Pride 2021: Queering Philippine comics

Published June 23, 2021, 1:46 PM

by John Legaspi

Adding more color to the black and white world of Filipino comics with LGBTQIA+ stories

There is no denying that Filipinos comics are at par with international works. Starting out during the 1920s, the local comics have spun numerous artists such as Mars Ravelo, Tony Velasquez, and Nestor Redondo, among others. It has inspired cinematic works with the film adaptation of titles like “Darna,” “Maruja,” and “Panday.” Best of all, Pinoy comics are among the first to champion women as heroes with National Artist Francisco Coching‘s “Mara-Bini” in 1935 (whose adventures pre-date Wonder Woman’s debut in 1941), and even beyond the pages with the legacy of comic creator, the late Elena Patron.
Comic book covers of ‘Ang Jowa Kong Crosswise,’ ‘Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah,’ ‘Nang Mainlove Ako sa Isang Sakristan,’ and ‘Champion of the Rose.’

What seems to be missing in the local comic scene then were stories and characters that represent the LGBTQIA+ community. Sure, international comics before were prohibited from injecting homosexual elements in their stories but others bravely added some aspects of it, though subliminaly, in their works during the ’70s.

Locally, it wasn’t until 2003 when the black and white world of comics became a little more colorful when Carlo Vergara’s superheroine Zsazsa Zaturnnah entered the scene. It paved the way for an LGBTQIA+ narrative to be introduced on the medium, because behind the fiery locks and the voluptuous body of the female warrior is the gay beauty salon owner Ada.

Zsazsa Zaturnnah by Carlo Vergara (Photo from @carvercomics)

“Her (Ada) story is a universal story,” Carlo said in a previous interview with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “You have a simple person, trying to live a normal life, but thrust into an extraordinary situation. Her being LGBTQIA+ was seen as groundbreaking in the early 2000s, so I hope people recognize that, given the greater representation we’ve been seeing of late.”

Carlo’s work is a true game-changer in the industry and has opened many opportunities not just for LGBTQIA+ stories to be shared but also for individuals of the community to pursue the art of comics.

Today, the queer movement in comics continues with more tales exploring different narrative, even going beyond the superhero plotlines, giving a new and exciting graphic novel experience.

This Pride Month, Manila Bulletin Lifestyle chats with a new breed of comic book creators that continue to keep the queer movement alive in the local comics scene.

New underdogs

Long before BL series graced our streaming time, writer and illustrator Richard Mercado has been dabbling on the theme in his comic. His graphic novel “Nang Mainlove Ako sa Isang Sakristan” is about two 17-year-old boys who are caught kissing at the back of a chapel.

“I initially just thought that everyone would probably be able to relate to a premise of sitting during mass, staring at the altar, and finding one of the sakristans cute, and I developed the plot from that premise,” he says. “I wanted to write a wholesome story that dealt with issues that a gay person would normally think about but still make it fun and cute.”

Richard Mercado’s ‘Nang Mainlove Ako sa Isang Sakristan’

Another title to add on your list of LGBTQIA+ readings is “Ang Jowa Kong Crosswise.” Created by artist Tsambolero, the series presents the modern life of a gay couple with, well, a few kinky moments.

“It started out as a sort of joke, actually,” the artist confesses. “I had no real plans of doing a full series run of the story. To my surprise, the pilot episode gained a lot of traction, and people were quick to ask me for more content.”

Tsambolero’s ‘Ang Jowa Kong Crosswise’

According to Tsambolero, who started doing comics in December 2020, making the comic is pretty much a breeze as it is semi-autobiographical. While drawing real life events already promises a sense of relativity to readers, he has taken the story to a more interesting level with a touch of Philippine folklore.

“I decided to put a little twist—what if one half of the couple was an aswang? I guess you could say that Tomas being an aswang living among humans also serves as a metaphor for being queer in a pre-dominantly Catholic country,” Tsambolero says.

Going for a fairy tale-like comic with a historical feel is the “Champion of the Rose,” written by Cat Aquino and illustrated by Dominique Duran. Cat has been working on the story since she was 13 years old. As a proud pansexual, Cat aimed to stir her work into something that has the makings of a good bedtime story—with mystery, royalties, and all—only this time, it is led by a bi/pansexual character in the form of Rey, a trans swordsman.

“Writing ‘Champion’ then became a quarantine coping mechanism, and it has continued to be where I put my heart and soul in thanks to Dominique,” Cat says. “Her outstanding art literally breathes life into the whole project, and she generously and patiently listens to me every time I have a wild idea.”

Rey, a trans swordman, from Cat Aquino and Dominique Duran’s ‘Champion of the Rose’

Breaking preconceived notions

Just like great comic books, the three titles played with the element of secrets in their narratives. But what makes them different is how bare their stories and characters are. It’s all about taking the readers to a close friend’s but unknown world of LGBTQIA+ community, be it in a realistic setup like in Richard’s comic or mixed with fantasy in Tsambolero’s and Cat’s.

These comic books aim to give a readers a peek to the LGBTQIA+ world, to break taboos, and give them a sense of who queer people are and how many things they have in common with heterosexual people.

“While gay people are commonly shown in Filipino media, it’s usually mixed with really bad stereotypes or R-Rated content,” Richard says. “These stereotypes and content persist because that’s what people have come to expect.”

“For queer people to be front and center in comics, and not just sidelined as supporting characters or as comic relief, it shows us that we can take charge of our own narratives,” Tsambolero adds. “We can be the hero (or villain) of the story just as much as straight people can. We’re all really no different from each other. Accurate and consistent representation of queer people in media helps us normalize what shouldn’t have been taboo in the first place.”

Seeing the better side of the mirror

While queer comics have larger benefits to their diverse readers, their effect on the LGBTQIA+ community is way greater in a sense that people of the community are being reborn in literature, and are seen for their beauty. To top it all, they are gaining a better understanding of who they from the voices of the people who understands what they are going through.

“Beyond the oft-thrown around word ‘representation,’ I think having LGBTQIA+ comics is important because it helps normalize the queer experience,” Cat says. “Many of us queers grow up believing we’re dirty sinners who’ll go to hell, or that we should hide our identities or else we’ll alienate our families, friends, or colleagues. Heterosexuality shouldn’t have to be the default!”

“The Philippines, in particular, definitely needs more LGBTQIA+ media to understand that being queer isn’t a sin or a comedy prompt,” she continues. “While I don’t think LGBTQIA+ media will be enough, I hope the ripple effects of LGBTQIA+ comics (through the production of discourse, community, and political action) will convince the national government and the education system to make laws and policies that protect queer Filipinos from abuse and discrimination, and allow us to marry whoever we want—because God knows those are overdue.”

“I think it’s important that marginalized people can see themselves in the media in general. This shouldn’t limit itself to just LGBTQIA+ characters, but also for Filipinos, people of color, and people from very marginalized communities,” Dominique adds. “There are so many fresh voices and new stories that can spring up from these places that can help people outside those communities gain a deeper understanding of the struggles and triumphs of those communities. I’m a firm believer that storytelling can help bridge gaps and help people come together.”

Read “Nang Mainlove Ako sa Isang Sakristan,” “Ang Jowa Kong Crosswise,” and “Champion of the Rose” on Penlab.