As a follow-up to Budjette Tan's two-part article about the Filipino contribution to Western comic books, I thought it would be interesting to chat with some of the artists he mentioned. Budjette put out the call for me and two to respond almost immediately were Leinil Francis Yu ("X-Men," "Wolverine," "High Roads") and Gerry Alanguilan ("Stone," "Wetworks," "X-Men"), currently the penciller and inker on "Superman: Birthright" respectively.
Although born in the Philippines, I've lived most of my life here in Canada and haven't visited my birthplace since I was a teenager. But since I love to hear what the comic scene is like in other parts of the world I thought this was a perfect opportunity to pick someone's brain about what comic books sell on that side of the pond, what it's like for freelancers and aspiring creators there, and generally what the state of the industry is in the Philippines. Surprisingly, it all sounds quite familiar. So, when these creators talk about their trials and tribulations breaking into the industry both at home and in the US, they're sending out a universal message to aspiring creators the world over.
After I geek out a little bit and ask what it's like to be working on a Superman book, we get into a discussion about the manga invasion, presumptions about "cheap labor" from foreign countries, and how it's often about who you know that gets you the gig. Budjette joins us in this conversation. And you need not be Filipino to appreciate what was said…
TORRES: So, what's it like working on a Superman book?
YU: I'm having a blast! Though I wish I only needed to draw 2 pages instead of 22.
TAN: That would be called a pin-up, not a comic book.
YU: Nah, a two-page spread. Heh.
ALANGUILAN: It's terrific working on Superman! I can't believe it, I'm actually working on the BIG guy!
TORRES: To me, way over here in Canada, it's a pretty big deal that a couple of Filipino guys are working on a Superman book. It's the whole "local boy done good" but… er, long distance? Anyway, what's the reception to that been like over there?
YU: Here... it's ok... everyone just keeps asking me for free copies... heh.
ALANGUILAN: It's always sold out here to the point that we have to give our comp copies to stores to help them out.
TORRES: Does the local media make a big deal out of you guys working on Supes? Here, every so often you'll see press about a Canadian artist making a splash on the American comic scene.
TAN: Are you kidding?! Nil and Gerry are always in the newspapers!
ALANGUILAN: Really? Where?
TAN: Well... they've been in the major daily... twice? thrice? Almost every year they talk about you guys for one reason or another.
YU: We get some unwanted attention... ask Gerry.
TORRES: What do you mean by "unwanted"? Like stalkers?
TAN: Some people think Gerry is Whilce Portacio.
YU: Everyone here read comics… ten years ago. Not now. So, they always say: "I thought Superman died?"
TAN: A lot of heart-broken girls write Gerry because of his graphic novel "Wasted."
YU: At least he gets cute girls.
TAN: Too bad he's married.
ALANGUILAN: Yeah... a lot of cute girls like "Wasted."
TORRES: Okay, let's talk creator-owned projects. Everyone here would love to do that in the US market, right?
YU: I've tried it and it's not for me. It stresses me out to see that it's not selling well.
TAN: What do you mean? You didn't like your experience with "High Roads?"
YU: Good reviews are always overpowered by bad sales.
ALANGUILAN: Well, I'd love to do that, J.! I'm trying to find a US distributor for "Wasted" now.
TAN: Gerry, why don't you try Image?
ALANGUILAN: I don't think it's for them. It's more of an indy thing.
TORRES: You never know, Gerry. Try Image. Really. What's the worst that could happen? They say no. So?
ALANGUILAN: I'm just waiting for Cold Cut to approve carrying it.
TAN: Image seems to release several b/w graphic novels a year. You might want to try.
TORRES: So, how would you describe the local comic scene? What about the Filipino comic book industry?
TAN: The local comic book scene is alive and kicking! Lots of what would be classified as "indy" books since there are no big companies like Marvel and DC over here.
ALANGUILAN: It needs a lot of work. A lot of unprofessional stuff is being produced, but there are some gems once in a while. "Zsa Zsa Zatturnah" in particular. But the really good thing is a lot of young creators are excited about doing comics.
TAN: The industry that was once dominated by Atlas Komiks is not doing well. Atlas is like our Marvel/DC Comics. Circulation is down and their work is not as outstanding compared to what was produced during the 60s and 70s.
TORRES: So, we're talking mostly self-published and small press companies?
ALANGUILAN: A lot of self pub and indy comics are being produced, yes.
TAN: Small press with 500 to 1,000 copies circulation and "zinesters" who Xerox 10 or 20 copies of their books.
TORRES: What about genres? What types of komiks are being produced locally?
