Doorkeeper Questions Time, History, and Free Will in This Increasingly Dystopian World
“What are cities to stars… and what are stars to the endless flow of time?”
This is just one of the many existential crisis-inducing lines from the critically acclaimed Doorkeeper by Ethan Chua and Scott Lee Chua. The graphic novel follows an immortal being who acts as the guardian of the “Ways” of time and space. Like Marvel’s The Watcher, he is merely an observer of the universe who interacts but never interferes with mortals. Also reminiscent of The Sandman, the Doorkeeper is our Morpheus—the storyteller instead of the subject of the story, the medium in which we learn about the importance of history and fate.
Through the Doorkeeper’s travels, we revisit the Philippines from its pre-colonial era to World War II to the “frontiers of the far future.” Doorkeeper tackles time and space, in a Philippine context, in a way that’s perhaps never been done before—or never done this well. Within seven chapters, you’ll find yourself facing life’s biggest questions about the universe, our place in it, and whether everything was already pre-destined.
Chapter I of Doorkeeper
It’s no wonder Doorkeeper has found success at home and even abroad with the Filipino diaspora. How could it not when the graphic novel poses huge questions, such as “Is the everyday moment of our lives dictated by individuals making momentous choices in circumstantial times, or are there different forces at play? How free are we, anyway, and how much constraints are we working with without realizing? How much of it is us individually making choices and how much of us are already constrained by history, power, politics?”
That’s a lot to tackle in just under 200 pages, but like the character Doorkeeper, we find ourselves with more answers than questions by the graphic novel’s last page. With its masterful worldbuilding, Doorkeeper is a bewitching tale that spans millennia.
It’s been five years since Doorkeeper graced our bookshelves, but in celebration of its anniversary, we got to pick the brains of its creators, Ethan Chua and Scott Lee Chua (not siblings, by the way), about their thoughts on Doorkeeper five years on.
How Doorkeeper’s Meaning Has Changed—and Stayed the Same
When Ethan and Scott first started writing Doorkeeper, the two were still in high school, and by the time it was published, they were undergrads in college. A lot has happened in the five years since the graphic novel was unleashed in the world. Scott finished his master’s in economics and researches the dark web and internet crime when he isn’t moonlighting as a comic book writer. Meanwhile, Ethan is starting his master’s in international world history, focusing on the Hong Kong Junta period when Aguinaldo’s government was in exile—and we can only hope it inspires its own graphic novel. In that time, Doorkeeper has evolved.
“For me, the way I thought about Doorkeeper (the character) has changed,” shared Ethan. Instead of just a means to tell a story or show each action’s consequences, Doorkeeper has taken a life of its own. “Now I think about Doorkeeper as an idea or a conceptual frame in some ways. He's a way of thinking about history and about the ways that we tell ourselves history.”
In a way, he symbolizes how “our individual choices are the absolute fabric of history and space-time.”
Chapter II of Doorkeeper, Scott’s personal favorite
For all its big philosophical questions, Doorkeeper is rooted in time. Each time period is so important to the overarching story that time itself becomes an intangible character in the novel. By setting each chapter in the past or future, Doorkeeper became more timeless and more relevant to our changing present. And it’s perhaps become even more important, as well.
“One thing that's great about returning to it on its fifth anniversary is reading it and seeing that these stories are still so relevant, despite the context being different and that our feelings about them have changed,” said Scott.
This can be both good and bad, especially when Doorkeeper’s dystopian chapter is not nearly as far-fetched as we would like. When we envision a dystopia, we still imagine the future that Doorkeeper predicted: nuclear war, flooding, drought, famine, and toxic social media.
“In some ways, the goal of a dystopia story is to approximate fears about what the future holds,” said Scott.
Doorkeeper’s focus on time also brings up big questions like repeating history, as if we’re living in two parallel universes at once.
“The really wonderful thing about fantasy is that it opens us up to the fact that we're not just living one temporal rhythm. Or as Walter Benjamin said, we don't just live according to the time of calendar and clock. The time of calendar and clock is discrete, there are moments of the past, present, and future that are equalizable,” explained Ethan. But fantasy is a reminder that there’s more than one way to look at time.
“There's a part in a book I read that refers to Henri Bergson, who is a philosopher on time, who has a gorgeous quote where the past isn't just in the present… the past bites into the present. Coming back to Doorkeeper and this year's elections, I had that moment where, yes, the belief that a specific narrative has been solidified as a shared present has been shattered. For me, Doorkeeper is an urgent reminder of the political and ethical necessity of living in an enchanted time.”
