Growing up on comics
Danilo Araña Arao
Philippine Daily Inquirer (Youngblood), 26 January 1995, p. 7
COMIC books have been a part of my life. During my childhood, I used to spend a lot of time (and whatever I change I could spare) on rented Tagalog comics from Aliwan to Wakasan. Aling Mila, I recall, grew so fond of me that sometimes she would give me back issues for free.
I still remember the unorthodox manner by which my mother taught me how to read. Since we could not afford expensive books and other nursery items, she would explain to me the action sequences and dialogues of the comics pages of Liwayway. From there I learned not only the value of reading, but also a philosophy of life from the struggles of poor people who were usually the good guys in the stories my mother told me. Of course, the entertainment value was there.
While my classmates in grade school exchanged stories on the latest adventures of Batman and Daredevil, I would share with them the exploits of Rigor, a Filipino superhero who could command the wind. Some took interest in what I had to tell, but most of them were preoccupied with their own Western world.
Imported comics were alien to me at that time, for the simple reason that I could not afford them and none of my classmates were willing to swap theirs with my own local ones. Talk about materialism at an early age!
I consider myself a late bloomer, since it was only in high school that I learned to appreciate Marvel and DC titles like the Avengers and Superman. But by that time, my interest in comics was already fading, and the aging Aling Mila would express surprise whenever I passed by her store without renting anything. "Nautusan lang ho ako, 'tsaka marami pa ho akong gagawin," I would just tell her.
The truth was that I found the story lines I knew since childhood rather monotonous. The first frame after the cover page would usually depict the protagonist being oppressed, and the last frame in the final page would have the same character smiling in triumph. Everything ended so well, and the evil-doers always got their due in the end. It was so ideal --- and so unreal.
Call me a cynic, but does this really happen in real life? Not all the poor have rich distant relatives who would bail them out in the end, as most comics stories suggest. The evil people do is at times tolerated and goes unpunished. Neither does it always happen that the poor boy ends up living happily ever after with the rich girl he loves. (I should know, but that's another story.)
Unconsciously, I was looking for literature that depicted the shades of gray in life, not a presentation in black and white. There had to be an explanation as to why good is good and bad is bad. Good and evil had to be rationalized, since one could be the other depending on where one stands.
By the time I reached college, I had totally given up comics in favor of novels, poems and short stories. I became engrossed with Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Omar Cabezas, not to mention the Westerner George Orwell. I also grew fond of reading our very own Rio Alma, Jun Cruz Reyes and (without sounding sipsip) Conrado de Quiros.
More or less, through the prose and poetry I've read, life has become more realistic. The societal conditions that molded the character of the protagonists were explained and the need for social transformation was justified. At that time, I used to cringe whenever I remembered myself going to Aling Mila for my erstwhile favorite dose of "literature."
Which brings me to the question of whether or not comic books have literary value. My humanities and literature professors said mouthfuls about this, but the two words I most remember are "rubbish" and "baloney." So soon after finishing college, I spurned comic books. There are better sources of entertainment and education, I told myself.
I thought I had wasted my childhood on trash, until I accidentally found my way into the comics section of a popular bookstore two years ago. I got intrigued by a comic book that was labeled "Suggested for Mature Readers." It had an interesting plot: Lucifer retired as the Lord of Hell and Morpheus the Dream Lord had the monumental task of holding the keys to its gates. Morpheus' problem was what to do with Hell, which so many, from the Norse god Odin to the former followers of Lucifer, wanted to control. He was subjected to a lot of things, from bribes to intimidation. Toward the end, he did the next best thing, which is... (well, you can borrow "The Sandman: Season of Mists.") Anyway, it had a lot to say about life and death, as well as the inherent weaknesses of being human. For instance, Lucifer experessed indignation at people who always use the devil as the scapegoat ("The devil made me do it").
It turns out that there are a lot of comic books tackling such themes (usually under the DC Vertigo titles). There are also a number of independently produced "profound" comic books, like "The Messiah" which was produced in the mid-'80s. It tells about the coming of a human-looking alien who was mistakenly hailed as the Messiah and turns out to be a woman.
The Batman titles "The Dark Knight Returns' and "Batman: Year One" interestingly portray our favorite hero and Green Arrow as anti-establishment activists, and Superman as a fascist. The State has pitted Superman against Batman, and in the heat of the battle, various premises on the dialectic of reform and revolution are laid down. In the end, the aging Bruce Wayne sets up his own underground movement composed of a handful of loyal followers.
Locally there are attempts to put story-telling on a higher level. I can cite Vincent Kua's "Lucifer Arkanghel" as a good example of a sound critique of good and evil. Then only last November, "Memento Mori" was published. I think this wasn't advertised, since I only got a copy from a friend of a friend. How it will be received by the Filipino audience, however, remains to be seen.
While a lot of young people like me grew up on comic books, I think there are some who would laugh at me for writing this "rubbish." I can only say that belonging to the comics generation is better than being with the comic generation --- you know, those walking in the corridors of power. Now, there's a place that's full of rubbish and baloney.
Danny Arao, 26, is a writer and a teacher.