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Friday, August 11, 2006

I think the time has come for me to talk about a topic that I've avoided to address directly for the past several years. It's my hope that readers would try and understand the points I'm trying to make, and react to what I actually said, and not according to what they think I said.

It's a pretty long article, and I know the tendency of some to skip and zero in on certain points and take them out of context. Every line in this article is there for a reason, and the reading of this article in its natural progression is essential if anyone truly wishes to understand my stand on this subject.

This article is as complete as I can make it at this time, and no additional comments from me are necessary lest I dilute my original points. For better or for worse, this article stands as it is, and I hope it makes people think of the issues at hand whether they agree with it or not.

The Filipino Comics Artist and Manga

Before anything else, there is something I would like to come clean about. I love Japanese movies. I'm a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa, and I think Toshiro Mifune is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest actor who ever lived. Their work together on Akahige (Red Beard), Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood) and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) are some of the most remarkable films I've seen.

I love Japanese food. Kani Sushi dipped in wasabi: there's nothing like the sensation that comes with the first bite. Most importantly of all, I love Japanese comics. I count Goseki Kojima, Katsuhiro Otomo, Masashi Tanaka and Keiji Nakazawa as some of my favorite artists and influences. Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen is a harrowing look into the horrors of atomic war through the eyes of a child. I regard it as one of the inspirations behind my own work, Elmer, not in the use of the style and visual design, but in the way the story was told honestly, with clarity and lack of frivolity.

So there is no truth at all to the notion that "I hate manga." Let's get that straight right here and now.

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There is some confusion as to the proper term to use, but simply put, “manga”is Japanese comics, while “anime” is Japanese animation. This is the context by which those terms will be used in this article.

What any young Filipino artist needs to be made aware of is just how unique, singular and remarkable manga truly is. Manga is unique in all the world as being the most recognizable art style in comics history, and I have no doubt it will continue be so well into the next century. No other style in comics can come close to it in terms of scope, number of advocates, and pervasiveness.

That such a style in comics be created by the Japanese is no surprise. The Japanese are some of the most nationalistic and patriotic people in the world. Indeed, such examples of their love and unquestionable loyalty for their country are made evident by a cursory glance at their history. At the end of World War II, every Japanese would have gladly taken their lives had their Emperor asked for it in "Honorable Death of the Hundred Million", rather than surrender to the Americans. No other population in any country would have done the same.

The Japanese have a strong sense of national identity, and they take pride in their culture and their history. That sense of national identity manifests itself in all aspects of their society, from film, stage, tv, music, food, architecture, sport, and art. Japanese film is as unique as Japanese food, architecture, art, and so on.

It's a kind of uniqueness that's not too often possible in other countries, least of all the Philippines. We lack a strong sense of national identity, and it's hard to take pride in a culture and history that we know very little of. But more on that later.

Manga is an end result of that national unity, pride in their culture and history. While it is true that manga owes quite a bit to Walt Disney movies, what they have done with that influence is to create a body of art that is startlingly unique, and so completely identifiable as “Japanese”.

The Japanese artists were able to create a comics art style so flexible that it allows for certain individualities to exist (Otomo draws differently from Kojima for example) and yet on a broader scale, their style is governed by a certain set of characteristics that identify them easily as being “manga”. This “group style” is so pervasive in Japanese comics that nearly every artist can be considered to belong to it. Even though many Japanese artists demonstrate a style unique from each other, as was previously mentioned, they all exhibit the unmistakable look of that “group style” that identifies them as manga.

This can be easily demonstrated by a trip to a local comics store. It's so easy, even for a casual reader, to spot what is manga and what is not, no matter who the artist is.

Japan is probably the one country that has the strongest and most recognizable “group style”. Chinese comics or "manhua", and to a certain extent, European "clear line" comics, which exhibit signs of unique “group styles” of their own, pale in comparison.

So it is that as a Filipino artist, I find it personally 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 I 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.

I restrict this personal impropriety only to published works, and do not include illustrations done for fun, on the backs of notebooks, sketchbooks, done mostly as a hobby. I myself have drawn manga in the privacy of my own sketchbooks. But when I draw something that will be published, I take great care to do something different, and hopefully unique to myself.

Published works become records of our accomplishments as writers and artists, and they will be there forever, marking and demonstrating what we have done for all time.

