55 Balete: The studio where Pinoy comic book legends were made

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From the creative process of iconic Filipino comic artists to playing guest to Pinoy rockstars such as Alamid and Eraserheads, the creative studio Starfire Visuals in 55 Balete, Quezon City was a witness to it all. Photo courtesy of WHILCE PORTACIO

Editor’s Note: Gerry Alanguilan passed away on December 2019.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Just a year ago, California-based artist Whilce Portacio said it was his dream to reunite the powerhouse comic book team he built in 1994, a studio called Starfire Visuals, then located on 55 Balete Drive in Quezon City.

Last October, Portacio was back in Manila to see this dream happen through SuperManila — the pop culture convention that’s practically a reunion organized in his honor.

“I wish we had digital cameras back then,” says Portacio, “to document all the things we had, all the stars that hung out, all the events. We started a lot of things. We did comics, movie posters, record album covers… It’s really nice to see that it’s still happening.”

Leinil Yu. Gerry Alanguilan. Edgar Tadeo. Roy Allan Martinez. Jay Anacleto. Gilbert Monsanto. Whilce Portacio. They are legendary comic book artists with thousands of pages created among them, who paved the way for hundreds more men and women in the comic book industry that are now creating waves and opening the local network to the international market.

Top (left to right): Roy Allan Martinez, Gilbert Monsanto, Leinil Francis Yu, Edgar Tadeo, Ryan Orosco. Bottom (left to right): Gerry Alanguilan, Whilce Portacio, Jay Anacleto pose for a studio photo. Photo courtesy of WHILCE PORTACIO

Origin story

Portacio co-founded Image Comics (the studio responsible for such titles as “Walking Dead” and “Kingsman”) in 1992. He started visiting Manila often and noticed several groups of indie comic creators that were coming up with their respective projects. “I met with all of them and encouraged them. Instead of competing against one another, band together so you can share each other’s skills and potential,” he shares. This was how Alamat Comics was formed.

Among the members of Alamat was the late architect Gerry Alanguilan, who had published comic book stories in magazines and worked on “Harriers” and “Aster,” the first Filipino-made comics published in the US. It was here where he met other artists that eventually came to Starfire Visuals, Leinil Yu and Jay Anacleto.

Other members were buddies Roy Allan Martinez and Gilbert Monsanto from the independent circuit. This was the time when indie komiks were having a resurgence, and the two were gaining prominence with their GASI comics publications “Tough Hero” and “Kick Fighter.”

Rounding up the team was Edgar Tadeo, a Computer Science major who shifted to Fine Arts just as Portacio was opening his doors.

At the SuperManila panel, Portacio shares that it was Alanguilan who suggested he put up a studio in Manila. His co-founders at Image, Jim Lee (with whom he also shared Homage Studios) and Mark Silvestri (who owned another studio called Top Cow) housed their respective studios under one roof. He decided it was this collaborative model that he would follow for Starfire Visuals.

In Tadeo, he had a self-taught painter who wanted to color and build models. “This was the early ‘90s. Nobody was doing 3D,” Portacio says. “This guy is smart, we’re gonna go [to] a lot of different places.”

“Alanguilan is a good example. He’s the sage, he inspires people by just being,” adds Portacio. He was also instrumental in launching the career of Yu, who would go on to co-create Wave and work on the newly relaunched “X-men,” among other huge titles.

Yu shares, “Whilce hated my work when he first saw it, but through Gerry’s persistence, nakita naman niya ‘yung potential.” Portacio discovered that Yu’s strength seemed to be line art and encouraged the latter to develop this more: “Because he did, he got Wolverine.”

Not every budding comic book artist could say that they hung out with the Eraserheads. But the boys of 55 Balete could. In photo: Ely Buendia (2nd from left) with Gilbert Monsanto, Whilce Portacio and Joey Nadera. Photo courtesy of DAY CABUHAT

Francis Magalona and The Hardware Syndrome perform during Whilce Portacio's birthday. Photo courtesy of DAY CABUHAT

Big Brother House

“I think one of the strengths of the studio was not only was it comic book artists. We had the Big Brothers dance group, actors, comedians, bands, hanging out,” says Portacio. “That shows how diverse the creative community is here in the Philippines.”

Think of today’s coworking space — done two decades ago, so sans the technology. Monsanto, also known as the studio’s troubleshooter, shares: “Dial up pa. ‘Yung transition ng comics, pinapadala pa via FedEx. We photocopy the pages then send them, kasi wala pa gaanong Internet.”

Tadeo adds, “Once na mag-fax ulit [‘yung] Marvel sa amin, approved ganitong pages, then we start. An issue is 22 pages to finish within a month, so that includes work on Saturdays and Sundays. No holidays too because we have to beat time.”

It certainly took a lot, but Yu says it was fun. “I was 18 or 19 during that time. I was with Gerry, Roy Allan, Gilbert, and Edgar — we were there, just kids hanging around on futon beds,” he says. “It was a good two years, roughly. Just spending time with the guys, playing Tekken, and sharing our love for comics.”

Not every budding comic book artist could say that they hung out with the Eraserheads. But the boys of 55 Balete could. Alanguilan recalls, “I walked in the studio one day with the full intention of working, and then Eraserheads was just there. Another day, it was Alamid. The lead singer was a huge comic book fan. I signed his books, he signed my stuff. It was pretty much a mutual adoration society.”

On his birthday one year, Portacio was surprised by his manager Day Cabuhat, who also happened to manage Ely Buendia. “I walk in and they’re building a stage with a nice ramp on it, I see people bringing food and alcohol, pretty soon, movie stars start coming in, Francis Magalona gets on stage, Rivermaya, Alamid, and Eraserheads start playing,” he recalls. “It was a real cool, fun time.”

