Geography, history, and hugot: ‘Dead Balagtas’ paints a portrait of the Philippines

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Cited as the Best Filipino Comic of 2017 by Jade Castro, he describes Emiliana Kampilan's "Dead Balagtas" as "a madly inventive, deeply analytical, emotionally moving, and gorgeously drawn work that is exactly how we want the history of any country to be told: Not as something old and done, but still happening, like tectonic plates and a rushing MRT train in the ocean." Photo from DEAD BALAGTAS/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Emiliana Kampilan covers her face with a box-shaped bayong that she wears over her head. Two round holes blacked out by mesh, allowing her to see through it, and a misshapen heart below it, making her look like she’s perpetually beaming a warm smile to you. The mask serves a purpose: to separate her identity from her work, the way Batman hides his billionaire status or V leads a revolution with a Guy Fawkes mask.

But she’s no superhero. As a comic artist, her work and her characters don’t hide behind masks, costumes, and capes. In “Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa,” she creates a world much like the one we’re living in right now with characters living, breathing, and longing for the same things that we all do.

At its core, it is a sprawling graphic novel about love — four stories that link the history of our land to the lives we lead today. The book kicks off the creation of the universe based on the perspective of the Babaylans in Visayas and then shuffles back and forth through time, completing three romantic narratives about separation, reconciliation, and indignation with the deft use of scientific and historical information.

Nothing quite like it has ever been done in Philippine comics.

This is why the first volume of “Dead Balagtas” topped CNN Philippines Life’s Best Philippine Comics of 2017 and why, upon its wide release last January, Eisner award nominee Gerry Alanguilan noted in his tweet that Philippine comics “has just leveled up big time” with Kampilan’s book.

“Dead Balagtas” is a massive achievement and a massive book. “Kakaiba ‘yung size and format nung libro,” Kampilan tells us. “And it would not have been possible if Anino [Comics] wasn’t insane enough rin to go along with me!” Sold at ₱550 with part of the proceeds going to internally displaced persons in Marawi, it’s a crime not to purchase this graphic novel.

A panel from Emiliana Kampilan's 'Ang Karagatan' chapter from the book "Dead Balagtas." Photo from DEAD BALAGTAS/FACEBOOK

Before it was big, it started out small. “Dead Balagtas” began as a series of bite-sized comics uploaded through social media. Her knack for blending humor and history helped her steadily grow a cult following. Her reflections on our past mixed with the zeitgeist of today are more than the clickbait pop pieces that litter most timelines. Kampilan has molded her understanding of our history with the current status of our culture.

In one strip, Jose Rizal feels objectified by Seiko Usui. Another shows the nature of the equation “tragedy + time = comedy” as Ramon Magsaysay is triggered by a paid ad featuring a smiling airplane offering low airfare deals.

Transitioning from the smallness of web comics to the vastness of her latest work might seem daunting, but Kampilan was up to the challenge. “Balak ko naman talaga gumawa ng mga long form later. It was a matter of determining kung saang punto ng kasaysayan tayo magsisimula; tapos nagpasya ako na magsimula sa simulang-simula. Even ‘yung strips ay may sinusundang narrative which would be apparent ‘pag na-compile na sila sa book.”

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the comic industry “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Michael Chabon writes: Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. “Dead Balagtas” begins with the conversation between the land and the sea, how movements and tides placed and displaced the ground from which we stand today.

“Anumang disenteng history book ay magsisimula sa overview ng teritoryo ng Pilipinas,” says Kampilan. “And for good reason: ito ang magiging setting ng mga mangyayari sa next chapters, at it explains a great deal kung bakit nanyari ang mga pangyayaring iyon.”

“Ang atake sa isa, atake sa ating lahat. Ang pagdurusa ng iba, pagdurusa ng lahat. Walang tunay na kalayaan hangga’t may isang hindi malaya.”

Kampilan relates how important our location is to the history of those that surround us: “Ginawa tayong port dahil sa lokasyon natin malapit sa Tsina at sa iba pang trading nations, malusog ang lupa for farming kaya ginawang source ng cash crops ng mga kolonyalista, sporadic ang early revolutions dahil pinaghihiwalay ng mga anyong tubig ang mga isla natin.”

When discussing history, one should tread lightly. The proliferation of ‘fake news,’ alternative facts, and revisionism is something that Kampilan took in consideration when creating her work. Discussing history without having it fall into the trappings of an academic discussion is just one of her many goals. History, after all, shapes our future. “‘Yung kawalan natin ng disenteng sense of history ang dahilan rin ng pagkaka-watak natin. Ultimo sa pagiging diktador at mamamatay-tao ni Marcos, torn apart tayo? Iyon ay historical fact na dapat nakadikdik na sa Filipino consciousness.”

“Sa pag-alam ng kasaysayan nakikilala rin ang sarili, nalalaman kung saan dapat tumungo, at napapaliwanag kung bakit andito at ganito tayo ngayon.”

She could easily have created a book that talks about the “mechanical recollection of terms dead and undead to the reader,” enumerating concepts like volcanic plume, opholite creation, obduction.

A panel from the book's third part "Palawan-PMB-Mindanao." Photo from DEAD BALAGTAS/FACEBOOK

“Pero nagpasya ako with a different approach, without sacrificing that common theme: na importante ang mga islang ito. Importante ang mga dagat na ito. They are part and parcel of our humanity and identity. Hindi lamang sila bastang lupang nagkabangaan. Gusto ko maramdaman ng reader ang geologic phenomena to get its significance, to feel the connection natin sa lupa at dagat natin.”