ALANGUILAN: Surprisingly varied stuff is being produced. Ten years ago there were lots of superheroes, but there's less of it now with more real life stuff.
TAN: But we do have our fair share of horror titles, adventure, fantasy, and of course, super heroes. And also romance stories as well.
YU: There are successful manga influenced comics around.
TAN: In the past two to three years there have been a whole lot of manga-look-alike books.
TORRES: Would it be safe to say that it's a fairly diverse market in terms of genres?
ALANGUILAN: It's quite diverse... but we're talking about a very small market mostly concentrated in Manila.
TAN: Yeah, it's not dominated by spandex/mutant books.
TORRES: Since it's been brought up: How big is manga over there? Is it as popular as it is over here from what you can see?
TAN: It's insane! It's taking over the world!
ALANGUILAN: Atlas should be included since they've just produced "Charm," but I hardly see anything from them now.
TAN: "Charm" is a rip-off of a comic book called "Witch," which is being printed locally by the biggest magazine company in the Philippines. "Witch" is a manga-esque book created by Disney.
TORRES: We're looking at something like 60% of bookstore sales of comics coming from manga product. I don't know what the direct market stats are like, but most shops I walk into have a growing manga section.
YU: I guess it's shaping up to be that way here, too... but a few notable bookstores still have huge comic sections devoted to American mainstream comics.
TORRES: What American comics do they carry? The Big Two? Any indies? What formats? Monthlies? Graphic novels? Both?
YU: Trade paperbacks of DC and Marvel comics only.
ALANGUILAN: I know those book stores, notably Fully Booked. A lot of Marvel and DC stuff, but lots of Crumb books too... and "Tintin"...
TAN: Fully Booked also brings in books from Dark Horse and indies like Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore's non-mainstream work.
TAN: The two big bookstores mostly bring in American trade paperbacks and graphic novels. They have yet to develop a section for manga.
TAN: There is one store in Quezon City that has a whole section of manga books. So far, the biggest I've seen.
YU: Let's burn it down, Ger.
TAN: Can't burn it down, Nil. Because the same store sells Gerry's "Wasted." Heh-heh.
TAN: CCHQ is the name of the store. Half of their stocks are manga (original and translated).
ALANGUILAN: Yeah, there is an impression that manga is very popular literally everywhere.
YU: Give it up, Gerry, manga is the new Beatles.
ALANGUILAN: There is something there that people respond to quite well...
TORRES: Gerry, I know you've expressed "concern" over the manga "influence" on Filipino art in the past. Would you care to elaborate a little on that?
ALANGUILAN: My main concern is that of originality. Drawing in a popular style to me, is like leaning on something that is proven. I would like to see artists standing on their own talent than lean on what others have done.
TORRES: Let's talk about style then. Once upon a time, you could point out a Filipino style in komiks. I don't think you can say that nowadays. But is that something you consider important?
ALANGUILAN: I agree that there was a predominant Filipino style established decades ago and you can still see it in the works of Lan Medina and Roy Allan Martinez now. But Filipinos have grown more diverse because of more diverse influences. Globalization has come into play here... and I'm not one to demand that Filipinos draw in one style just for the sake of nationalism. I'm more for originality and the search for an individual style.
TAN: This new generation of Filipino comic book artists grew up reading American comic books and watching anime. So, I guess, that's why the styles suddenly shifted.
ALANGUILAN: Especially with the Internet and the proliferation of art books and the ease in which one has access to them... it's so easy to be influenced by from something from say... Scandinavia. Which wasn't possible before.
TORRES: So, who are your artistic influences, Gerry? Leinil?
ALANGUILAN: Right now I'm rediscovering Nestor Redondo and I think some of that has rubbed off on me. It's evolving I think... the way I draw.
YU: I'm influenced by American artists mostly from comics. Outside of comic books, I really like the works of Norman Rockwell and Mort Drucker from Mad magazine.
ALANGUILAN: Yeah... Mort is pretty evident. I'm inking it now.
TORRES: How important is it to you guys to be recognized as Filipino comic artists?
ALANGUILAN: It's quite important to me. I need people to know that it's a Filipino that's doing this. Lord knows Filipinos need the props up once in a while... especially now with all the bad news coming from over here...
YU: I'm mighty proud and it feels good to meet Filipinos abroad who like my work and are inspired by it.
TAN: I don't know if it's me being too patriotic, but I think it's great to find out that the skill and talent of a fellow Filipino is recognized internationally. We are considered a Third World country, but we possess world-class talent.
