Superman/Batman, The Flash) and 20-year veteran Whilce Portacio (Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man).
These are mostly mainstream American comics though. What about independent work with a more local flavour? Enter Filipino comic creator Andrew Drilon who was in town recently for the Cooler Lumpur Festival. Best known for his experimental webcomic, Kare-Kare Komiks, the affable 29-year-old is a regular cartoonist for The Philippine Star newspaper and a recipient of the Neil Gaiman Philippine Graphic/Fiction Award.
“My entire life I have always loved comics. One of my earliest memories was picking up a comic book that my brother had left around the house. This was Crisis on Infinite Earths published by DC Comics. In fact, my mini-comic Supermaker was my way of paying homage to this bombastic thing that comics do. As I grew up, I realised that there are people making these comics – a writer, a penciller, an inker and a letterer – and I started to think maybe I can do this too,” he says.
As a student, Drilon started making amateur comics and passing them around to his classmates. “In high school, I found this dirty, beat-up ‘ashcan’ comic, which is basically a photocopy. You just run your work through a copier, add two staples and you got yourself a comic! I thought to myself, ‘I got to do something like this; it’s so cheap!’”
Self-publishing comics taught Drilon not to wait for perfection but to seek feedback constantly as a means of improving his craft. He recalls, “My first comic was called The Germinator – basically me stealing from Swamp Thing and The Authority and creating this superhero made from germs, set in the Philippines. It was really terrible, but it was a start. It gave me the sense of accomplishment because I had actually done something that I put out there that people were reading and responding to. Even the negative comments were great because those pushed me as an artist to be better.”
The young comic creator consequently got plenty of attention from established publishers before he even graduated high school. “I was asked to be part of this anthology which blew me away because all the creators there were already in their 30s and working, whereas I was just this 17-year-old kid who was self-publishing. That job led me to do a newspaper comic strip called RAN Online for five years.”
The newspaper was The Philippine Star, a national daily which meant Drilon had to learn to work within editorial constraints. “I had to make sure it was family-friendly as it was a tie-up with a local games company to advertise a Korean game. The costumes the characters wore were very skimpy so I had to worry about not showing too much. The crazy pressure with a weekly deadline was wonderful for me; I learned to keep doing it for five years and just putting it forward.”
Drilon credits this early exposure with giving him a solid foundation. “I’m not ashamed to say, my first year or so, I had some really terrible work that came out, but I sort of learned on the job. Ultimately I was forced to learn how to letter and to colour, to refine my drawing and make them print ready.”
The self-confessed comic geek’s creative influences have matured over time. He says, “During high school, I was reading superhero comics such as X-Men and Spider-Man, which are great but not necessarily very sophisticated. Later, when writer Grant Morrison took over the X-Men, it showed me how my childhood X-Men could be interpreted in a drastically different way without altering its essence. I learned I could do more with comics.”
Hungry for more erudite fare, Drilon started reading critically acclaimed work such as Warren Ellis’s The Authority, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. He says, “This got me into webcomics. I joined The Engine, a now defunct online forum by Warren Ellis for both professional and aspiring comic creators. I started posting my webcomics, jumping genres from romance to horror to science fiction. Ellis himself would comment and he called one of my webcomics,The Legend of Caraboy, ‘F-ing genius!’”
The Legend of Caraboy is a pastoral fantasy set in a rice field in the Philippines. Drilon explains, “In my country there is a tradition of realist stories, about a poor country boy lying on the back of his carabao (water buffalo) dreaming of a better life but not being able to get it. I decided to make fun of that story by mashing up the carabao and boy into this hulking, hybrid creature who would just wander around fighting aliens invading from another dimension, robots from the future and evil doppelgangers.”
This willingness to experiment and wear his Filipino background on his sleeve won Drilon many fans. He became the only Filipino invited to join The Chemistry Set, a collective of American webcomic creators. He says, “I got so much feedback for my Kare-Kare Komiks. What really touched me was how many Filipinos were suddenly actually reading my work, not just readers from abroad. With my work, I’m not ashamed to talk about my country. I’m not going to hide the fact I’m Filipino. This is the place I grew up in, and my comics are set in my country and in Manila.”
Drilon observes that many Filipino comic creators working abroad are more likely to be artists than writers. “Since the 1970s we had people like Alex Niño who worked for DC Comics and Alfredo Alcala who had worked with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing – it was all art. Maybe the Philippines has always struggled, being a post-colonial country, dealing with multiple languages. While I identify completely as a Filipino, I grew up in a household who spoke English. I think in English. There was some nationalistic backlash that argued that creators like me shouldn’t be using English in our work; we should be using Tagalog, but I disagree.”
He adds, “I feel we shouldn’t be sad that we are appropriating Western languages and ideas. We should take ownership of them; they are ours now. I suspect in the future the label ‘superhero’ as a Western idea may be lost; it will just be a global idea. Just like English has just become one of the global languages, and Mandarin too.”
Currently, Drilon is working on his first full-length graphic novel, Black Clouds. “It started with me being invited to write a feature-length movie based on Filipino myths and horror stories. I contributed to the script and worked out the plot; I was also invited to do a graphic novel based on the movie. The thing is, it was supposed to be 80 pages, and then it became 120 pages. Last year it hit 160 pages and now I’m pushing 200. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger!”
He pauses, before admitting, “I should have worked with an editor. I have been working on it for almost four years at this point so it’s a very personal project. Sometimes I think to myself, maybe I should have started with something less ambitious and not my version of Watchmen, you know what I mean?”