As a Filipino artist, would you want the history books to say that your work follows the Japanese way of drawing? Or equally still, be known in history as someone with no personal identity? In many ways, it's already too late. A noted American comics historian already has made such an observation:

Dr. John A. Lent, Ph.D, a pioneer in the study of international communications and Third World mass media, writes in Comic Book Artist Magazine #4, Vol.2, 2004:

"Manga have greatly influenced the market, generating a genre called Pinoy manga (Philippine manga), new companies and titles such as Culture Crash, Questor, etc., and a batch of cartoonists following the Japanese style of drawing."


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Certainly manga could possibly be a stepping stone from which artists can grow. That's cool! I myself grew from being strongly influenced by Tintin's Herge. I, in fact, drew like Herge for a long time. I count Herge as one of my biggest influences. Add to that Barry Windsor Smith, Frank Miller, Katsuhiro Otomo, Alfredo Alcala and probably a hundred more. I think it's important for any artist new or young, aspiring or veteran to be exposed to many forms of art. This is essential in an artist's growth.

Those influences can be used to inform, to enlighten, and an artist should be able assimilate those influences and create something of his own. So when time came when I had the chance to publish my own work, I made damned sure I was doing something hopefully of my own making.

Some of the difficulty with many young artists is that they manage to get their works published in this early formative stage, when they are still heavily influenced and have as yet to find their voice. It would have been like me finding publication while I was still drawing like Herge (or at least attempting to.). I would look back on all that and just cringe.

To see artists evolve through the years would have been great, but in the 10 years I've observed the artists who started out as manga... with very few exceptions, none of them have yet to evolve, or find a look for their art identifiable only to them. 10 years.... that's a long time guys. Perhaps by generating discussions about this subject through the help of articles like this, it could hopefully make at least some of them stop and re-evaluate their work.

Now if manga is what they truly want to do, then well, all the best to them!

I'm not here to tell people what to do, just to offer them a different point of view.

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A rebuttal often sent my way are scathing remarks about how I “put down Pinoys who do manga while I draw like Americans”. This rebuttal is false on many levels. A misconception many young artists seem to fall into is their belief that the American style of comics can be held in the same regard as manga.

One, it assumes that there is such a thing as an American “group style” of art.

Second, it assumes that my work is identifiable enough to belong to such a “group style”.

And Three, it's a rebuttal the diverts the issue from the one at hand (which is my thoughts on manga) to my alleged “hypocrisy”. It is irrelevant, it muddles the discussion, and if people involved are not careful, such a discussion can easily devolve into nonsensical and illogical banter that just wastes everybody's time.

Allow me to clarify. There is no such thing as an American “group style” of art that is as unique and as singular as manga. Unlike manga, the style coming out of the many American comic book companies like DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, and the many independent companies exhibit styles that owe very little from each other. Looking at the scene broadly, there are no certain sets of characteristics that identify them as belonging one group style.

This can easily be demonstrated once again by another trip to the local comics store. Pick up any comic book, like say Incredible Hulk from Marvel, All Star Superman from DC, and perhaps Conan from Dark Horse.

Take note that the artist on the cover of Hulk is by Spanish artist Ladronn, and inside are artworks by Filipinos Carlo Pagulayan and Alex Niño. All Star Superman is drawn by Scottish artist Frank Quitely. Conan is drawn by Canadian Cary Nord.

There are no sets of characteristics that can possibly join the careful intricacies of Ladronn to the wild stylings of Alex Niño, to the strange quirky quality of Frank Quietely's work, to Cary Nord's soft realism. These comics are products of different cultures converging into a single gigantic melting pot.

Although Americans exhibit a strong sense of national identity of their own, they are more artistically free to choose the direction of their art, unhampered by the same set of cultural principles the Japanese have that assure a unique similarity to their art.

So even within American artists from Frank Miller, to Al Williamson, to Fred Hembeck to Jack Kirby and then to Steve Ditko, there is a distinct lack of an easily identifiable “group style” pervasive enough and similar enough to be labeled unquestionably as “American Comics Art”.

So lacking are they in such a “national” style that there isn't even a word for it.

So strong and unique the Japanese style of comics art is that they have a name for it: manga.

Thus there is very little basis for anyone to compare manga with a perceived, but non-existent American “group style”. To say that someone "draws like the Americans", or "draws like Marvel" or the like, unfortunately just doesn't make any sense.

If America will be regarded at all with respect to manga, it would be by individual artists. Manga vis-a-vis Frank Miller, or manga vis-a-vis Joe Madureira, for instance.

