Receiving the award for Best Novel Written and Illustrated by an Artist for "The Hands"

Remembering Hal Santiago: How a self-taught artist became a Filipino komiks icon

The young komiks artist would go to Quezon Bridge and just observe people—because observation, to him, is the mother of imagination.   
Rhia Grana | Feb 22 2021

Philippine komiks recently lost one of its most prolific writers and illustrators in the person of Dominador “Hal” Santiago. Komiks fans from the '60s onwards will remember his name for bringing to life, through his art, Pablo S. Gomez’s “Sun God,” Carlo J. Caparas’ “Saka Natin Itanong sa Diyos,” Elena Patron’s “Isang Minutong Kasalanan,” and Jim Fernandez‘s “Unica.”

Getting his award for "The Hands."

Santiago’s “The Hands” is regarded by John A. Lent in his book “Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign” as one of the most successful fantasy stories in Philippine comics. It also won Santiago in 1984 the Best Written and Illustrated Novel from WIKA, an association of Philippine comics distributors. The series, first serialized in Pioneer Komiks in 1976, tells the story of Kaliwa and Kanan, a pair of one-eyed living hands with telepathic powers and extraordinary strength.

With wife Rosita who transcribes his scripts as he dictates them from his imagination.

Born in 1935, Santiago started his career in the 1950s as an illustrator for Bulaklak Magazine and as a freelance illustrator for various publishing houses. A correspondence with his idol, legendary illustrator Harold “Hal” Rudolf Foster, creator of “Prince Valiant” and “Tarzan,” inspired him to try his hand in comics illustration in the mid-‘60s. Santiago had since adopted his idol’s name when creating komiks material. 

A sample drawing from Santiago. Image courtesy of Tristram Santiago.

In 1967, Santiago joined the Pablo Gomez owned-PSG Publications, where he illustrated the novels “Durando,” “Kuwatro,” and “Ang Kampana ng Sta. Quiteria.” His exposure to the craft led him to also dabble in writing, giving his audiences the memorable komiks series “Pinoy Houdini,” “The Hands,” and “Weird Science.”

Works of Hal Santiago. Courtesy of Allan Balisi

Now considered a comics icon himself—writer Jim Fernandez, in fact, calls him the “Raphael of [Philippine comic book] illustrators”—Santiago has likewise served as an inspiration to the younger breed of artists, as can be gleaned in a YouTube video published in 2016 by Indie Komiks Podcast.

Santiago with komiks legend Francisco Coching and his wife, among others.

“Observation is the mother of imagination,” he told the group, sharing the importance of sharpening one’s eye towards one’s immediate surroundings, in order to create compelling graphic images. For the young artist, this meant going on early morning trips to the Quezon Bridge to study the quirks and behaviors of people and the society they belonged to.

Works of Hal Santiago. Courtesy of Allan Balisi

For Santiago, one didn’t learn the art of storytelling, whether through writing or drawing, in a traditional school. That’s why he would immerse himself in books. He would often hang out in libraries, one of which is the United States Information Service library in Escolta. Creating komiks, he said, involved the study of various artistic styles as well. 

With his children Joseph Christian, Parcenet Isolde, and Tristram Stanley Arthurs.

In the beginning, Santiago would work at the pier so he could earn extra bucks to buy himself some cartolina. “Mahirap noong nagsisimula pa lang akong mag-komiks,” he shared. He remembered the rates to be P5 per page, and he’d usually get a four- or five-page project. “Sa kasunduan, paghahatian namin ng editor ang bayad. So sa bente pesos, akin ang sampu. Hindi COD o cash on delivery noong araw, ang tawag namin COP—cash on paglabas.”

With son Joseph Christian. Image courtesy of Tristram Santiago

As soon as the issue is out, he’d pick his editor up from his favorite hangout, the billiards hall, and they would go to the publisher’s office to pick up the check. From billiards hall up to the time Santiago hands his editor his half of the pay, “akbay-akbay niya ako.” 

Through hard work, Santiago eventually became one of the most sought-after writers/illustrators of his time. “Sa bawat linggo may apat o limang pahina. Meron doong twice a week lumabas. Kaya noon, 16 hours ako kung magtrabaho,” he recalled.

At the opening of son Tristram’s gallery and frameshop, Framegate Inc., with youngest child Katwin Clara Elsene, and his grand children Parcenet Isolde, Maginel, Clifford, Ashley Demedici, and Gwyneth Alexandra.

His wife would help him by transcribing the script he’s dictating from his imagination. “Basta’t ako salita nang salita. Sulat sya nang sulat. Pagkatapos kong idikta, ipababasa ko sa kanya ng malakas, magbibigay ako ng comment kung may dapat baguhin. Pag binasa ng malakas yun, para ka ding nakikinig ng drama. Nararamdaman mo kung ang istorya mo ay maganda ang dating.”

Posing with his ink and brush drawing on vellum.

Santiago believes difficulties are experiences that shape an artist, citing France and Italy as examples. “Kaya maganda ang music nila diyan, dahil katakut-takot na gulo at hirap ang dinanas nila...Kasi kung puro ginhawa, boring.”

Making art, according to Santiago, is ultimately about giving a piece of yourself. “Paglalaanan mo talaga siya ng panahon,” he says, “at dapat buhos ang kalooban mo.”