“Dead Balagtas” connects and endears because it tells of stories of love that are familiar to us all. In “Ang Daigdig,” she writes: “Ang pag-ibig ay parang plate tectonics.” What follows is a story between two childhood friends, growing up on shared interests built upon video games, Pokémon, and the need to create something out of nothing. As time goes on, the lands shift, progresses, and molds into something different. Kampilan makes you understand this concept through the pain of separation, how the person you once knew shifts gear and turns into a whole other being with different interests and inclinations.

“Ang Karagatan” tells of the violent crashing of waves and where it can lead us. It also speaks of religion and sexuality through Rahman, a Muslim stock exchange employee and Ramon, a hulking contractual worker for a massive chain of malls. The two clash during an eventful, cramped ride on the MRT. Their differences are greatly amplified: Rahman has money but remains in the closet, fearing condemnation from Allah; Ramon barely gets by his minimum wage, but his homosexuality is welcomed by his family who expects him to send money every payday. Ramon accidentally rips Rahman’s jacket and their casual meetings to resolve their initial issue grows from resentment to something built out of shared respect and romance.

In the volume’s final story, “Lupang Hinirang,” Kampilan talks about class and the struggle to fight for what you believe in through Anais, a factory worker, and Dylan, a student-activist who pushes her to strive for more after they’ve met in a female empowerment forum by Gabriela. They fall deeply as one learns from the other, but in a classic twist of Pinoy romances, Dylan’s mom disapproves of her daughter’s lesbian relationship with a girl from the slums. The two defy the odds and decide to be together, struggling with the success of one over the other and eventually learning how forgive, forget, and move on hand in hand amid all of their adversities.

“We all seek belongingness, naghahanap tayo ng pakikipag-kapwa. Dito nagmumula ang hugot. Ang hugot mismo ay cry against this alienation. Ang hugot ay pag-amin mismo na may ‘mali’— sa akin, sa kapwa, sa buhay.”

Hugot remains a huge part of Filipinos; a driving force, an emotion that unites us and informs our actions when we relate. Kampilan sees the importance of hugot in our culture. “Alienated tayong mga Pilipino in so many ways dahil sa samu’t-saring pwersa sa bansang ito na naghihiwalay sa atin. Be it actual geography, ‘yung mga cubicles sa ating opisina, ‘yung rigid class system na napakahirap takasan, o yung trapik na nagkumo-konsume ng napakalaking bahagi ng buhay natin kaya literal na di tayo maka-unsad gaano.”

In a way, we just want to relate. “We all seek belongingness, naghahanap tayo ng pakikipag-kapwa,” she says. “Dito nagmumula ang hugot. Ang hugot mismo ay cry against this alienation. Ang hugot ay pag-amin mismo na may ‘mali’ – sa akin, sa kapwa, sa buhay. Used properly, it can transcend. And it can be properly directed sa tunay na sanhi ng alienation natin sa lipunan na ito. Dahil sabi nga ni Bonifacio, walang pag-ibig na hihigit pa sa pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa.”

But can hugot unite a nation? Can it help lead us to freedom? In creating “Dead Balagtas,” Kampilan hopes so. “Ang kwento ng isa ang nagpapalusog rin sa kwento ng iba; at tayo ang bayan. Ang atake sa isa, atake sa ating lahat. Ang pagdurusa ng iba, pagdurusa ng lahat. Walang tunay na kalayaan hangga’t may isang hindi malaya. Magkaka-kabit tayo without realizing it and without us needing to affirm it; at gusto ko maramdaman din iyon dun sa book.”

The medium of comics exists to show how people and things, be it real or imagined, move through a space, changes over time. The panels and the spaces that exist between it remains empty, but our minds and experiences fill in the details missing on those gaps. In “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud discussed how comic panels “fracture both time and space.” These jagged, staccato rhythms of unconnected moments are built upon in our minds to create “a continuous, unified reality.”

An excerpt from Chapter 2 of "Dead Balagtas" about Tamblot and their babaylan companions: "Pinag-isa nila ang Isla ng Bohol at lumaban sila sa kultural na pagbabagong dala ng imperyalismo. Napalaya nila ang isla nang mahigit isang taon." Photo from DEAD BALAGTAS/FACEBOOK

The strength of “Dead Balagtas” lies in how Kampilan weaves her own version of our own reality. It goes through her eyes, through her mind, and what she presents to us, the readers, is something that makes us truly understand how our shapes are molded, how objects crash into one another, how waves are formed and tamed by the land underneath it.

“Ang kwento natin, ang pakikibaka natin ang bumuo sa bansang ito. At kahit magpapalit-palit tayo ng gobyerno, tayong tao ang gumagawa ng kwento natin; tayo ang bayan. Nasa atin ang kapangyarihan. Atin ang lupa, at tayo ang lupa. Kaya nating sipain paalis sa atin — paalis dito — ang mga sanhi ng pagdurusa natin — kurap na pulis, mamamatay taong diktador, mga imperyalista, mga haciendero,” she says.

“We shape the land. We are the land. Tayo ang bulkang bumubuo ng bagong matutuntungan. Tayo ang nagpapabangon sa kapwa at sarili. Tayo ang dagat na gumagawa ng alon para kumonekta sa iba pang isla.”


“Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Ang Sayaw Ng Dagat at Lupa” by Emiliana Kampilan can be purchased online through the Adarna House website. Visit the Dead Balagtas Facebook page for more information.