Alfredo Alcala and the Filipino komiks tradition

Another way we can begin to quantify choices in artists’ visual style in an analytic manner is to consider the usefulness of the concept of national schools of comic art.  Here I don’t mean to suggest that regions produce a natural stylistic predilection in its peoples, rather that regions place shared circumstances upon and bestow aspiring artists with shared resources that result in commonalities in aesthetic choice.  The unique matrix of limitations and opportunities — ranging from the technological, the organizational, the economics, the biographical, etc. — can be read as transversing a regionalized body of work.

Take for example the Filipino komiks tradition, a distinct form of comic art from roughly the 1950s to the 1980s, and consider how it was built from the specific context of its creation.  Technologically, Filipino komik artists worked with a more limited system of reproduction that, in most cases, produced monochrome images in black and white with frequent splashes of red.  As a result,  komik artists used line in a vastly different way than their American counterparts, who could rely on the vivid system of four-color printing to build and separate forms and to create depth effects.  Organizationally, komik artists shared the same employer — the business was dominated by Ace Publications — who surely imposed both explicit and implicit rules about what “good” komik art was to be.  Additionally, comic artists often worked together tight knit studios sharing both a physical work space as well as “tricks of the trade,” swapped and developed into a coherent, semi-regularlized visual system.  Moreover, once visual style and aesthetic choices were established by the interlocking elements of technology, business, and organization (to say nothing of the individual drive and inspiration of specific artists), these informal standards were followed, addressed, or challenged by subsequent waves of aspiring artists.

Although komik artists of this era evince a vast spectrum of individual styles and aesthetic choices (as should be expected), they were all deeply impacted by contexts I described above, producing in their work a distinct Filipino tradition that is immediately recognizable, even in contrast with the American comic tradition with which it shares so much. Simply put, I argue that komik art is a much more illustrative style than American comic art, an observation that identified in at least three stylistic tendencies.  First, komik artists rely much on detailed line and brush work in their inking, varying line shape and formation as well as giving forms texture.  Again, limited reproduction standards of komiks probably compelled komiks artist to use more minute line work to render shape, form and substance rather than relying on color and color contrast.  Second, komik artists excelled in “silent” storytelling, inserting panels without verbal narration to do the work of narrative.  And lastly, in choosing their images, komik artists tended to find the most telling single images to deliver action rather than relying on drawn-out sequences.  In other words, komik artists, in a tendency probably related to the page restrictions of their earlier works, emulated more classic illustration and poster aesthetics (and certainly Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant) and transmitted action often into single, powerful panels.  The combination of these tendencies explains why, in their later years, many of the komik artists worked exclusively as inkers for mainstream American comic producers: while their storytelling approach may have been slightly “off,” or out-of-sync with respect to Marvel-DC standards, their ability to render in ink was absolutely unparalleled by American contemporaries.  Moreover, in these later years, they were typically drafted for work on “genre” books (horror, war, fantasy) and not the increasingly dominant superhero books, a genre whose aesthetic the komik were, in many ways, ill-suited for.

Below I would like to flesh out these observations by considering some of the drawings that these artists created for the mainstream American comic producers.  Specifically, I would like to draw on several examples from probably the most important (and successful) of these artists, Alfredo Alcala.  Alcala’s art demonstrates all of the above observations, which come out in even more distinct contrast when put alongside American work.  Take, for example, Alcala’s work on Marvel’s adaptation of Planet of the Apes, an assignment in which he replaced George Tuska, a very competent, if not sometimes typical Marvel artist.  The switch in artists gives us the opportunity to see very directly the difference in regional styles as they are brought to the same subject matter. Below is a typical layout and action sequences as delivered by Tuska and his co-artists Mike Esposito and Dave Hunt.

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– From Adventures on the Planet of the Apes #4 (with apologies for the low resolution)

The image is built from thick, block brush lines that form both the exaggerated, Kirbyesque figures, but also on the abstracted representation of splashing water and the use of speed lines, comic art shorthand for intense action.

Contrast the detailed use of line in the opening page of Alcala’s version of  Planet of the Apes, which deeply contrasts line quality to create the textual effects of visually “explaining” the fur on Nova’s loin cloth, the lush foliage, the craggy rock ground in the background, etc., creating depth and difference.  Here Alacala has no need for the American tools of exaggerated foreshortening, overpowering sound effects or speed lines to build a scene or interest.

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– From Adventures on the Planet of the Apes #8

Moreover, Alcala uses the “realistic” details of his minute line work to substitute for the use of speed lines.  In the second panel, it is the natural cross hatching of the underbrush that gives shape the foot’s action and resultant sound.  And even more clearly, the ape’s whipping hairs, meticulously rendered in panel three, replace the need for speed lines, demonstrating his quick turning motion already implied through naturalistic detail.

The use of line detail to render texture and to fill panels is recurrent in Alcala’s work.  In the following panels, Alcala builds entire compositions by variations of line quality.  Notice how both images are entirely filled with linework.

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– From Kong the Untamed #2

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– From Conan the Barbarian #137

The difference in visual systems, from Tuska to Alcala, is also evident in the artist’s treatment of faces.  First, observe Tuska’s interpretation of the famous trial sequence.  The faces are clearly in “comic book” form rendered with thick, repetitive brushstrokes and with rather exaggerated poses to communicate performance.  In other words, these are definitively characters from a Marvel comic, and not drawn representations of the movie characters and certainly not of “real” apes.

