Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The year’s most talked-about comic book wasn’t for sale. “Sa Gitna ng Unos,” a 28-page propaganda comic for Mar Roxas during the 2016 presidential campaign, amassed jeers for its depiction of the government official as a people’s savior during Typhoon Yolanda. Even the commissioned artist, Karl Komendador, who was reportedly paid ₱2,000 per page, seemed so embarrassed by the work that he publicized support for another candidate, eventual winner Rodrigo Duterte, and drew a comic for him called “Digong: Ang Kanlungan ng mga Inaapi at Inaabuso.”
This whirlwind moment in Philippine comics is sad on a number of levels. First, komiks — in the old-fashioned, cheap, melodramatic style — was viewed as a thing of shame. Few who comment have actually read the contentious material, but if they did, they would’ve noted that the standard chronology of a person’s credentials is nothing new to the medium, the typhoon doesn’t happen until halfway, and the hero-posturing is tempered by modest defensiveness. Second, comics played no importance in the case of Digong, because the guy who became president with or without it seems more of an out-of-this-world invention than his 2D counterpart. Third, how depressing is it that an artist must accept money for something that was against his politics in the first place?
The good news is that, in the world of Pinoy comics, this was but a blip that completely countered whatever else happened in 2016: an explosion of ideas and diversity that felt necessary, an expansion in readership, and a testament to authorship both personal and political. This is what we’ll remember.
Past meets future
If you lived near Metro Manila in 2016, it was easy for you to attend any of three to a dozen comic conventions that have been growing each year. It’s not as bountiful elsewhere in the country, but bookstores nationwide have been stocking up on more popular titles from aggressive publishers.
The year is a true second act, informed by what came before it and what comes next. Carlo Vergara’s famous superhero creation returned in “ZsaZsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila (Part Two),” a long setup for what looks like a more sci-fi-oriented series up ahead. Arnold Arre expanded his 2002 graphic novel “After Eden,” a mythological treatise on love, to look and sound better. Paolo Herras and Jerico Marte continue Strange Natives with “The Forgotten Memories of a Forgetful Old Woman,” boasting some of the most tantalizing ink this year via carcass-like ephemera and swarms of butterflies. Even the paper-and-staple set are on a roll: We’re in the climactic middles of action series “Antingeros,” about a group of friends battling for amulets, and “Patay Kung Patay,” a zombie invasion that doubles as critique on the ruling class.
Great debuts of characters who look like they’re in for the long haul include a pair of empaths in “Aswang De Manila,” a young mangkukulam in “The Graveyard Shift,” three Agta hunters who stumble into mecha territory in “3Aeta,” a precocious schoolboy who follows a ghost cat in the kid-friendly “Ang Mga Pusa ni Lolo Paco,” and a mystery-solving priest in the deliciously adult-paced “The Evangelist.”
Humor gets ample representation in book-length compilations by single cartoonists, such as Apol Sta. Maria’s occasionally scatological “Poopo the Cute & Many Other” and the colorful short bursts of Toto Madayag’s “P*cha, E ‘Di Komiks.” Many anthologies find several artists teaming up to notable effect, but the best include the nostalgic whimsy of “Miting De Avance,” homoerotic twists on history and folklore in “Haliya,” and the future-minded “Beyond,” produced to showcase the capabilities of a certain commercial gadget.
The grandmaster of funny strips, Pol Medina Jr., offered a lesson on how to put your balls out, politically: by giving away free copies of “Marcos Special,” featuring his Pugad Baboy characters basically saying #NeverAgain. Adarna published a Martial Law tale for young readers — “12:01” by Russell Molina and Kajo Baldisimo, about generic Archie-types rushing to a concert during curfew hour. But some of the strongest political statements are craftily melded into personal takes on gender, class, and ethnicity, among them Richard Mercado’s sensitive gay remembrance “It’s More Than That…,” Glea Marte’s passionate and anguished female figures in “Ang Paglalaro ng Salita,” and the jokey “Probinsyana Problems,” which, with its uncommon smattering of Ilonggo dialect, reminds us that even though comics got bigger this year, we may have barely toed the surface of its deep well of experiential possibilities.
