News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Mystery, Magic, and Love in Manila: A Review of Three Graphic Novels from the Philippines - A Review Essay

by Lara Saguisag

Arnold Arre. The Mythology Class. Tuttle Publishing, 2022. 368 pp. US $18.99. 9780804855426.

Arnold Arre. Halina Filipina:  A New Yorker in Manila. Tuttle Publishing, 2022. 224 pp. US $14.99. 9780804855440.


Eliza Victoria and Mervin Malonzo. After Lambana:  Myth and Magic in Manila. Tuttle Publishing, 2022. 192 pp. US $16.99. 9780804855259.


What a gift from Tuttle Publishing: the Vermont-based press, which specializes in English-language fiction and nonfiction produced in and about Asia, is making Filipino graphic narratives available to a wider international readership. In Summer and Fall 2022, Tuttle published four Filipino titles, and more graphic narratives are scheduled for release in the coming months. (See review of Tokyo Rose in this issue.)

One of these titles is Arnold Arre’s The Mythology Class, which was crucial to the development of a robust independent comics scene in the Philippines. Originally published as a four-issue miniseries in 1999, Mythology Class received the inaugural Philippine National Book Award for Best Graphic Novel in 2000. The series was subsequently published as a bound edition by Adarna Books in 2005 and rereleased by Nautilus Comics in 2014. Mythology Class tells of the adventures of a group of college students who are recruited by time-traveling epic heroes to help capture enkantos--or supernatural creatures--that have invaded the human world. The most dangerous of these enkantos are a pack of aswangs, who had been cursed by Bathala and imprisoned in a vessel by the hero Lam-ang. After being inadvertently freed by humans, the aswangs seek vengeance, vowing to destroy Bathala’s most beloved creation:  the human race. The young students, led by Nicole Lacson, find themselves in a high-stakes battle that will determine the fates of both humans and enkantos.

More than 20 years after its initial publication, much of Mythology Class remains fresh, vital, and engrossing. It is arguably Arre’s most well-realized work. With its black-and-white illustrations and skillful blending of elements of fantasy, horror, comedy, and adventure, some readers of Mythology Class may be reminded of Jeff Smith’s Bone. With its large cast of characters who possess various skills, Arre’s graphic narrative is also reminiscent of comic books featuring superhero teams, such as X-Men and Justice League. Arre is especially adept in creating distinct and memorable characters, despite having a wide-ranging cast that includes humans, superhumans, and nonhumans. Readers even get a glimpse of the motivations, desires, anxieties, and heartaches of creatures such as the nuno, anito, and siokoy. Mythology Class also includes a number of well-developed female characters, although Arre does occasionally fall into the trap of objectifying their bodies. For example, the outspoken Misha is the target of recurring fatphobic gags.

Mythology Class is also in the tradition of Filipino fantasy-adventure komiks such as Franciso Coching’s “Pedro Penduko,” Carlos J. Caparas and Steve Gan’s “Ang Panday,” and Rod Santiago’s “Buhawi Jack.” In line with these various series, Mythology Class offers reassurance that good will triumph over evil. But Arre also smartly explores the tensions between mythology and modernity. As it pictures the variances and tensions between old and new, between human and supernatural, Mythology Class points to how the modern world, with its gun violence, pollution, and consumerist distractions, contains its own horrors. It is also important to note that Arre’s target audience is different from that of series like “Ang Panday.” Written mostly in English and sold at a relatively high price point through comic book shops and high-end bookstores, Mythology Class is aimed at middle-class Filipinos who are fluent in English and have disposable income. “Ang Panday” and similar series, on the other hand, were written in Filipino and appeared in mass-produced floppies that were often sold by street vendors or rented out in local sari-sari stores.

Halina Filipina:  A New Yorker in Manila, Arre’s sixth graphic narrative, is a clear departure from Mythology Class. Halina Filipina is a more intimate story that focuses on a young Filipino American who experiences crises of identity and love. Originally published in 2015 by Nautilus Comics, Arre’s romantic comedy focuses on the relationship between Halina, a New Yorker who visits the Philippines to get to “know [her] roots,” and Cris, a Filipino film critic who introduces her to some of Manila’s delights.

Through Halina and Cris’s dialogue, text messages, and meaningful gestures and glances, readers witness the blooming of their romance and their moments of heartbreak. But the graphic narrative curiously offers very little of Halina’s inner life. Most of the narrative is preoccupied with showing her relishing in the sights, sounds, and flavors of Manila, and her primary conflict seems to be choosing between her aloof White boyfriend in the U.S. and the ever-attentive Cris. At some point, she confesses to Cris how she feels both alienated in the U.S. and the Philippines and struggles to understand where she belongs. But what is supposed to be a climactic scene of identity crisis feels unearned.

