Art by Gica Tam
Culture Books

To each his own pugad: when did comics become political?

Sometimes, entertainment is a more accurate state of the nation address
Paolo Vergara | Nov 05 2018

Around cartoon and comics circles in the United States, there has recently been discussions that this medium is essentially political. This is no doubt sparked by the fact that Captain Marvel, portrayed via male and female alter-egos in the original comics over the years, is decidedly female in the upcoming movie adaptation. This is undoubtedly shaped by the United States’ strong political culture.

Closer to home, this former US territory embraced the medium especially at the height of our colonial days. Still, the way we relate to politics is different from how the American public relates to theirs. Party lines here aren’t as ideologically charged as in the US, and Filipinos in general tend to take a seemingly resigned approach to the powers-that-be. Owing to this, humor has always been our weapon of choice, and komiks are a popular pluck from the arsenal.

A thread by Marvel writer Matthew Rosenberg on comics and politics.

 

Some komiks are blatantly political, like the long-running Jesse Abrera strip A. Lipin and Rene Andrada’s Prof, from the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Philippine Star respectively. Some titles from these broadsheets also reference political issues, like Pol Medina Jr.’s Pugad Baboy or Manix Abrera’s Kikomachine. These last two strips have since been incorporated into digital publications.

Whether creators intend to or not, whether they’re brandishing fire or just having fun, politics, as an inseparable facet of culture, always kicks in one way or another, in any era.

Mga Kabalbalan ni Kenkoy, published by Liwayway magazine at the height of the American occupation, though never explicitly political, was nonetheless shaped by the milieu: its titular character often spoke in pidgin English and tried to keep up with the fashions and mannerisms of the times, often with humorously disastrous results. It was a wry jab at the Filipino attitude of setting the colonizer’s standards as the standard.

Almost 20 years after Kenkoy hit the press, Mars Ravelo’s Darna was initially rejected by publishers thinking that a “superheroine would not sell.” Believing that a postwar Philippines needed her, Ravelo persisted with his serial comic. The first Darna film came out in 1951, even before the source material wrapped its plot up. 

While American comics are made in a cultural climate that’s blatantly political, Filipino creators in the colonial and Martial Law eras, often facing censorship, have had to be more subtle. The Marcos years witnessed the “Filipino Invasion” (or more accurately, exodus) of artists and creators leaving the islands for the US to work uninhibited.

Pugad Baboy, part of the wave of komiks appearing after the martial law years, is more upfront in nodding to politics: a main character is a communist rebel (who has since defected to start a socialist farm, as of strips published in 2016), who often drinks with a government soldier; they are best buddies from the same barangay. That same soldier, portrayed as womanistic and chauvinistic, is ironically subservient to his feminist wife.

In the late 90s and well into the 2000s, independent creatives jumped on cheaper printing and the democratizing powers of the internet. Some titles have garnered acclaim, winning National Book Awards. These include Arnold Arre’s turn-of-the-century serial The Mythology Class (which is witnessing a reprint) and the ongoing Trese series by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo.

How have political realities shaped this new wave?

Gerry Alanguilan’s Eisner-award-winning Elmer is about racial equality, but from the point of view of sentient chickens. Paolo Fabregas’ superhero-epic The Filipino Heroes League draws much from social realities (like OFW brain-drain where heroes “go abroad to become sidekicks for American heroes”) to alternate histories (think of the EDSA Revolution but as a Marvel-universe epic battle). Mike Alcazaren claims that his irreverent and gory action-horror-comedy serial Patay Kung Patay was never intended as a political piece, yet it still draws from questions of authenticity faced by media people all while satirizing the lifestyles and vices of dirty-rich Filipinos across generations

The titles, whether their aim is to draw laughs or deliver page-by-page adrenalin and action, are nonetheless influenced by the milieu their creators find themselves in. Komiks are always incidentally, if not intentionally, political. Komiks have also influenced culture directly, as the names of titular characters such as Kenkoy and Ravelo’s Bondying have found their way into our language.

The medium’s changes over the years could also factor how “political” a topic becomes – one to three-panel daily strips, which often accompany the news cycle, are the obvious candidates for commentary. Today, television has replaced komiks as the medium of mass entertainment, and the latter became a niche genre, often taking the “longform” approach as serialized or otherwise one-shot visual novels. They allow for more space to discuss ideas and probe the stylistic limits of the medium. As such, the market for komiks has also come to include middle and upper-middle class audiences. Some would argue that komiks can be classified as high art, but that’s a box we’ll open another day.

Perhaps politics is its own entertainment—a world of high drama—and in our time of fake news, alternate histories, and conspiracy theories where reality is increasingly stranger than fiction, the era’s fiction doesn’t have to try so hard to be fanciful, and reality doesn’t have to try so hard to be entertaining.