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– From Adventures on the Planet of the Apes #4

In contrast, examine several faces from Alcala’s work, which uses irregular line length and thickness to create texture.  By capturing these details, the artist’s faces do not need rely on the contorted stock poses of Tuska’s work.  Instead Alcala uses his linework to create more nuanced and subdued “performances.”

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– From Adventures on the Planet of the Apes #8

Tuska’s interpretation of the hosing scene, pictured above, also embodies the seemingly paradoxical pairing in American comic art of exaggerated action and overdetermined narration.  The prisoner Taylor, in this page, does a good job of explaining and commenting on all the action as it occurs; not a single panel allows its image to do the work of communicating narrative alone.  In contrast, Alcala fills his work with silent moments in which images alone do the work of narration.  In the three page sequence below, adapted from the film Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Alcala includes in each page at least two wordless panels, some overdetermined (the wagon trampling over the sign), some more ponderous (Ursus’s close ups indicate his opposition to the hippie apes, but leave his motivations more opaque), but all giving story though a purely visual register.  Of course, the decision to leave these panels wordless was ultimately that of the writer and editor; in the Marvel system dialogue and narration was produced after art pages.  The writer Doug Moench, much to his credit, realized that Alcala was doing all the work of storytelling in these panels and left them alone, demonstrating a truly rare restraint among Marvel writers.

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– From Adventures on the Planet of the Apes #10

And lastly, unlike Tuska’s drawn-out hose attack, Alcala’s art often demonstrates a tendency in his work to capture intense action in single, effective images.  This can take the form of collages…

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– From Adventures on the Planet of the Apes #10

…or in single panel fight sequences.

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– From Conan the Barbarian #137

Notice how in both how Alcala relies on form and anatomy to communicate the action less than abstracted lines and other comicbook-isms.  Moreover, in the later example, Alcala refuses to render the background abstract to move attention the central fight; still the artist renders the room and in objects in detailed, textural linework.

I argue that we can find all of these exemplary tendencies of the Filipino illustrative style, born of the shared circumstances and resources (textural line work, silent panels, and single-panel poster effects), in all of Alcala’s contemporaries, albeit in varying levels of importance.

Alcala’s detail work is also evident in the work of the master inker, Ernie Chan, who worked many years for Marvel Comics.  We can observe Chan’s ability in rendering form and texture best through contrasting him with an contemporary American artist working on a similar subject matter.  Take, for example, two Conan splash pages both published in the same year, one penciled by Gil Kane with Chan finishes the other by Val Mayerik.

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– From Conan the Barbarian #134

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– From Conan the Barbarian #138

In the latter image, Mayerik’s otherwise dynamic image is sculpted by rather consistent use of brush strokes to give volume to the bulging musculature of Conan and his horse.  However, the extenuation of anatomy is achieved through the sacrifice of difference: Conan’s bare skin, his hide clothes and horse flesh are texturally identically.  But in the former image, Chan fills Kane’s composition with rich detail, varying brush technique and stroke to underscore the textural difference not only between the ample anatomy of Conan and his horse, but between the lush variation of wood and brush filling the panel.  Both are expertly drawn images, but each reflects the priorities of its visual system: the latter in demonstrating raw power through comicbook shorthand, the former, in building images through pen-and-ink, illustrative, detail.

Silent panels and sequences likewise recur through the work of komik artists.  Take, for example, several images from Jesse Santos.

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– From The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor #24

Here Santos delivers story purely in visual pantomime.  Santos also evidences a more modern rendering style that, unlike the more traditional work of Alcala or Chan, displays the influences of pop art and advertising imagery.  Of course, one can find similar sequences in American comic art, but the point here is the frequency of “silent” action as a stylistic choice in artists of the komiks tradition.

The tendency to capture sequences and entire narratives in single images is exemplified in the work of E.R. Cruz who created dense collages depicting entire ghost stories for DC Comics’s often mediocre horror anthology Ghosts.
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– from Ghosts #74

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– From Ghosts #77

Likewise this tendency to combine and narrate action through single, dense images can be found in the work of probably the most idiosyncratic artist of the komiks tradition, Alex Niño.  Take, for example, the image he created for a back-up science fiction feature for Alcala’s Rima.

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– From Rima, the Jungle Girl #3

In this strange collage, Niño displays the same commitment to textural, detailed linework as Alcala, but whereas Alcala’s art is grounded the realistic impulse of traditional pen-and-ink work, Niño detaches traditional meanings from rendering style thereby creating a surrealistic effect that only underscores the strangeness of the piece’s narrative.  For example, Niño uses heavy contrast and spot black to capture the old man in the upper left, but immediately (and un-motivated-ly) shifts the style to that of minute crow-quilled detail work in the subsequent panel insert; rendering style here is entirely detached from the logical storyworld.  And the face that dominates the page’s collage is drawn in a style that includes unmotivated curlicues and almost topographical marks that have no real bearing on the actual countenance that is outlined; form (the face) and rendering style (how it is filled in) are illogically paired.  Niño’s paradoxical art, which seems both to emulate the work of the American underground movement (work by Vaughn Bodé in particular) and to predate the hyperbaroque styling of later American comic art (work by Walt Simonson in particular) while still containing the signature marks of the komiks style, certainly deserves further attention.

Above I have attempted to delineate some of the more obvious tendencies recurrent throughout the work of artists of the komiks tradition.  A more thorough examination should (and will) take several more variables as significant, investigating more closely other possible elements of the stylistic school such as repeated poses, gestures, compositions, layouts, etc.  However, revealing these elements necessitates a much more focused and comprehensive system of analysis and an equally rigorous methodology to back it up.

 

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