Moreover, Halina’s character development is hindered by her repeated objectification. Several male characters, including Cris, see her as a uniquely desirable object, a biracial woman who is alluring because of her foreignness and proximity to Whiteness (Halina refers to her father as “American” but is not specific about his race, though the narrative implies that “American” in this context is to be taken as synonymous with “Caucasian”). Arre seems content with readers adapting rather than interrogating the male gaze. Halina becomes a cover model for a magazine, and is dressed up as the mestiza Maria Clara, an iconic character from Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere whom Rizal held up as a paragon of modesty and femininity. Later, she appears onstage in a game show wearing a flimsy white dress, with shading that draws attention to her breasts and genital area. In one of the final scenes, Halina and Cris finally express their feelings for one another as they dance. Cris appears mesmerized as Halina’s provocative movements and expressions make her appear as if she were on the verge of sexual climax.

While Halina Filipina is peppered with wry commentary about the Philippines’s obsession with Whiteness (for example, readers see an ad for skin-whitening products that reads, “Whiteness is next to godliness”), Arre himself seems unable to resist glorifying its fair-skinned protagonist. In its exploring what it means to be Filipino, Halina Filipina ends up expressing Filipino self-contempt. The narrative repeatedly derides the structure and sound of Philippine English. Meanwhile, Halina’s mispronunciation of Tagalog is depicted as cute, and Cris even apprehends her attempt to learn the phrase “Bababa ba?” as akin adorable babytalk. Cris also repeatedly rails against Filipino game shows and popular Tagalog movies, which he considers to be cheap, vulgar, and meaningless. Cris’s rants are, to some extent, warranted:  game show hosts such as Willy Revillame have demeaned and mistreated their audiences and contestants, and many Filipino films, produced primarily for profit, are derivative and formulaic. But Cris’s commentary feels elitist, reinforcing rather than challenging class hierarchy in the Philippines. He upholds middle-class tastes and sees the working-class and the poor as passive consumers and/or hapless victims. The narrative also fails to acknowledge Halina’s privilege. She is able to take several months off from work and delights in a version of Manila that is wildly different from the Manila that Cris--and many other Filipinos, for that matter--inhabit.

The last of the trio of recent graphic narratives from Tuttle is Eliza Victoria and Mervin Malonzo’s fantasy-horror After Lambana:  Myth and Magic in Manila. This absorbing narrative focuses on the relationship between Conrad, a young man who is afflicted with an inexplicable disease, and Ignacio, a stranger who agrees to help him find a balm and perhaps even a cure for this life-threatening malady. After Lambana also explores the intersecting politics of the worlds of diwata (fairies), sirena (mermaids), and humans. Ignacio turns out to be a diwata prince who is eager to reclaim Lambana, the lost realm of his people. A consequential decision that he made in years past is now haunting him, his fallen nation, and Conrad.

As in Mythology Class, After Lambana depicts the tense intermingling of humans and supernatural beings. But while Mythology Class asserts that humans have the right to capture, expel, and slay supernatural beings that cross the threshold and supposedly invade the world of humans, After Lambana offer a more complex view of what happens when humans interact with creatures of magic. While the narrative shows that humans can suffer from hexes and magic-borne maladies, it also insists that human cruelty and greed results in the displacement and disenfranchisement of nonhuman beings.

After Lambana, at heart, is a meditation on how one can try to live with and atone for mistakes and harms they committed in the past. Victoria’s contemplative story is strikingly complemented by Malonzo’s illustrations. Malonzo’s lines express both delicacy and disquiet, and he uses color to signal transitions in time and space, from present-day Manila to flashbacks to Conrad’s childhood by the sea, from shadowy, cramped urban spaces to the luminous land of Lambana. Malonzo’s illustrations not only express the mysteries and beauties of both human and magical realms; they also effectively picture the terrors that desperate, fearful, and vengeful beings, be they human or nonhuman, can commit against others.

With these three graphic narratives, Tuttle Publishing offers a glimpse of the vitality of independent comics publishing in the Philippines. Hopefully, it will continue to publish comics titles from the Philippines. Such an effort will not only showcase the wide range of styles, perspectives, and interests of Filipino comics creators, but also potentially remind readers outside of the Philippines of the country’s unique contributions to the development of comics.

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