Books & Art

The Business of Komiks: How Filipino Storytellers Can Thrive with Tenacity and Pragmatism

A renewed interest in komiks arrives after the success of Trese, but how can Filipino comic book creatives ride the wave?
IMAGE AVENIDA BOOKS, ESQUIRE PHILIPPINES
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Paolo Herras has been busy these days, making his way around his office cramped by stacks upon stacks of packages ready for sending all over the country. Most of those packages contain TreseBudjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s breakout comic that’s now streaming on Netflix as an animated series. “Orders [have been] wild,” says Herras, the author and filmmaker who co-founded the local comics convention Komiket, to Esquire Philippines. “We’ve been packing orders for the past few weeks and the buyers come from everywhere.”

“What's amazing with Trese is that it's one of those titles that that hits so many demographics,” Herras continues. “It's not just fans of local comics but also the anime fans. [Trese] hits the ones who are fans of film and TV, film buffs, scholars, and animation. You know, geeks.” 

The Crossover Appeal of Trese

When asked why he thinks Trese has such broad crossover appeal, Tan jokingly cackles like a supervillain and says, “because I planned it all along!” 

Tan then turns serious and echoes the sentiment of his producer Tanya Yuson, who was introduced to Trese with book three, where the stories had begun to coalesce into something more substantial than the familiar police procedural format the comic started with. “She loved the premise,” relates Tan, “but at the same time, she saw that it was about Pinoy family. The heart of the story is about Alexandra trying to live up to expectations or, you know, step out of her father's shadow.”

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“It’s one of those very Pinoy things that, if you come from a family of doctors, everyone expects you to be a doctor or to be a lawyer or something like that or you need to take over the family business,” he says. It just so happens that Alexandra Trese’s family business is kicking aswang ass.

The six-episode Trese series on Netflix is much grander in scope than the comic’s humble origins as murder mysteries printed as ashcans and sold in comic conventions. Tan explains how Trese’s readership shaped his stories: “When we started, especially in the first three books, it was not planned at all. [We were] really going on a case by case basis and, by the time we finished our first two books, that's when the first batch of readers started to filter in [and we] started to notice a recurring set of questions: ‘Where did the Kambal come from?’, ‘Where's Anton?’, ‘What happened to the parents?’ So we thought, okay, it's time to talk about these things.”

The Many Trajectories of Trese and Komiks

The trajectory of Trese is an uncommon one for a Filipino property. It took about a decade of work and a lot of peddling to various outfits before the Trese team lucked out on Netflix, which gave them carte blanche to make the series as Filipino as possible. For a property steeped in Filipino myths, folklore, and urban legends, this freedom was a godsend. 

Not since the days of Mars Ravelo’s Darna or Carlo J. Caparas’ Panday has a Filipino property gotten such media attention. Carlo Vergara’s Zsazsa Zaturnnah, an LGBTQ send-up of Darna, was made into a movie and a stage play in 2006, but for the most part Filipino comics—colloquially referred to as komiks—don’t receive much attention or reach beyond their usually low-print runs, much less get the spotlight on an international streaming service. 

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In 2019, filmmaker Avid Liongoren’s Rocketsheep Studios released a teaser for a Zsazsa Zaturnnah animation. In 2020, the project secured funding from Swiss investors and Liongoren released a longer, more exciting teaser where the titular Zsazsa fights zombies. Liongoren’s Saving Sally and Hayop Ka! are both on Netflix, so fans of the country’s most popular and influential gay superhero can hope that the world’s most progressive streaming service will pick it up once it’s completed.

But not all roads lead to Netflix. While getting a series or a movie on an international platform would seem to be the dream, most Filipino komiks get little more than a few sales on a table at a convention like Komiket. Getting picked up by a publishing house is a feat in itself. 

“Beautiful art, as well as a beautiful story and a great concept, is the formula for a best-selling comic book,” says Herras. But the magic formula for a best-selling comic book isn’t enough. “I'm just looking at Budjette and Kajo as an example. It's not about getting the quick sale. They were working on this for a long, long time. It's really about legacy building. What story do you want to share with the world and what do you want to leave behind? Make a mark as a Filipino komiks creator,” he says.

The Effect of Trese on Filipino Komiks 

Trese blazed a trail by becoming the first Filipino komiks to be picked up by an international streaming platform but what does it really mean for Filipino creators? The surge of sales for Trese comics trickled down to other titles. “[Customers] were more open to reading other titles, as well. And that's the magic that Trese is doing. It's now throwing a spotlight on other creators and our community as well,” shares Herras.

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It isn’t a surprise to Herras, who has championed Filipino komiks creators with Komiket. “Our community knows that we have good stuff, we have a lot of talented [creators],” he says while lamenting the lack of attention that creators get. “We're just not noticed for some reason. We're just glossed over but now people are taking notice. [As a] Filipino storyteller, comics are now being considered as one of the mediums that showcase Filipino talents.”

