Up until 2004, a tradition of preserving, archiving and collecting classic Philippine comics never existed. The few Filipinos of the current generation who were aware of the old classic comics from the 1940s to the 1970s can only look upon in envy at the hundreds upon hundreds of trade paperbacks, hardbacks, Absolute editions, and Omnibus collections coming out of America that effectively gave the world an easily accessible archive to decades of American comic books.
The Philippines never had that kind of tradition, in spite of the fact that this country has one of the oldest comic book industries in the world. Our first comics creator was no less than National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal, who drew the parable of the Monkey and the Tortoise in comic strip form in 1885. There were other Jose Rizal strips that followed, but the first regularly occurring character in Philippine comics was Kenkoy, a creation of Tony Velasquez which appeared on the pages of Liwayway Magazine in 1929.
American G.I.s introduced Filipinos to the comic book format at the end of World War Two. In 1946, Halakhak Komiks, the very first serialized comic book in the country was published. Due to distribution problems, Halakhak folded after only 10 issues. Fresh from the success of Kenkoy, Tony Velasquez soon set up a new company, ACE Publications, which began to release a series of comic book titles beginning with Pilipino Komiks in 1947. Pilipino Komiks will continue publication on a bi-weekly, and then weekly basis for decades until 2005.
According to publication records, Pilipino Komiks had a circulation of 137,000 copies every week as of September 24, 1970. That’s more than half a million copies for a single title in one month.Â This was only one of the many titles produced in a single month across several comic book companies.
Comic books were a huge part of Philippine culture in the pre multi-media age. Few Filipinos had access to any other entertainment aside from comic books after the Second World War. There were motion pictures, but they were accessible mostly in urbanized areas. The larger part of the country only had comic books, and soon, radio and TV. Even then, comics were as widely read as newspapers up to the 1980s.
Filipinos love comics, but unfortunately, most of them grew up believing comics to be nothing but cheap entertainment. âCheap entertainmentâ is a phrase often used in correlation with Philippine made comics even up to the present time. When paper giant Sterling entered the business of comics in 2007 and hired veteran writer Carlo J. Caparas to be its creative director, Caparas himself would call comics âcheap entertainment for the massesâ in newspapers, TV and radio. Indeed, Philippine comic books have had a long history of being used as wrapping paper in the public market after they had been read.
The Philippine government for its part exhibits a strange dual attitude towards comics. On one hand it is very supportive of comics as a tool for education. Many instructional materials for farmers, builders, animal breeders and all sorts of industries come in the form of comic books. Many election campaign materials, even during the 2010 Philippine Presidential elections, came in the form of print or online comic books.
However, there is very little support for comics as a bonafide form of art. There has literally been no effort to help archive and preserve comic books of the past. There have been no publications, pamphlets or books where Filipinos can read about the history of Philippine comics. There has been no effort to find and preserve original artwork for housing and exhibition at museums. For many decades in fact, publishers believed they had ownership of original artwork and their idea to keep their comics from being stolen intellectually was to destroy the originals. Thousands upon thousands of original artwork from 1940s to the 1970s were shredded, burned or thrown out. What originals survived had to be stolen by concerned artists, or sometimes even kept by editors. Hardly any artworks were returned to the artists, the ownership of which, as I turned out, was entitled to them by law.
There was a period of time when the Philippine National Library, the local institution tasked with providing ISBN and ISSN numbers to publications literally refused to give comic books and graphic novels their book numbers. They had the idea that they were somehow guardians of culture and used the book numbers as a means to grant or deny legitimacy to all things published. They refused âlegitimacyâ to comic books because, in their own words, comic books had âno cultural valueâ. It took a few emails from this author to the head of the International ISBN Agency to hopefully coerce the local office to issue the book numbers properly.
I finally came to the conclusion that while Filipinos loved comics, and there is support for it from the Philippine government, there is little thought, attention or support given to it as a legitimate form of art. This Â is the reason why comics were never preserved and archived. They were âcheap entertainmentâ and easily disposed of.
When Philippine comics enthusiast/historian Dennis Villegas got permission from the widow of Tony Velasquez to reprint a 1934 Kenkoy album collection in 2004, it marked the beginning of an effort towards such preservation, and it served to inspire other parties including myself to commence our own efforts. Â My pet project was the digital restoration and collection of Francisco V. Coching’s âEL INDIOâ, originally serialized in Pilipino Komiks in 1954, published by the Vibal Foundation in 2009 . This in turn inspired Atlas Publishing, the once giant comic book company Â to return to comics and publish more collections, the first of which was âLapu Lapuâ from 1954, also by Francisco V. Coching.
Currently, there are other efforts to restore and collect more comic books including Jess Jodloman’s Ramir, and Alfredo Alcala’s Voltar.
And when it rains, it pours. In 2009, two hard bound coffee table books on the history of Philippine comics were released, giving the current generation of Filipinos access to information that have been hardly available before.
One is âThe First One Hundred Years of Philippine Komiks and Cartoonsâ, written by International comics historian Dr. John A. Lent, published by Yonzon Associates, Inc. The second is âThe Life and Art of Francisco Cochingâ, edited by Patrick D. Flores and published by the Vibal Foundation.
Hopefully, this would be the start of a long and sustained effort to continue the preservation of Philippine comics art. It is unfortunate that the country has lost too much artworks through decades of apathy, neglect, and disaster. Many wondrous pieces of art I am sure, we will never have a chance to see at all. But I’d like to think that it’s not too late, and that there are still enough existing material around to gather and restore and preserve, which would in turn inspire Filipinos and comics enthusiasts around the world for generations to come.