So if anyone could be accused at all of “drawing like Americans”, specific artists need to be cited. Which artist is being copied? Jim Lee? Todd Mcfarlane? Mike Mignola? Kevin Nowlan? John Byrne? Bryan Hitch? Alan Davis? (Not all of whom are Americans, I might add).

If I am ripping off any particular artist, I would like to know because I take great pride in my pursuit of a personal style that's unique to ME, although I can concede that my work is the product of absorbing different kinds of art from different kinds of artists for many years. I try not to let any particular influence shine more brightly than others, but if I do, I do it unknowingly and I would appreciate it if anyone would call me on it.

Because as much as I avoid using manga professionally, I avoid using the work of other artists just as vehemently, be they American, Spanish, French, or even Filipino.

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The justification many young artists have for using manga is their assertion that there is “no such thing as Filipino art anyway.” It's a false assumption based on a lack of awareness for our own history and culture, and a distinct lack of a strong sense of national identity as Filipinos.

It would come as a complete surprise to many, and no doubt skepticism from others, but yes, we do have such a thing as a unique Filipino style of comics art. In fact, I can even consider it a very strong “group style”, which was once upon a time as unique and as singular as manga.

This style was pioneered by the likes of Francisco V. Coching, and further developed by Nestor Redondo and Alfredo Alcala. Only Alex Niño was able to break from the traditional “group style” and was able to create something uniquely his own.

David A. Roach, writing for the Comic Book Artist Magazine, (Issue #4, Vol. 2, 2004) describes this style as follows:

"What the Filipinos shared was a good, solid and usually (Niño excepted) conventional approach to storytelling, exceptional draftmanship, and exuberant florid brushwork which harked back to the golden years of magazine illustration in the first few decades of the 20th Century."

In the early 70's, if one is so immersed in Philippine comics, the “Filipino style” is as unmistakable as manga is today. If one picked up a DC comic book in the 70's, one can immediately tell if the artist was Filipino or not. Our style was that recognizable.

There was no name for it, but Americans have called it the “Traditional Filipino Style”. It is however, all but extinct in comics today.

A certain semblance of this traditional style can still be gleaned from the works of Lan Medina and Roy Allan Martinez, but it is no longer as distinct as it was at its peak in the early 1970's.

It's extinction is both good and bad.

It's bad because we no longer have that traditional art style that have once given our country much honor and acclaim. It's hard to believe today, but decades ago, the Filipinos were considered as one of the finest artists in comics, displaying a style that was beautiful and unique.

Jon B. Cooke, writing for the Comic Book Artist Magazine (Issue #4, Vol. 2, 2004) writes:

"...the Philippine 'school' of artists (in the 70's), a stunningly talented group of men who made an immediate and lasting impression on the industry and among appreciative readers. Strange sounding names -- DeZuniga, Niño, Redondo, Alcala, etc.-- would quickly become familiar and quite welcome..."

"As a group, these Asian artists were astonishingly accomplished and talented almost beyond measure. Certainly the top three talents -- Redondo, Niño and Alcala -- stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any comic book artist the world over, bowing their heads to no one."

The extinction is also good because I have a growing belief in the individuality of an artist. I think having a national “group style” is good, but it also restricts the individuality of an artist, and it closes his mind and hampers his natural instincts to evolve. More and more I'm starting to believe that to conform to a “group style” for the sake of nationalism is ultimately unproductive because it restricts personal growth and evolution.

However, I do think we need to look back into our history, study the art created by those who have gone before us. If we could still ever value ourselves as citizens of the Philippines, we owe it to ourselves to learn about ourselves, specially when we are a people who are virtually lost and disconnected, who don't have a strong sense of national identity.

That strong sense of identity is something that we have always lacked as a people, not only with respect to comics, but with practically everything else. It is why we are so easily swayed and influenced by trends and fads. As a people, we are so ready to give up who we are, and our very culture, for the sake of the next big thing.

The Japanese people are not immune to such fads themselves. But no matter how much they appreciate American movies, music and art, their strong sense of identity allows them to absorb such influences, but still create their own unique works of art.

In the case of Filipinos, what we create is strongly influenced by what we appreciate, be they American, Japanese, or European forms of art. Because once upon a time Jim Lee was popular, we drew like Jim Lee. Because today manga is popular, manga is what we draw.

We're trend followers and fad fanatics. We're so ready to follow whatever other people are doing, whatever is popular.

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 am disheartened that so many young artists would allow themselves to be so regarded. I, however, would not be able to stand it.