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But don’t quit your day job. Literally. “If you want to earn a living, well, it's just not conducive right now,” Herras admits. “I'm not saying forever but right now. [Unless] you just accept commissioned works.” The reality is that even Trese, arguably the country’s most popular komiks today, doesn’t even come out on a regular basis because it’s made by two men during their free time while holding down full-time jobs. 

“That's because of how our creative industries are here in the Philippines. It's all employment contracts. We don't value intellectual property and copyright, and we show it,” Herras ruefully explains. “If we [look at] what Trese has achieved, that's intellectual property being monetized in various forms.”

The Reality of the Komiks Business

The key is to look beyond comics. “It's really showing and realizing that our work is not just a comic book. And that comes from an insight as a creator that, you know, ‘My book might be [only] P200 or P300, but the cost of this book is more than that because this took me six months, one year, two years of my life,'” says Herras. Budjette and Kajo sometimes take years to finish a story, while Vergara’s three-part sequel to Zsazsa Zaturnnah is still waiting for the finale after part one came out in 2016. 

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Carlo Vergara's Zsazsa Zaturnnah on the cover of the all-illustrated edition of Esquire Philippines (October 2018)

Photo by Esquire Philipppines.

“That's when you know things don't add up. People are paying P200, but it's like two years of my life so I know that my work is more valuable, it's just not amounting to that right now,” says Herras. For many creators, it’s a struggle to keep on putting out komiks despite the fact that the Philippines is the second-largest reading market in Southeast Asia. Filipinos are reading, with Wattpad romances hitting a circulation of up to 60,000. “They’re just not reading us,” he adds.

Herras says that a popular comic can have a print run of 3,000 to 5,000, but most titles will be from 1,500 to 2,000. “So that's the amount of readers that we do have, and that takes, how many years to sell? It takes a while … five years to seven years (to sell all of those comics),” he says.

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The Paths to Success for Creators

It sounds discouraging but Tan says, “We have new systems and structures that are slowly being built so that there's a place for comic book creators and their works to be shared to a wider audience.” He mentions Tarantadong Kalbo, which began as strips on Facebook. “He (Kevin Eric Raymundo) did it for free, right? He did it because it was his way of expressing daily life and it was his way of expressing his frustration with what's happening in our country,” says Tan. “And eventually, Paolo picks it up, prints it into a book. So it becomes monetized in that way.”

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But Tan admits that’s not all there is to it. “I guess the hardest thing for an individual like Tarantadong Kalbo or any indie creator for that matter, is if they want to earn more than the usual, then it does require more work. I’m talking about merch,” he says.

“If the creator wanted to earn a bit more money, then he'd have to spend time and money producing that shirt, producing sticker sheets, producing plushie dolls, and that's time away from you creating your thing, right?” explains Tan. “And you’d have to time it with the next comic con or Komiket or tiangge or bazaar. But now with lockdown, you know, there [are fewer] opportunities.”

Herras’ Komiket is also behind PICOF, the Philippine International Comics Festival, where he seeks out local creators with the intention of giving them seed money in order to publish their comics. “It's like a Cinemalaya for comics. We do a call for entries and we select [from those] 10 comics pitches. Then, the creators go through a creators’ lab where we help them develop their characters and story, and then we publish it and launch it in time for the festival,” he says. 

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“And when we get invited to attend other international comics festivals, animation festivals, and book fairs, we have something to show. And if it gets picked up by an international publisher, then it will. I mean you'll hit the FullyBooked market that only wants to read foreign [titles],” Herras continues. 

The Viable Creative Medium

Even with the spotlight, success is far from guaranteed. Komiks still demands hard work with little chance of payoff. But it’s definitely possible. Says Tan, “You have to choose where you want to tell stories. And you need to be passionate about it. [Whatever] medium that you choose, you just need to be passionate about it. I would point towards platforms like Webtoons and Tapas (online sites and apps for self-publishing webcomics).”

“And one success story is John Amor with Urban Animal (on Webtoons)—it goes to show that it's possible,” he adds. Davao-based artist Amor and American writer Justin Jordan’s Urban Animal has amassed over half a million followers on Webtoons and successfully funded a physical book on Kickstarter last year. 

When asked whether or not komiks is still a viable storytelling medium, komiks champion Herras says, “It all goes back to storytelling. [The advantage] that comics has is you can see the story already immediately there. You can see if it's worth investing hundreds of millions of dollars on just like Trese. You can see it already if you're a producer who knows what will work or what may appeal to a wider audience.”

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Herras applies business-savvy pragmatism to his reasoning: “If you're planning to have a film or a TV series or an animation, you still [need to] do a storyboard. So might as well do it in a comic book form.” 

Trese may have put the spotlight on the Philippines now, but creators still need to work hard and be patient. He advises, “Whether you publish it online or publish it in print, you will build your audience, your lot. You want to build a loyal reader, and hopefully, a producer will pick it up.”

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Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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