Filipino comics are more than laughing matter

MEET Felix the Filipino rebel, who is secretly visiting his sweetheart in a bamboo hut. Holding her tenderly, he confesses: ``Sonia, you know I can't bear the pain of being away from you.''

In tears, Sonia replies, ``If you really love me you will always stay with me.''

``And this is really why I came,'' Felix whispers. ``What do you know about the government's National Reconciliation and Development Program?''

Say that again? Does this rebel want to surrender? You bet.

And that's just what this make-believe romance, illustrated in a new comic magazine, is all about.

The government hopes this comic book will persuade some 15,000 communist-led guerrillas to return to the fold of the law and to the favor of kith and kin. It's an example of the power of comics in the Philippines and of a publishing industry that commands the attention of as much as one-third of all adults in this largely rural nation.

President Corazon Aquino's government has tapped the country's most popular reading fare to reach rebels in the hills with tips on how to be granted amnesty and a new life - if they surrender.

``We hope comics will be more powerful than bullets,'' says Carlos Isles, who helped produce the publication. Starting this month, 1.5 million copies of the magazine - entitled Brothers and Sisters - It's Morning! - will be distributed through churches and schools. The 24-page booklet, written in six dialects, includes four different dramas. One, called ``The Prodigal Son,'' is about a rebel who surrenders after his mother asks him for grandchildren.

``The comics are a powerful institution in Filipino life,'' says Soledad Reyes, a literature professor at Manila's Ateneo University. ``They are an accepted form of communication.''

Comics are more widely read than newspapers, more far-reaching than television, and perhaps consume more time than going to church in this predominantly Roman Catholic country. They are a mirror on Filipino folk life. An estimated 1.5 million to 3 million comic magazines are printed each week, selling for about 14 cents each. Each copy is passed along - or more often rented by the original purchaser - to six to 10 people, says Joe Lad Santos, president of Comix Operation Brotherhood, an association of workers in the industry.

Although typical readers are low-income single women, comic magazines are read by both the mighty and the meek. Last September, for instance, military officers who had just finished a day of tense talks with a Muslim rebel leader were seen pulling out Superman comics from their briefcases for a little fantasy reading. In many small villages, the only literature in the local library and the only textbooks in schools are comics. And, strangely enough, the nation's first known cartoon illustrator is also the national hero, Jose Rizal; executed in 1896 by the Spanish, the anticolonial nationalist once drew a comic strip about a monkey and a tortoise.

At first glance, comic books in the Philippines are an imitation of those in the United States. They were first introduced by American GIs after the war. Even today illustrators draw on themes from American comics and often end up working in the US if they are good. Archie and Spiderman are two of the most popular imported comics here.

When American rulers granted independence to the Philippines in 1946, they left behind a highly literate population. But they didn't leave behind the habit of reading books. As a result, sales of serious literature have been low, while inexpensive comic books have soared (home delivery included).

``Comics is the Pablum of art appreciation,'' says illustrator Nestor Redondo. ``We must feed the people comics before they move up to greater works.''

As in the US, comics are largely used for entertainment and vicarious thrills, and range from mushy romance to freaky horror, from lowbrow comedy to escapist fantasy. But Filipino comics, known as ``komiks'' here, have become something else altogether, highly imaginative and colorful.

Unlike in the US, adults rather than teen-agers are the most common readers. The industry is dominated by the Roces family, which owns a half-dozen comics companies.

The stories and characters reflect interesting aspects of Filipino culture. Where else would you find a talking pushcart, a poor village girl with immense physical powers, a flying elephant-boy, a phantom rooster, a man who is half-snake, and an omniscient detached hand?

The best comic writers are usually the least educated. ``People who study formally lose touch with the people,'' explains Dr. Reyes. The best illustrators and writers are as celebrated as movie stars. A top-notch illustrator can make as much as $50,000 a year - a millionaire in local currency. In fact, comics are so popular that they have spawned some of the most famous Filipino movies.

On one level, Filipino comics differ little from their US counterparts: The characters are drawn to look like Caucasians with blond hair and aquiline noses - and only rarely as Filipinos. This is a sore point with nationalists. Illustrators themselves say it reflects the neo-colonial mentality of thinking of Americans as a superior race.

At the same time, comics have been the primary means of spreading the national language, Filipino, which is based on just one dialect, Tagalog. Almost all comics are written in Tagalog.

Comics have such a pervasive influence in the Philippines that they are naturally used to educate - or propagandize.

In World War II, the Japanese occupiers used comics to spread information on health habits. The church has published Gospel Komiks. Political candidates issue comics about their alleged heroism or good works. Deposed leader Ferdinand Marcos used comics to push family planning. Last year, Mrs. Aquino's friends published comics about proper voting. And Aquino's life story has recently begun to be fictionalized in a comic serial.

When Mr. Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he took over newspapers, radio, and TV - but not the comics industry. ``He would have destroyed an important link with the village folk,'' says Tony Velasquez, the ``father'' of Filipino comics, who, in 1929, began drawing his now-famous character, Kenkoy, a kind of human Mickey Mouse.

Marcos instead tried to regulate the comics to prevent any attacks on him, his family, the military, or his policies. ``We were driven away from any politics,'' says Amado Castrillo, a writer. ``All we could write was Mother Goose-type stories.''

The power of comics has also been recognized by the Communist Party of the Philippines, against which they are now being aimed. Some party officials have been asking various friends in the industry for help in publishing comics for the masses about Marxist ideology. If they succeed, a type of comics warfare might break out in Filipino villages soon.

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