Monday, March 28, 2005

[Essay] The Purity of Pinoy Comic Art

I’m not in a good position to talk about Pinoy comics, especially considering the fact that while I am a comic fan, I’m not a comic artist. But hey, epiphanies do not exclusively belong to artists and there are some ideas that I’m open to considering that I’m an outsider. With the advent of anime and manga’s popularity in Philippine culture, one of the unresolved debates in local comics revolves around that fact. On one side, there are those who gratuitously copy the anime and manga art style. On the other are the vanguards of Filipino comic art, claiming that the actions of the former are a betrayal of our fore bearers, and that local comic art should be nurtured rather than something we should acquire from elsewhere.

First and foremost, I think mimicry is an inevitable step in growth. I mean one of the ways we learn is by copying someone else. In this case, it’s art style. I mean what artist didn’t use tracing paper or carbon paper during their developing years? As much as I want geniuses to unleash their talent once they’re born, that’s not usually the case. The artist has to grow, has to mature, has to develop. Imitation is part of this developmental stage, growing pains if you will. Having said that, an artist shouldn’t really use that as an excuse not to grow. I mean it’s really tempting, especially for us Filipinos, to stop once we’re good at something. I’ll dare to say that once you’ve mastered someone else’s art style, it’s easy to fall prey to stop developing your own style and from then on just utilize the style that you’ve cloned to perfection. While anime and manga might be a good art style, I don’t think Filipino technique should stop there. After all, anime and manga is for Japan. We also have our own heritage, our own history, or own style of making comics. While one might say that mimicry is part of growth, the question I want to ask in response is when do we start going beyond that phase?

Of course for me, it also seems folly to exclusively follow the path of the Filipino purist. I mean one contention is that rather than seeking influences in anime and manga, a Filipino comic artist should ground his works on what was previously established, such as the art style of Mars Ravelo with works like Captain Barbel and Darna. To me while that is a valid path to developing your own art style, it’s not the only path, or rather, just because you choose a different method doesn’t make it any less “Filipino”. I mean sure, draw your influences from the Filipino past if you want. But I don’t think one should limit it to merely that era. Doing so limits one’s possibilities. I mean there’s only so much you can develop when basing something on just a few styles or techniques. And if there is some true innovation to happen, one must go beyond the existing canon.

The contention of the Pinoy comic purists is that when we borrow another culture’s art style, be it America, Japan, or Europe, the artist’s style ceases to be Filipino. Which I don’t think is true, considering that history and culture is not a static entity but rather a dynamic and adapting force. I mean take a look at manga. While we now recognize manga as being the embodiment of Japanese comic art, manga draws its influence from Western art, namely that of the early Disney animation, which is why early works of manga had characters with huge eyes. But despite that, we don’t classify manga as Western comics. The Japanese made it their own, adapted it to their own culture, despite the fact that some fundamentals were drawn from the West. Is the same not possible for the development of Filipino comic art? Obviously, I’m not saying we copy manga’s art style left and right, but rather be judicious about our pickings, and incorporate what’s useful rather than ignore it simply because it’s not Filipino, or automatically include it simply because it’s cool and Japanese.

Perhaps the other idea I want to contend is that our culture has changed from the “Golden Era of Pinoy Comics”. I mean let’s face it, anime at the very least has become part of the present-day Filipino culture. That wasn’t so two decades ago (although we could claim that we had a Voltes V culture back then) but that’s certainly the case nowadays. I mean I’m sure most Filipinos have a vague sense of what anime is, can identify anime and non-anime art, and probably has a favorite character that they idolize. My main point in all this is that anime has become a part of Filipino culture, just as guisado, kamote, and kalabasa have become a part of Filipino culture even though those products weren’t native to the country. But hey, I don’t hear Filipinos denying the cultural authenticity of guisado, kamote, and kalabasa. The same goes for anime, although when it comes to art, Filipinos have yet to transform and develop anime and manga art style into our own. But just because there’s much room for improvement doesn’t mean the possibility isn’t there. To simply exclude anime and manga, claiming that it’s Japan’s thing and not our own, is perhaps being too narrow-minded. Do the artists who are influenced by anime and manga need to work on it before it becomes authentically Filipino? Yes, there’s actually much room for improvement. Right now we’re probably just taking our baby steps. But just because that’s the case doesn’t mean that Filipinos who are influenced by anime and manga are less Filipino than those who draw their influences from, say, Mars Ravelo. Art style, much like culture, is evolving.

Much like a lot of things, extremes aren’t necessarily the best solution. Beneath all the art work and art styles when it comes to Filipino comic art, while the technicalities of things are important, we mustn’t also lose focus of the vision and the spirit of what it means to be Filipino. I mean look at English, and despite the fact that it’s a Western language, we Filipinos have incorporated it into our own culture and made it our own. It shares a lot of similarities with American English, the syntax is the same, yet in a certain sense, our English is Filipino. Perhaps the same could be extended to art styles, and while at the surface it might look-alike, underneath it is something rich and vibrant in terms of local culture. But much like what I said earlier, we haven’t exactly reached that point yet, and must strive to develop our own art styles, whether we draw our influences from the past or from foreigners.

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