Discover the Filipino stories illustrated on pages of his works
“Pinoy ako, pero balikbayan ako,” says Whilce Portacio, a popular comic book artist known for his work in the The Punisher, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Wetworks, and Spawn.
He delivered his webinar, Filipino Stories in Comics and Beyond with Whilce Portacio, sponsored by Animation Council PH, Animotion, and De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde on February 13, 2021.
Whilce grew up in the US. “The US is a great place to grow up in, with great opportunities but you have to be tough,” he muses. “Almost all the parents in my generation, they made a decision while we were growing up, they didn’t talk with us in Tagalog.” He confessed that he did not speak Tagalog until he was in his late 30s.
Born on July 8, 1963, he belongs to the first batch of male students allowed to study at the Philippine Women’s University. One of his teachers was Ibarra Dela Rosa, a Filipino modern and contemporary painter. “Every lunch time, he would be at the teacher’s lounge painting and if you were quiet and polite, you could watch him work,” smiles Whilce.
In the late 1980s, he began to seek answers to his unfamiliar heritage. “I started going back to the Philippines to begin my journey, ‘Sino ba ako?’” (Who am I?),” he says. “I didn’t understand us—our history, our culture.”
At that time, the Tom Cruise-starrer Top Gun was popular worldwide. “I bought my own bomber jacket,” says Whilce. He wanted to put a Filipino flag on his jacket but couldn’t find one. In his frustration, he just drew his own version in the X-Men issue, where Colossus was wearing a bomber jacket with a Philippine flag. “Balikbayan ako. I didn’t understand the full details of the Philippine flag but everybody understood. I put ‘Makulit,’ it was my nickname back then,” he recalls. From that day on, he was marked for life as a Pinoy comic book artist.
“When I did this image, I got response from people, ‘Uy Pinoy ka pala,’ (You are a Filipino). I would go to conventions and kids would come up to me. That was when I started to connect with my roots,” says the Image co-founder.
It was also the start of positioning the Filipino culture in his works. “I started to express myself and my question sino ako and started to network with other Pinoy professionals,” quips Whilce.
One of his popular characters is Grail, a Pinoy, in the comicbook series Wetworks. “When I went to the Philippines, I met with the Philippine Rangers. They all look like taga-La Salle,” he remarks. “They were pretty boys and you wouldn’t believe that these guys were ruthless killers.”
In one of issue of Wetworks, a reporter named Regine Velasquez was seen at Madison Square Garden. ‘At that time, may crush ako kay Regine,’ laughs Whilce. ‘I put her in there because nobody could complain, nobody could sue me because I just drew it.’
Grail is a perfect physical specimen who wears a protective mask fighting vampires and werewolves. In one of issue of Wetworks, a reporter named Regine Velasquez was seen at Madison Square Garden. “At that time, may crush ako kay Regine,” he laughs. “I put her in there because nobody could complain, nobody could sue me because I just drew it.”
Whilce also wrote “Hesus Maryo Sep!” in his comics. “It’s only for Pinoys to know,” he winks. “Every time I go to conventions, little Mexican, Black, Middle Eastern kids, they come up to me and say my favorite book is Wetworks and say, ‘Hesus Maryo Sep!’ They couldn’t really say it but at least they would try.”
For Whilce, art and entertainment should speak to the hearts of everybody. “If you can speak on that level, you can communicate,” he explains.
The 57-year-old Cavite-born artist announces that Stone version 2.0 is coming out this year. Stone, whose story is much like Streetfighter with agimat (amulets), was the bestselling independent book in the 1990s, inspired by his good friend and comic artist and writer Gerry Alanguilan. The titular character was pegged after Robin Padilla, then an upcoming action star who was making waves. “I thought he was cool. I based the story on his character,” he beams.
Whilce’s job gives him the shortest four-week deadline to write, ink, draw, and color to produce the comic book. “Everything has to be really quick and really fast,” or so says the fictional character in X-Men Bishop whom Whilce created. “We are allowed a lot of leeway as long as we get the job done.”
With Crazy Rich Asians and Parasite becoming box-office hits, Whilce is optimistic that more Filipino content would be discovered soon. “The world does not want to see us doing other stories because it doesn’t make sense to them,” he says. “They are interested in seeing who we are. They want to see us.”
His advice to artists is to be ready all the time. “Hollywood and showbusiness, they have a lot of money. They don’t wait. So when they come calling, you have to be ready,” Whilce says.