Chapter III of Doorkeeper, Ethan’s personal favorite
On Fantasy, Lies, and Historical Fiction
On a personal level, Doorkeeper’s anniversary is triggering plenty of feelings of sentimentality, as well as questions on the impact of fantasy in a post-truth landscape. Doorkeeper, the guardian, is tasked with protecting the Ways of time and space and revealing the truth and consequences of actions made by the characters in the story. The lessons of the graphic novel are conscientious and nuanced. But what if they weren’t?
“[One] thing that has come into broader relief is the stakes of writing fantasy feel a lot higher. [Picasso once said,] 'Art is a kind of a lie that reveals the truth.' It is about the fantastic, it is about the creative impulse, but now I read it and I'm like, there's an element of danger to it. There's an eeriness. Yes, art is a lie that reveals a truth, fantasy is a lie that is all about the truth, but what does that mean in a world where lies are commodified, repackaged, and propagandized in ways that are really insidious?” questioned Ethan. “Whether it's vaccine denialism, flat earthers, 'golden age' historical revisionists who believe that Marcos was genuinely a hero—all these different ways of lying have come across as true.”
Should we avoid fantasy when lies become routinely distorted? Or does it give us more reason to turn to it? The Lord of the Rings is loved because it champions good, but if we see forces of Mordor winning in the real world, do we rewatch LOTR because it’s no longer revealing human truths but escaping from it? As lies become truth, has fantasy evolved from mirroring reality to providing inspiration to change it and to be better? Something to ponder on.
“A younger me approached fantasy with a kind of wide-eyed, incredible kind of belief in its power. Which is not gone, but now I'm also realizing there is a kind of an eerie edge to it,” shared Ethan.
Chapter IV of Doorkeeper
Another question that’s popped up over the last five years is on the matter of historical fiction in an age of historical revisionism—and how the rules have changed.
“[For] authors who play with history and truth as the raw materials of stories, there's now a bit more responsibility of how you do that. I don't think that stories have a responsibility to always be educational, but I do think they have a responsibility to bear some truth in them,” said Scott.
"One thing that really hammered this home is when I started seeing reviews of Doorkeeper on Goodreads and Facebook. The comments were, 'Oh, you know, I read this for my class and it was really good.' Or, 'I read this for my class, I didn't expect it to be good, but it's good.' Doorkeeper was being read for lit analysis in college—it was being read for history in high school. This was after we made the first edition of Doorkeeper free to read online during COVID as a kind of solidarity with the arts community and with everyone else. One side effect of putting it online and making it accessible is that more people were able to read it. It was heartwarming and of course very humbling, but it also hammered in the responsibility that authors have.”
Chapter V of Doorkeeper
Angels, Art, and Other Things
The stunning artwork of Doorkeeper was created by Gia Duran, Aaron Felizmenio, Allen Geneta, Bow Guerrero, Bianca Lesaca, Jap Mikel, Brent Sabas, Borg Sinaban, and Raymund Bermudez, all of whom lent their unique styles and visions to the graphic novel.
One detail about Doorkeeper that makes it so special is how the interpretation of the Doorkeeper changes with each chapter, as imagined by each artist. Although the creators shared that this was inspired by The Sandman, it’s also reminiscent of how angels are interpreted differently in every religion, and on a personal level, by everyone.
“I see a lot of archangel memes, like how angels look in Renaissance paintings, where they look like conventionally attractive people with halos around their heads, and the meme would go, how are angels described in the Bible? And it's like four rotating wheels with eyes all over the wheels, and inside the wheels is fire, and maybe there are wings but it's like a thousand wings,” said Ethan.
“These angels are not anthropomorphized, they're really just like terrifying cosmic beings in the HP Lovecraft sense. Brent (in chapter five) being able to do that take on Doorkeeper was a ton of fun—an archangel Doorkeeper, who in this chapter is multi-eyed and multi-winged and borrowing some of the Catholic mystique around angels as supernatural divine forces.”
Chapter VI of Doorkeeper
As for Scott, his favorite version of Doorkeeper was his most futuristic version: “What I loved was the one in chapter six, our last chapter, which is the post-apocalyptic nuclear war chapter, and Bow Guerrero draws this huge Doorkeeper with a very royal red flowing cape instead of his usual space cape, and almost like a crown of thorns. When he was designing it, Bow said he was looking at Greek and Japanese iconography.”
To celebrate the Doorkeeper’s fifth anniversary since its release, Summit Books launched a special anniversary edition during Manila International Book Fair with remastered layouts, bonus artworks, and a new cover by Gia Duran. You can also purchase the graphic novel on Lazada.