They also did multimedia projects for these musicians, along with other artists like Ryan Cayabyab, director Chito Roño, and a popzine called “Zero,” headed by Paolo Abrera.

Rivermaya (Mark Escueta, Bamboo Mañalac, Rico Blanco) with Day Cabuhat and Whilce Portacio. Photo courtesy of DAY CABUHAT

Tales from Balete Drive

If hanging out with rockstars is surreal, what more working among the otherworldly creatures of Balete Drive? “We lived in a huge stone gothic house, and we have all these stories!” says Portacio. “Edgar, hindi ba memorable sa ‘yo na sinampal ka ng multo?” asks Alanguilan. Tadeo responds: “Si Gilbert, shoulder to shoulder daw!”

“There were parts of the house that seemed darker, even if it was fully lit. It felt like something very weird,” says Alanguilan. “The dancers, they freaked out one night and came running to the main house really terrified. We asked them why, they told us that they saw one of the water closet covers rising by itself.”

“I was often left in the house during weekends, nagwawalis,” Monsanto recalls. “Tanghaling tapat, sabi ko, matutulog muna ako. Paghiga ko, may zipper na tumutunog. Zip. Zip. Hindi ko pinapansin kasi inaantok ako. Bumilis! Zipzipzip! Binuksan ko ‘yung ilaw, wala akong nakitang bag o ano. So lumabas ako, doon ako natulog!”

Martinez adds, “There were two nights where we heard crying from a baby or child somewhere in the house.” Not that it stopped them. “Even though they think there’s a ghost in the house, nobody’s been afraid. We even stayed up all night drawing.”

“Stone,” the studio's vision of a comic book similar to “Streetfighter,” came out at 88,000 and was the bestselling independent book in the '90s. Photo courtesy of IMAGE COMICS/AVALON STUDIOS

The promo and radio interviews “Stone” were far from typical: it had a soundtrack, featuring the best and brightest of the 1990s. The titular song was performed by Filipina rapper Chill (center), and other songs were by local bands Wolfgang and Razorback, and international rock bands like Our Lady Peace, Korn and Incubus. Photo courtesy of GERRY ALANGUILAN

If anything, the supernatural ended up in these artists’ pages. The biggest, most ambitious project of the studio, was “Stone.” Portacio says they envisioned it to be similar to “Streetfighter” in concept. “You have champions fighting each other and the loser will have his agimat go to the winner, who then upgrades his agimat,” he says, except that its characters included Filipino folkloric creatures.

“There’s tikbalang, manananggal and duwende champions.” Robin Padilla was the peg for the titular character. “It was just really a balikbayan taking mythology that I’d just learned at some point and putting it into a format I’m used to and showing ito the world, and the world reacted.”

At the time, indie books averaged 30,000 to 40,000 in units sold. “Stone” came out at 88,000 and was the bestselling independent book.

It certainly helped that the promo and radio interviews for “Stone” were far from typical: it had a soundtrack, featuring the best and brightest of the 1990s. The titular song was performed by Filipina rapper Chill, and other songs were by local bands Wolfgang and Razorback, and international rock bands like Our Lady Peace, Korn and Incubus.

Portacio’s studio thrived in less than a decade. But he knew that while spotting talent is one thing, developing it is a different story. Because of the assembly-line nature of comics creation, the skills tend to overlap. He decided he would put up a comics creation course that started from the conceptualization of an idea, drawing, inking and coloring, then selling them into a poster.

This became the LEARN School, where Portacio was primarily assisted by Monsanto. “That became the mecca. If you want to get into comics, into Balete, into LEARN, you had to go through Gilbert first.”

To this day, even without the school, Monsanto encourages people to put their ideas out there. He even offers to conceptualize characters and stories through his incubator, Arena.

“What we taught there was to accept that comics was a job. Kahit ano dyan — penciler, inker, writer, isang part ‘yan ng comics,” Monsanto says. “Ang tinuturo sa school ay kahit ano na kaya mo gawin, i-offer mo, maging well-rounded.”

Starfire Visuals founder Whilce Portacio and Pinoy comic book artist Rafael Kayanan in front of the 55 Balete booth during SuperManila 2019. Photo by ANTON HOLMES

Next chapters

“Netflix, Amazon, and Disney are buying or looking at properties from the guys from Alamat,” says Portacio. “I’m proud. I helped foster their creativity in the ‘90s and now they’re seeing the fruition of their stories and their characters. They’re my first understanding of how vast and how much creativity our industry has.”

These days, Portacio is busy as ever. He’s been traveling in and out of the country over the past year working on a movie with fellow Pinoy comic book artist Rafael Kayanan, a Sayoc Kali master and Hollywood trainer. “For every still artist, there comes a time when they want to see the pictures move,” he says. “So fingers crossed, the next stage would be live-action movies and maybe even animation down the road. It’s all gonna be based on us, bringing out our character to the world and bringing out our mythology to the world. It’s time!”

After three decades in the business and being known as the co-creator of “X-men’s” Bishop, it can be challenging for an artist to pick a favorite project. Portacio realized his at SuperManila.

“I’d say that my proudest work is 55 Balete. It’s Starfire, all of the artists here,” he says.

“I really wish we were able to document everything, the progress of the artists, who they’ve become in the field and what they’ve contributed. I’m really proud that my first batch is so powerful. It’s a strong example kung ano ang kaya ng Pinoy.”