What about X-Men, another successful comic and film franchise? For a long period in the 1990s, Filipino artist Whilce Portacio rendered the mutants’ adventures, becoming a massive fan favorite.
How about the greatest of all superhero icons, who's faster than speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? Two Filipino artists, Leinil Yu and Gerry Alanguilan, handled Superman's revised origin in the mini-series “Superman: Birthright” (elements of which were included in the recent “Man of Steel” film).
Crossing over many cultures and backgrounds, superheroes have become big business, racking up billions of dollars in earnings. People can’t get enough of these colorful, special-effects-driven crusaders and adventurers, most of whom originated in a medium that was formerly looked down upon as second-class, disposable literature.
Unbeknownst to many, Filipinos have been an integral part of the overseas comic book industry for several decades now, handling a wide assortment of characters that are read and admired by millions all over the world.
"Many Filipinos have worked in US comics, since early 1960s pa," says Alanguilan, a professional who's also well versed in local komiks history. "Actually, the first Filipino to work on X-Men was in the 1970s pa. There was a surge in Filipino comics illustrators in the late '60s, early '70s, because many Filipinos really love comics."
Filipino national hero Jose Rizal was known to have written and illustrated the first Filipino comic strip, "The Monkey and the Tortoise" in the late 19th century. The next significant wave came in the 1920s, with Tony Velasquez's “Kenkoy” (the collected strips of which was considered the first comic book), and Francisco Reyes's “Kulafu.”
It was in the 1950s that the industry reached a creative peak, a "golden age" of creators crafting and synthesizing gorgeous artwork with engrossing storytelling. In the late '60s and the early '70s, foreign companies finally took notice, with DC Comics (the home of Superman, Batman, the Justice League, etc.) executives Carmine Infantino and Joe Orlando, along with Filipino artist Tony de Zuniga (who already had a career abroad and opened an agency for local artists) coming to the Philippines to scout for local talent. Among the local artists "pirated" to work abroad were Rudy Florese, who would illustrate Tarzan, Alex Niño, who drew the horror title “House of Mystery,” among others, and Nestor Redondo, considered one of the greatest Filipino illustrators, who did artwork for “Swamp Thing.”
What attracted foreigners to Filipinos was the latter’s distinctive art style. It’s impressive that it came from a depressed, Third World culture with limited resources, but at the same time unequaled in comparison to the artwork of other countries.
Says Alanguilan: "The artwork of Filipino illustrators is somewhat like fine art, especially in the past, with a lot of attention to detail. That’s the case even now, although artists today already have a lot of western influence, also Japanese influence. Still, they create unique works.”
The work ethic of Filipino illustrators also impressed the foreign companies. One popular anecdote involved Alfredo Alcala, another legendary Filipino artist (he even published a book about his craft, titled Teachings of a Comic Book Master). He was approached by talent scout Joe Orlando, who asked Alcala how many pages he could complete in a week. "Forty," Alcala replied. The executive didn't believe him, since most artists were only able to do seven or eight pages a week. So, Orlando proceeded to show him artwork from the States. "You want me to draw in this style?" Alcala asked him. Yes, he replied, and asked again how many pages he'd be able to do in a week. "This style? Eighty pages," Alcala said. Orlando, still skeptical, put him down for forty pages. By the end of his first trial week, Alcala was able to complete an astounding one hundred pages of artwork.
Many Filipinos continued to work abroad through the decades, but for many who relocated in the States, especially Alcala and Niño, felt there was a prejudice against Filipino artists, who were sometimes paid lower than their American counterparts. Their assignments and subsequent payments also were few and far between, as American editors "didn't know what to do with them," or which comics to place their uniquely stylistic talents. So, many of them had to find menial jobs as waiters and security guards to make ends meet.
It wasn't until the late 1980s that the climate changed, in particular with the ascent of Whilce Portacio, who first shot to fame as a fan favorite artist of Marvel's popular “Punisher” and “X-Men” titles. Later, Portacio became one of the founders of Image Comics (home of Spawn), further earning wealth and notoriety for his and the members' creator-owned properties. Years later, Portacio came back to the Philippines to set up a studio, as well as mentor, guide and recommend artists to the foreign companies.
The most prominent names to have come through Portacio's tutelage include Yu, Alanguilan, Edgar Tadeo, Jay Anacleto, Gilbert Monsanto and others who make up the "third generation" of artists to draw comics abroad.
Now more than ever, Filipinos are a ubiquitous presence on the comic book scene. Along with Portacio and his group, some creators worth mentioning include Wilson Tortosa, who's earning raves drawing the comic book adaptation of the anime series "Battle of the Planets" (better known in the Philippines as “G-Force”); Arthur de la Cruz, an artist and writer, whose book “Kissing Chaos” was nominated for an Eisner Award (the industry's highest achievement); and Lan Medina, also nominated for an Eisner, who has drawn The Punisher.
Perhaps one of the more significant achievements is the first Filipino art team drawing the most recognized superhero. On “Superman: Birthright,” Yu and Alanguilan both say drawing the man-of-steel is a dream come true.
"I worked with X-Men before, but this is the biggest so far," says Yu. "It's hard to believe. I think this the height of my career. I'm not sure it gets much better than this in comics."
Says Alanguilan: "I can’t describe -- it did not occur to me that I'd work on Superman. It seemed unreachable. An impossible dream. I couldn’t believe it when I was given the opportunity, because Superman is my favorite character, in the comics and in the movies.”
Continuing the tradition started by their forebears, from Nestor Redondo to Alfredo Alcala and Whilce Portacio, they can only see more and more Filipinos becoming involved in mainstream comics.
"Filipinos are getting discovered every year," says Yu. "Before, we didn't think there was going to be anymore of us, but agents come here and look for new artists. A lot of them will be emerging in the next few years."
For aspiring artists, Yu gives a friendly advice: "Believe in what you're doing, but listen to other people, too. Just believe in yourself. It's possible to get in."
Levi "Pepper" Marcelo wrote and directed "Illustrated By," a documentary on Filipino comics artists.