Tuesday, March 29, 2005

[Book Review] Culture and History by Nick Joaquin

One of the books that I actually bought out of my own volition rather than required reading, Culture and History is a collection of essays by the late Nick Joaquin, perhaps one of the greatest Filipino writers of the 20th century. While Joaquin was a master of the short story and novel, Culture and History shows that he was talented when it came to nonfiction as well.

More than just a history book, Culture and History gives us a different perspective on just as the title implies: culture and history. Although it’s been written down more than a decade ago, Joaquin tackles several modern issues, perhaps a tribute to his foresight and flexibility. In this book we see talk of nationalism, of what makes us a Filipino, and certain nationalistic movements which aren’t really nationalistic.

What’s courageous about Joaquin in this publication is that he plays devil’s advocate and challenges a lot of Filipino complaints when it comes to history. Because of that, there’s perhaps a pro-Spanish slant, but Joaquin justifies all of it with his explanations and discussions. Perhaps what’s even braver is that Joaquin is not afraid to point out several weaknesses of our culture, hindrances which we have overlooked all for the sake of “national pride”. There’s a lot of ideas that is discussed in the book, and the author paints us a more holistic picture of history.

Speaking of history, this book is not just an essay citing various texts. Culture and History has a history of sorts, although it’s not prevalent one we Filipinos learned during our high school and grade school years. There are accounts of the Santo NiƱo, accounts of a strong female religious movement during the Spanish era, and accounts of events in Asia and in the West in general. While perhaps not as “historical” as your text books, Culture and History also has some relevant historical markers in addition to showcasing Joaquin’s views on Filipino history.

The book is far from boring, but it’s not as entertaining as say, the history books of Ambeth Ocampo. Culture and History is a book for those who are more interested in understanding Filipino history (and history in general) rather than just history for the sake of knowledge. And if you think you know everything there is about Filipino culture just because you’re a Filipino, you might want to read this book. Lastly, it’s not for the faint of heart because the book will challenge several prevailing concepts which seem right, especially to our “nationalistic” Filipino hearts. But upon closer inspection, are we really being patriotic or merely deluding ourselves with illusion?

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.

[Book Review] Prophecy by Elizabeth Haydon

Finding its predecessor ho hum, I didn’t have high hopes for Prophecy. Still, it was an enjoyable read nonetheless and Haydon had built on something in the previous book. I was curious as to how the story would develop and whether there would be an improvement in Haydon’s writing style or storytelling.

Suffice to say, Prophecy is fairly consistent with the book that preceded it, Rhapsody. This novel is your standard fare of romance fantasy along with the tropes of an outdated genre, from love at first sight, romance, prophecy, and destiny. It’s not really my cup of tea although I’m sure there’s a market for it.

The story was mediocre. Some thing went as expected, others with a hint of surprise here and there. In the end, Haydon follows the same formula she did for Rhapsody, and there’s really not much deviation in this book. There’s more poetry at the start of the novel though. One thing in which it could have improved upon though was the inclusion of an appendix. Unlike other thick Tor novels, this novel didn’t have an appendix at the end and it would have been helpful to have had one, especially in tracking down the various characters in the story.

Despite all the cons against Haydon, she still does manage to write a compelling narrative. Description is still her strongest point, and while perhaps it’s not as excellent as say George R. R. Martin or Sean Russel, it’s still above the generic fare of fantasy that’s out in the market. Haydon’s descriptive talent is probably along the lines of other Tor-published authors like Robert Jordan and Jacqueline Carey.

While it was a good read, Prophecy isn’t really something I’m keen on. If you like formula in your reading material, then you’ll probably like Haydon. Again, the target market of this book is those who are really into the romance fantasy genre. And despite the premise of three main characters, the book is really about the stubborn heroine, Rhapsody, and the rest behave more like supporting characters. If that’s your thing, be my guest. Just don’t expect anything breathtaking or innovative in this particular fantasy series.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (book review)

Never saw the movie, but heard the title mentioned over and over again in magazines and websites to the point that Fight Club has become a cult pop icon. When I saw a copy being sold at the local bookstore, I bought myself a copy.

Fight Club can be deceiving. It was a short novel at barely more than 200 pages and the text wasn’t overwhelming. But never confuse thickness and complexity for quality for Fight Club certainly had the latter in spades. While some readers might perceive the novel to be nihilistic and violent in nature, Fight Club is actually cathartic and gives the reader much room for interpretation. Palahniuk successfully writers a modern novel for a modern audience.

The book focuses on two characters, the narrator and the enigmatic persona known as Tyler Durden. Whereas other writers might have focused on the setting and description, Pahalniuk gives us a first-person perspective of things and the way he executes his narration through placement of words and sentences is simply amazing. Language is another of Palahniuk’s strong suits as the two main characters speak frankly and directly, two distinct characters with different perspectives and speech patterns. While Fight Club doesn’t have a huge cast, Palahniuk focuses on the central characters in the novel.

One can never get enough of the human condition and that’s essentially what this book explores. There’s a big twist in the end, but I think readers are prepared for that. Fight Club was never about fighting, but rather the realization of the human soul.

I enjoyed the read, brief as it was, but Palahniuk shows that a lot can be accomplished through simplicity and imagination. There’s a lot of things that is appealing in the book, and you don’t really have to be a fan of fiction or suspense to thoroughly enjoy this piece. It’s short, simple, and brief, so it should retain your attention long enough to get by.