Wednesday, December 24, 2003

siglo: freedom review
Philippine Daily Inquirer
December 22, 2003

'Brave, bold step'
by Ruel S. de Vera

"Siglo: Freedom"
Edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Vin Simbulan
Mango Books, Quest Ventures and Kestrel IMC, Inc.
2003, 140 pages

ONE look at the elegantly spare cover, and readers will know that "Siglo: Freedom" is unlike anything else out there. Nothing indicates that it is a collection of comic-book stories. The loaded title, the beguiling design -everything about "Siglo" says this is a project that takes itself very seriously.

And readers should take it seriously as well, because "Siglo" is a brave, bold step forward for Philippine comic books.

The first in what is intended to be a yearly series of anthologies, "Siglo" is the brainchild of the people who crafted the prize-winning anthology "Isaw, Atbp." They have evolved that narrative effort into a more mature, more daring form. The project challenges popular ideas of what a comic book is and isn't.

Pushing the envelope is an impressive and diverse collection of comic book talent: Gerry Alanguilan, Dean Francis Alfar, Nikki Alfar, Arnold Arre, Jason Banico, Marco Dimaano, Andrew Drilon, Honoel Ibardolaza, Lan Medina, Elbert Or, Vin Simbulan and Carlo Vergara.

"There are no men in tights flying through our panels, or young geniuses firing lasers from their giant robots to fight off alien invasions," the editors write in their introduction. "But that does not mean we have a shortage of heroes. On the contrary, you will find tales of the courage and heroism of ordinary people as they struggle to attain their own unique brand of freedom."

Escapist it isn't

Obviously this is very serious stuff, so readers looking for escapist escapades should head elsewhere. It's so literary, it would easily be considered pretentious if it didn't work. But work it does.

Each set in a different time and place in Philippine history (and future), from Jolo in 1913 to Manila in 2004, the 10 tales in "Siglo" tackle a different vision of the quest for freedom, told through the writers' and artists' unique perspective. Staged in black-and-white and told mostly in English, each tale showcases the creators' diverse strengths and distinctive storytelling qualities.

Dean Alfar and Drilon's opening story juxtaposes the learning of a new alphabet with the painful lessons of a people's subjugation. Nikki Alfar and Dimaano's second story puts one woman's quiet liberation next to a man's loud call to arms.

Banico and Ibardolaza's take on a stage magician's fateful trip to Cebu is a parable in the tragedy of smoke and mirrors. Simbulan and Or's post-martial law story is a personal journey of living beyond a father's considerable shadow.

Delivering a punch

The stories are accessible and well-crafted, but the solo tales, written and illustrated by a single creator, deliver a particularly palpable punch.

The most lighthearted of the otherwise heavy stories, Dimaano's romantic tech tale, is sweet and heartfelt, much like his "Angel Ace" high jinks. Alanguilan's gritty take on a collaborator's change of heart, however, is as violent and as illuminating as his best work in "Wasted."

Arre's foreboding look at the future is a bracing, hypnotic visual departure from his usual work, though the message remains vintage Arre, classic and new in its own way.

Ibardolaza, also an award-winning writer of children's stories, displays a stunning range of visual style by conjuring a playful, wistful and perhaps heartbreaking portrait of young friendship amid the sugarcanes.

It is only right to pay special attention to the solo stories from two young but prime talents. Or's subtle unraveling of the scenes behind an arranged Chinatown marriage in the 1950s is a study in generational differences and in the efficiency of clean, solid storytelling.

Drilon's chaotic, noisy, dark roller-coaster ride through a wired, tangled techno-trapped metropolis provides a rousing, disturbing, fitting finishing kick to this ambitious anthology.

A thoughtful trip

The 10 stories stand apart and yet obviously follow one another, leading readers on a thoughtful trip through these disparate eras in Philippine past, present and future. And though the tales are patently works of fiction, something does ring authentic and convincingly true in the creators' aching portrayal of how freedom has been sought, sometimes attained, sometimes denied. It all feels so real.

Beyond just the collective talent in this collection, it is the singular vision of, the big picture being drawn by, "Siglo's" creators that pulls powerfully at the reader. Honest and edgy, it is that big idea whose time has come; the kind of comic book other comic-book people talk about all the time but never actually make.

It will be valuable to note that comic-book fans and non-comic book fans will be able to recognize good work when they see it, as the straightforward yet inventive storytelling in "Siglo" will appeal to serious readers. Don't expect any fluff. Don't expect fantasy.

There are times when readers can immediately identify that crucial step forward in a genre's evolution. Behold the footstep. A powerful collection of tales from a journey that is both fragmented and yet undeniably connected, "Siglo: Freedom" is a passionate paean to a people's seemingly endless search for the many things that have proven both invaluable and elusive.


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