It is the very reason why I'm writing this, not fully sure if I will be understood or even listened to. My early efforts to raise awareness about this issue brought me mostly ire and hatred. I decided to change tactics and put up the Philippine Comics Art Museum online.

My presentation of the art of our old artists must never be construed to mean I am advocating a “return” to the traditional style of Filipino art. My online museum, and my various writings on the subject must never be construed to mean I am displaying all these old artists as templates by which young Filipino artists can copy. To come to such conclusions would mistake my intentions.

It is hoped that by being presented with the work of our earlier generations of artists, young artists of today would be made aware of our own glorious history in comics. Such information is difficult to come by and no blame is made on them who are not made aware due to reasons beyond their control.

They often say, “there is no such thing as Filipino comics art!” But I am here to say, yes there is, and here is historical and objective proof. That is why my online museum is here. That is the reason for my incessant articles.

Let history be laid plain for all to see and at last be made aware that our previous conclusions and beliefs have not been based on truth and fact.

Armed with this knowledge of our past, it is hoped that our young artists be given, even for a little bit, a certain sense of who they are as Filipino artists. A strong sense of identity. That there is much to be proud of, much to learn, much to appreciate, and very much to be inspired with.

If I am talking about all this again today, it probably means that while a certain amount of progress has been made in terms of awareness, I now feel a more aggressive, but hopefully a far less offensive approach is needed to get my points across.

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If I am not advocating a return to the traditional Filipino style of comics art, what then am I pushing for? What can be considered as “Filipino comics art” today?

Our culture is defined by what we create as a people.

It is true our culture is slowly evolving. And it is also true that if enough Filipino artists create Japanese art, then Japanese art will become part of our culture. It's inevitable. In many ways, it already is.

But the question one must ask... is it OK with you that Japanese culture becomes ours? Is it OK with you that we have nothing to call our own, nothing that we, as Filipinos, can point to and say, THAT is ours? It's so easy to say yes, specially for those who have no strong sense of identity.

Re-emphasizing the assessment of comics historian Dr. John A. Lent, Ph.D:

"Manga have greatly influenced the market, generating a genre called Pinoy manga (Philippine manga), new companies and titles such as Culture Crash, Questor, etc., and a batch of cartoonists following the Japanese style of drawing."

In the words young artist John Becaro, who thankfully enough is remarkably aware of the issues at hand, writes in his deviantArt journal (~johnbecaro Journal Entry: Tue Aug 8, 2006 ):

"we are so obsessed on this medium, without knowing that we are embracing and promoting other culture instead of our own."

It's a good point. There is a line that separates the appreciation for another culture, and becoming part of that culture. Many of us blur the line and find themselves over it without realizing it. We can avoid that if we know who we are as Filipinos.

It is this sense of identity that I hope young artists today will try and find for themselves. I have encountered some artists who use manga in their comics, and told me they do so because they don't consider themselves Filipinos anyway. And to be honest, I really don't have anything to say to that.

But if you think of yourself as a Filipino, and you value being one, you owe it to yourself to look back and study our history, our culture and the art our people have produced. I hope my online museum could give you at least an aspect of our culture, but it's obviously not enough. Visit our museums, browse the numerous books we have on our heritage and history. Immerse yourselves in it and learn from it.

If what we create today would define our culture, then let it be something that belongs to us. We are creating our culture today. YOU will be the ones that will define it, and YOU will be the ones who will be responsible for defining what "Filipino Comics Art" is, whether it will be manga, or something we ourselves have created.

Let's try and create new things, and do them in ways that no one else has thought of. The possibilities are endless, and we are limited only by our imaginations. As Filipino artists, I like to think that our imaginations are some of the largest and most creative, don't you agree? It can be difficult, but I believe it can be done. If we create something that is original enough and unique enough, then it will become part of our culture, and it will become part of what "Filipino art" is today. The fate of our culture lies in your hands.

-Gerry Alanguilan
August 11, 2006
San Pablo City

PS. There is a notion being postulated by some inestimable colleagues that they take offense at anti-manga stances because they feel that their beliefs and their way of life outside of comics are being attacked. I don't understand how a stance on the use and non-use of a style in comics can ever be construed as religious and social intolerance. I don't understand that jump in logic.

Distinction has to be made between "consumption" of elements of a foreign culture, and the "creation" of the same. Our culture is defined more by what we create, than by what we consume. We are no less Filipino when we eat Japanese food, and although we are no less Filipino citizens when we use Japanese art to create Filipino comics, it does put into spotlight that we no longer have a voice of our own.