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The History and Importance of ‘Komiks’ in the Philippines

By CZYKA TUMALIUAN
Photo courtesy of KOMIX PAGE

A combination of two forms of picture writing, illustrations and the letters that form words, we celebrate 90 years of komiks in the Philippines this year. Although national hero Jose Rizal has always been considered the first Filipino cartoonist, with his illustration of the fable “The Monkey and the Tortoise” for Truebner’s Record of London back in 1889, it was only around the 1920s that komiks became a valuable force in Philippine culture and society.

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Sold at sari-sari stores nationwide at one point of our history, komiks were accessible to any type of reader, for the jeepney driver who might not have finished high school, or the manang who cooked in the nearest carinderia. Marginalized in the academe as it incorporated a lot of “bakya” language and culture, komiks cut across social strata, reaching out to, and affecting, both the elite and the masses, democratizing knowledge, literature, and art in manifold ways.

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Once considered as the country’s “national book” or “bible of the masses,” komiks were the primary source of information and entertainment in the provinces. According to comic artist and historian Randy Valiente, komiks were also instrumental in teaching Tagalog to locals in Visayas and Mindanao.

Komiks was a vehicle to hone citizens from the province in their use of Tagalog,” Valiente wrote in Pinoy Komiks Rebyu.

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Religious and political readers would always use komiks to spread their views and opinions to influence the thinking and behavior of the ordinary citizen, while writers and activists would use it to resist the socio-cultural hegemony and present a different perspective and set of ideology, such as the recently published comic zine Sauron by Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA) and Dad Balagtas by Emilana Kampilan.

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The critical role and contribution of komiks to nation building is incontestable. Understanding the Filipino psyche through komiks is crucial in knowing who we have been, who we are, and who we could become as a people.

A brief history of Philippine komiks

Komiks in the Philippines officially started with the launch of Telembang at Lipang Kalabaw in the 1920s. The publication included the works of Jorge Pineda and National Artist Fernando Amorsolo depicting anti-American and satirical comic strips.

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The continued popularization of comics gave birth to Liwayway magazine, which featured the characters Kenkoy by Antonio Velasquez and Kulafu by Pedrito Reyes. These characters from the magazine remained ingrained in the Filipino consciousness before World War II, mirroring and sharing the mind of the masses. For the longest time, Liwayway was the only source of comics in the country.

The critical role and contribution of komiks to nation building is incontestable. Understanding the Filipino psyche through komiks is crucial in knowing and understanding who we have been, who we are, and who we could become as a people.

After the World War II, more and more Filipinos were creating comics, opening doors for other publishers. The first comic book, Halakhak Komiks, was born under the editorial direction of Isaac Tolentino, published by Universal Bookstore owner Jaime Lucas, considered by many as the first komiks publisher.

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Tolentino helped in making myriad cartoonists known through this initiative, including Damy Velasquez, Elmer Abustan, Francisco Reyes, Francisco Coching, Fred Carlilo, Gene Cabrera, Hugo Yonzon, Juan Perez, Jose Zabala Santos, Larry Alcala, Liborio Gatbonton, Lib Abrena, Pedro Coniconde, and the previously mentioned Antonio Velasquez. Hakakhak Komiks had 10 issues in total.

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In 1947, Liwayway hired Don Ramon Roces to publish a comic book under their wing, resulting in the second official komiks printed in the Philippines: Pilipino Komiks. Launched June of that same year under Ace Publications, the new komiks publication became an instant hit. Featuring the works of some of the cartoonists who published in Hakakhak Komiks, it also presented the works of National Artist Vicente Manansala.

Filipino women in komiks 

A male-dominated space, a few women thrived in the comics industry around the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Elena Patron, Nerissa Cabral, Gilda Olividado, and Helen Meriz. They were all comic writers whose stories were illustrated by male illustrators.

In an interview, comic artist and historian Valiente revealed that Khandie Fernandez should be considered the pioneering female comic artist. She was already doing manga-style illustrations in the ‘80s when it was not yet mainstream.

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“I really don’t know why the scene was male dominated,” says Valiente. “But I think it was because when women got pregnant, their priorities would shift, and they would give more time for their family.”

Today, we have Animo Comics, Haliya Publishing, and Gantala Press, all supporting local women making comics in varied vernacular languages. This includes Emiliana Kampilan, Betina Continuado, as well as Hulyen and Patricia Ramos.

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Self-publishing has also grown in popularity, allowing varied voices in the comic scene to surface. Independently organized small press expos, such as Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX), Komiket, Komura, Munzinelupa, and Zine Orgy, serve as incubators for the youth to explore new ways to tell their stories and publish without censorship or literary “jurisdiction.”

Historical continuity in komiks

While komiks continue to blossom and mature, Valiente says there is a need for young comic makers to look back and be aware of the long history of komiks in the Philippines.

“I wish kids are more aware of the long tradition of komiks,” says Valiente. “It keeps you grounded.”

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Indeed, knowing your history allows you to contextualize what you create, pay homage to the ones before you, and be part of the ongoing dialogues and discourses in the komiks scene. Only then would a comic artist really add a valuable narrative and contribute to the growth and development of komiks in the Philippines, and, consequentially, the growth and development of the Filipino people.

The author is a comic writer who also writes poems. She is a consulting curator at Lopez Museum and Library. An advocate of progressive education and free press, she is also the founder of Kwago bookstore, Komura book fair, and Kopya digital literature archives. She is one of the three Filipino fellows in the 2018 Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators.



Source: Manila Bulletin

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