Where are the webcomics? They’re not part of this list. I turned my attention to only printed material, and even so, I cannot claim to have read everything. To do so might require a superhuman, a Higante or a Bruho Barbero perhaps, in the middle of the storm of comics in 2016.
10. “Meläg” by B. Redila
Collected for the first time, Pangasinense vanguard Bong Redilla’s almost wordless vignettes conjure a town on the edge of childhood memory and circus dream.
Available through Adarna House.
9. “Dolly and Lavinia Explore the Interverse” by Trizha Ko
Doggies, pastels, and cuteness aren’t what you might expect from an existential odyssey about being trapped in digital limbo and liberation, yet here it is, partying through pixels.
Available through Adarna House.
8. “Ikatlong Sulyap: The Third Komikon Anthology of Choice Independent Works” by Various Artists
Need an intro to the current state of shorts in one package? This embarrassment of riches from 2015 is the most satisfying genre-mash this year, from Andoyman’s quietly panicked “Ang Sumpa” to Hulyen’s hipster funnywoman in “Ugh.”
Available in Powerbooks branches in Trinoma, MOA, Greenbelt and Glorietta. Check the Sulyap Komiks Anthology Facebook page for updates.
7. “Ugh #3” by Hulyen
Speaking of Hulyen, her hipster alter-ego takes a backseat to the artist as comic-maker in the third iteration, which reveals her signature wry autobiographics as they grow more breathtaking in their cartoon compositions.
Available at Comic Odyssey in Robinsons Galleria, UVLA store in Cubao Expo, and Cup Fiction, 141 White Plains, Katipunan Ave., Quezon City.
6. “May Pera Sa Basura” by Ruen Zapanta
Third world poverty is often told simplistically, but not in this journey of two trash scavenger children who must return a found wallet. The moral stakes are continually complicated, attuned to the realities of urban behavior, with a left-field ending that’s sort of perfect.
Available through Ruen Zapanta.
5. “IDEKY” by Noel Pascual
What substances did one take to hallucinate an actioner this feverish, funny, and WTF? Still, Noel Pascual's diagrammatic, ruled lines suggest sobriety, making the bold case that nonsense is the most intelligent kind of diversion.
Available through Noel Pascual.
4. “The Amazing Truish Story of Andres Celestial & The Life & Death of Amorsolo Esperanza, Faith Healer of Talinhaga: Two Short Tales” by Elbert Or
These back-to-back fictional biographies of men of faith and magic are alive with bold lines and powder blue shades, deepened by sad and tender empathy for every soul who has ever been dwarfed by the vastness of the universe.
Available through Adarna House.
3. “Laya: A Set of Fictitious Revolutions Chapter 1” by Alyssa Mortega and Reen Barrera
Violence and grace commingle in internally specific faces and bodies across layered images, telling the story of a prostitute in colonial Philippines. I can’t tell if I’m gasping out of horror or beauty.
Available through Laya Komiks. Check their Facebook page for updates.
2. “Destroyer” by Julius Villanueva
A girl with a skateboard stars in the year’s sweetest and most subtly political tale: While one punk yells “Obosen!” — joking about life threatened in times of looming state control — freedom is argued rebelliously and persistently by youth reclaiming places to roam, acknowledging lesbian feelings, and perfectly executing an air and grab.
Available through Azhdarchid Comics. Check their Facebook page for updates.
1. “Lost” by Rob Cham
The follow-up to “Light” is the most boundary-pushing graphic novel of the year. Mini-sized and handsomely produced, it toys with how panels, pages, and graphics could work in defiant ways, even as it follows an intimate, nuanced, emotionally complex story of individuals who bond and drift apart.
Available in National Bookstore and Fully Booked, and through Adarna House. Read the comic for free at lost-comic.com.