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January 24, 2019

5 Iconic Filipino Comic Book Heroes

The trap of listing iconic comic book characters from the Philippines is that comparisons to Western properties are inevitable. Most of the characters listed below take visual and conceptual cues from other globally popular properties. But to focus solely on the blatant similarities evident in comparisons would ignore the fact that the superhero genre in total is rife with examples of creators “borrowing” from each other. Such plagiarism is diplomatically and, sometimes, dishonestly referred to in the comic book industry as “homages”, and on reflection could constitute its own sub-genre.

The examples listed below do not rely on familiarity with the source of inspiration. It does help to know – and to excuse – that many of the very early examples were made at a time when Western comic books were not commercially available, if not completely unknown, to the average Filipino reader.

#5 Combatron (1990)

Created by Berlin H. Manalaysay for the kid-targeted comic titled Funny Komiks, Combatron is the alter ego of the orphaned boy named Empoy. Empoy accidentally inherits a powerful armor and a robot dog named Askal (Asong Mekanikal) from a space warrior that crash landed on Earth. The space ship is subsequently followed by a hunting party consisting of evil cyborg aliens from the planet Omicron.

Informed comparisons to the videogame character “Mega Man/Rockman” are inevitable due to the visual similarities. But conceptually, “Combatron” owes more to “Green Lantern” and “Transformers”. Further, the conceptual similarities are not the most notable element of the “Combatron” franchise. Rather, it is how progressive the story was given the context:

Funny Komiks was a publication that is exclusively targeted towards young children. The other series featured in the comic are humorous, lighthearted, and had no functional continuity. “Combatron”, despite the goofy-looking art style, is structured for a more mature audience. There is progressive continuity in the overarching story. It was also substantially more violent than the other stories in Funny Komiks. Dealing with mature content such as the concept of death was starkly jarring in a comic book where the most popular series were otherwise about a.) a boy who “likes to eat Chicken.” and b.) talking apes hatching all sorts of harebrained schemes.

#4 Maskarado (1992)

“Maskarado” first ran as a serialized comic strip in the daily newspaper “Tempo” in February 2, 1992. Written and illustrated by Reno Maniquis (who was doing the strip on the side while studying in college at the time), the story focuses on a man named Carlo Miranda. Miranda was chosen by an alien guardian named Orimar to be Earth’s champion of justice. The main character is gifted with a mask (“maskarado” basically translates to “masked”) that gives him various super human abilities, notably flight and enhanced strength. In an interview with the newspaper “Philstar”, Maniquis admitted to having Green Lantern as the main source of inspiration, so it is not surprising that comparisons will be made given the similarities in concept and rogues gallery.

“Maskarado” is notable for the property’s longevity. While the serial comic strip only ran for six months (as Maniquis ended the run in order to focus on his studies), the property was revived in 2000 as a full-sized indie comic with a new character, Raymond Pacheco, taking over the role of Maskarado from the retired Carlo Miranda. The story continued running as a comic book property, whereas other character properties in the Philippines only manage to stay in existence for a limited period of time after making the jump to the more commercially viable film medium.

#3 Darna (1947)

“Darna”, which was created by Mars Ravelo and Nestor Redondo for Bulaklak Magazine #17 on 23 July 1947, would most readily be associated with DC Comics’ “Wonder Woman” (1941) and Fawcett/DC Comics’ “Captain Marvel/Shazam” (1939). The visual similarities with Wonder Woman are readily apparent. Darna’s alter ego is Narda, a teenage girl (physically handicapped in many iterations) who is transformed into a mighty space warrior upon swallowing a white stone of extraterrestrial origins. The Darna persona possess the beauty of Venus, the strength of Samson, and the “light” of Apollo.

There is some debate over whether Mr Ravelo intentionally copied “Wonder Woman”. Mr Ravelo is said to claim that the inspiration was DC Comics’ other globally recognisable property, Superman, and also Mr Ravelo’s own mother (who Mr Ravelo looked up to as a hero for having raised him as a single mother). The character was only retooled after being rejected by numerous publishers. This is somewhat supported by the Darna prototype Varga, the first images of which were drawn by Mr Ravelo in 1939.

Regardless of the origin and its creative authenticity, “Darna” is currently one of the most popular and relevant Filipino Superhero properties. The character has inspired numerous comic books, block buster films, and TV series (including one that is under production and slated to debut later this year.)

#2 Captain Barbel (1963)

Another of Mr Ravelo’s creations, Captain Barbel first debuted in Pinoy Komiks #5 on 23 May 1963 – . The name (and the controversy over the Darna property) may give the impression that the character is based upon the 1939 American superhero Captain Marvel, but the truth is more complex. Most contemporary readers home in on the version of Captain Barbel who was a frail young man gifted with a magical bar bell by a hermit. Upon lifting the artifact the man is transformed into a muscular man with the powers of flight, super strength, and super speed. This is uncannily reminiscent of Captain Marvel.

However, there have been numerous iterations of the “Captain Barbel” property. There are versions where the alter ego is an asthmatic, poverty-stricken young man bullied by his brothers; another where the young man is crippled; and yet another where the origin of the mystical bar bell is actually a genie. There is also a version where the bar bell was forged from a rock that fell from space. The only aspect that is immutable is the presence of a bar bell and its ability to transform the worthy into a super powered hero. In some versions, the bar bell cannot be lifted by the unworthy, making it more similar to US comic book publisher Marvel Comics’ character “Thor” than DC Comics’ “Captain Marvel”.

Mr Ravelo’s creations do not adhere to a singular continuity to the same obsessive degree as Marvel Comics or DC Comics. But there have been crossovers in various mediums, particularly in TV and movie versions. Indeed, “Captain Barbel” has had numerous crossovers with “Darna”.

#1 Alexandra Trese (2005)

“Alexandra Trese” is the main protagonist in a horror/crime comic book by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, titled “Trese.” The comic was originally published independently in 2005 by Alamat Comics. It has since been collected in graphic novel format by Visual Print Enterprises (which also took over as publisher of “Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah“.)

Alexandra Trese is a warrior/shaman that works as a detective specialising in cases of supernatural origin. The character is helped by her extensive knowledge of the occult, a mystical “kris” named “Sinag” (literally, “ray of light”) which was forged from her dead twin’s soul, and a pair of demigod twins serving as her assistants/protectors.

Even though “Alexandra Trese” is the newest of all the characters in this list, it is the one that stands the best chance of being appreciated by a non-Filipino audience. The comic books are available in English. Additionally, the title is not bogged down by comparisons to existing franchises. Of course, like all modern works of fictions, it would be difficult not to find conceptual similarities with other works (the two that are always brought up by critics and fans are Joss Whedon’s “Angel” television series and US comic book publisher Vertigo Comic’s title, “Hellblazer”).

But Trese’s main focus, instead of aping popular Western or Japanese properties, is to mine rich Philippine folklore as inspiration. This is something that Western creative talents frequently fail to do, as exemplified by the subpar depictions of Aswangs in the TV shows “Grimm” and “The River.” Non-Filipino readers would do well to sample “Alexandra Trese” if only as a mythological primer on creatures that have horses for heads, hairy giants that steal women, flesh-eating man-bats with distended bowels, and all the horrible traditional stories that Filipino parents tell their children before bed.

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