TORRES: You know, we have so many Canadians working in comics but they're virtually invisible in the sense that you can't tell from their style that they're from a whole other country. But like you guys feel, I a certain sense of pride… okay, maybe pride's too strong a word… but at least I'll go "hey, that's cool" when I do hear that such and such a creator is Canadian or Filipino.
YU: Is Canada a country now? JOKE!!!
TAN: We feel proud because America has been dominating so many things, including the pop culture scene, that to have someone rise above that seems to be an achievement.
TORRES: I have friends in Argentina and Mexico and Australia and for them it's all about getting work in the US because the local industry can't support all the homegrown talent. Is getting published in the US the "Holy Grail" for comic creators over there?
TAN: I personally want to work for Marvel and DC, because I grew up reading their characters and want a chance to tell stories in their universe. It's like being able to finally play in the playground you've always wanted to enter.
ALANGUILAN: Getting that US job benefits Philippine-based artists in lots of ways. They get to do their countrymen proud by being able to work competitively with people from different countries. The pay is good, even if it may not seem so in the US.
TAN: Well... you get paid in dollars, which is always a big thing to anyone not living in the US.
TORRES: Could you make a living doing comics in the Philippines only?
YU: IMHO... hardly.
TAN: Make a living doing local komiks? Sure! But you have to write/draw 10 or more stories to earn a lot.
TORRES: 10 or more stories... per month?
TAN: Yup... per month.
TORRES: That's insane!
ALANGUILAN: The pay here cannot compete at all. The last time I did work for those traditional comics, I got like $6 for 4 pages of pencils, inks, letters and writing!
TORRES: 6 American dollars?
ALANGUILAN: Yep! 6 US dollars.
TAN: And that rate hasn't changed much in the past 20-30 years.
ALANGUILAN: The newer companies pay better I think. Like Culture Crash. I don't have figures though.
TORRES: Do you get paid the same rates as American artists?
YU: One thing I hate is the assumption that we get the job because we're cheap labor.
TAN: Yup... Nil and Gerry are not cheap.
YU: Is Michael J. Fox paid less because he's Canadian?
TORRES: No, but it's cheaper for him to film in Vancouver than in LA. I think it's a fair assumption that some comic companies might want to exploit the "cheap labor" there. We all know it's happened to some degree in comics and I was just wondering what the situation was over there these days.
ALANGUILAN: I personally don't get paid less than my American counterparts. They didn't get me because I was working for $6 a page. I get paid the same as everyone else. The best local pay I got was like 80 US dollars a page, but that was only one page a month for a local music magazine.
TAN: Until local comic book companies/studios can pay higher rates, I think the local artist will continue to seek jobs outside the country and be lured by the greener grass abroad.
YU: True. Heck, I think we were willing to work for free just to break in....
TORRES: I wouldn't say that too loudly!
TAN: I still get email from college kids who say, "Will work for free!"
ALANGUILAN: When I started out, I was actually willing to work for free just to get my name in a comic book. Unfortunately, this is something that some people can take advantage of. And I won't deny that it's happening. But with the Internet, it's harder to be taken advantage of especially when you have an international community at your fingertips to tell you what's really happening and how much you really should be paid.
TORRES: Yeah, God bless the Internet. I can't imagine doing what I'm doing now, say, five years ago.
YU: We started with minimal Internet over here. We used fax machines.
TAN: But you guys made Fed Ex rich!
ALANGUILAN: A lot of Filipino artists managed to work for DC and Marvel and be very successful even without the benefit of the Internet, so it's possible. But it's definitely easier nowadays. It's still hard, but not as hard.
YU: But life really is easier...
ALANGUILAN: Life may be easier but it's more expensive.
YU: It basically boils down to longer deadlines and quicker interaction.
TORRES: Hey, I used to have to attend shows and visit other cities to talk to editors about work. Nowadays, I don't have to even leave my house anymore!
TAN: You have better chances of getting discovered thanks to the Net.
ALANGUILAN: Honestly, I've gotten jobs because people saw artwork on my site.
TORRES: There you go. You didn't have to go to a con or send your stuff to an editor.
TAN: Even with all this technology, it's still a matter of knowing the right person. Meeting that friend of a friend of the editor of that book. Maybe I'll get a job now through Friendster. J
TORRES: You're so cynical. But I thank you, and Gerry, and Leinil for taking the time to do this.
TAN: You're welcome! Thanks!
ALANGUILAN: Thanks, man!
YU: No problem… Gerry, get back to work!
Next week: The comic book answer to "Politically Incorrect" or "The View" - you decide.
Meanwhile, visit the Open Your Mouth forum to express your views on this week's column, politically incorrect or otherwise.
Thank you for your attention.