Meet The Filipino Comic Book Legend Who's Worked on Iron Man, The Punisher, and Spawn
Born in Sangley Point in 1963 as a Navy brat, Whilce Portacio moved back to the US as a baby, grew up there, and went on to become one of the most accomplished comic book artists of his time. From mid- to- late 1990s, Whilce returned to the Philippines and set up a pioneering studio on Balete Drive that helped boost and give rise to the careers of such local stalwarts as Gerry Alanguilan, Leinil Yu, and Philip Tan.
It was in middle school and high school in Hawaii when doors were opened to the young artist. Supportive teachers got Whilce to work with the older students—even to attend college art classes at the University of Hawaii in his sophomore year. Whilce won Gold Key Awards in every category he joined at the Scholastic Key Awards for student artists, leading to invitations from art academies all over the US.
WP: I was going to be a painter. In my sophomore year, a senior in my art class introduced me to comic books, and I loved it that illustrations could tell a story. I had no idea yet what illustration was, but I excelled very quickly in it. In high school I got involved in rock bands, and got into Queen, David Bowie, and Kiss. The prettiest girl entering the Miss Teen Hawaii contest liked this particular Kiss song, so I did a lyric sheet and illustrated it. I gave it to her and she showed it around, and from there on I was able to sell those sheets. I realized that this was real communication with my generation, and maybe this was something I could do. Galleries and paintings weren’t that visible to me as a teenager, but commercial art was.
"I realized that this was real communication with my generation, and maybe this was something I could do. Galleries and paintings weren’t that visible to me as a teenager, but commercial art was."
When Whilce’s dad retired in 1979, the Portacios went back to the Philippines and lived in Cavite City.
WP: I spoke no Filipino, because my parents never spoke it in the States, so I felt very isolated, but it turned out to be good for me, because I spent that time just drawing, just figuring out my style, and I had four years as a loner to do that. In the Philippines I studied for two years at Philippine Women’s University, in the first batch of male students allowed into the school. I went to all the universities, but I chose PWU because of Ibarra de la Rosa. He was a terror to many students because he was very straightforward, but what I loved about him was that during the lunch break in the teachers’ lounge, he was painting. I could watch a real painter paint and make his decisions.
"I chose PWU because of Ibarra de la Rosa. He was a terror to many students because he was very straightforward, but what I loved about him was that during the lunch break in the teachers’ lounge, he was painting. I could watch a real painter paint and make his decisions."
Whilce returned to the US in 1984 and stayed with an aunt in San Diego, California, where Comic-Con had started in 1970. It proved to be his big break.
WP: My aunt’s eldest son knew about Comic-Con and dragged me there with my portfolio. It was at the Civic Center then, just two small floors. But that year, every single Marvel editor was there looking for new talent, and I got pushed around a lot, and eventually I got to meet Carl Potts, who was quarter-Filipino.
It’s a deadline business, so editors don’t really have much time, and when editors find someone talented, they wait until that guy is almost 100 percent ready to go, so the usual line is, “You’re really good—keep working and come back next year!” Carl was different, he was a born teacher. He liked my work and got my phone number, and every month he called to ask to see my new stuff. He saw very quickly that my storytelling wasn’t up to par. You had to be able to do both sides to get the job. I was a fine artist—what was storytelling? So he sent me a book called The Five C’s of Cinematography—the go-to book at the time for storytelling. I studied it, and learned what I had to, and then I got my first job. My first job was inking, and my first job in penciling was Punisher. Carl said, I know you’re still struggling with storytelling, but I also know you need to make money, so why don’t you do some inking? That’s what I did for a while.
"A comic book is an assembly line. The prescribed average is a day for one whole page in pencil, then that gets sent off to an inker while the penciler works on the next page. Someone has to ink it because gray pencil doesn’t reproduce. Then it goes on to the colorist. It all begins with the script from the writer. The artist can’t move until he gets that plot."
A comic book is an assembly line. The prescribed average is a day for one whole page in pencil, then that gets sent off to an inker while the penciler works on the next page. Someone has to ink it because gray pencil doesn’t reproduce. Then it goes on to the colorist. It all begins with the script from the writer. The artist can’t move until he gets that plot.
Whilce counts himself in the third wave of Filipino artists who have made it in the US comic book industry, following the likes of pioneers like Tony de Zuñiga, Nestor Redondo, Alex Niño, Ernie Chan, and Rudy Nebres, among others.
WP: There was a wave that DC brought over in the ’60s, then there was nothing for a while. Many Filipino artists traveled directly to the States, and then homegrown artists like me became kind of the third wave.
It didn’t take long for Whilce to move up the ladder, working on such iconic projects as Punisher, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Wetworks, and Spawn. In 1992, he co-founded Image Comics with other leading illustrators.
The most important job I ever did involved creating characters like Bishop for the X-Men. At that point I was no longer just an illustrator but a creator.
WP: The most important job I ever did involved creating characters like Bishop for the X-Men. At that point I was no longer just an illustrator but a creator. As a creator, I can do the whole process, which is why I can be asked to set up studios. More than just the idea, you have to know where it’s going to go. Within all that, I never liked the caveman mentality of the artist, where you were all alone in your Bat Cave beating deadlines. So very early on, before Image, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and I set up Homage Studios in an apartment, and from there we set up the 70-man WildStorm Studios. I became a mentor, because we brought in young artists and we had to teach them the ropes, and I started loving that. I began thinking of the whole comics process and of how to refine it.
I never liked the caveman mentality of the artist, where you were all alone in your Bat Cave beating deadlines. So very early on, before Image, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and I set up Homage Studios in an apartment, and from there we set up the 70-man WildStorm Studios. I became a mentor, because we brought in young artists and we had to teach them the ropes, and I started loving that.
He’s been key to setting up the fourth wave of Pinoy comic book stars, a mission that began when a two-week trip to Manila in 1995 turned into a five-year stay during which he set up a studio on Balete Drive.
WP: When I came home and opened a studio, that’s when I discovered artists like Leinil Yu and Philip Tan. I discovered them, trained them, and gave them jobs, because we were producing comics for DC. Now, with the Internet, young artists can introduce themselves. The bridges are now connected. The process and pipeline are now set up for everybody.
Among his discoveries, a standout has been Leinil Yu, who’s become one of the most sought-after artists in the business.
WP: Leinil Yu brings to the field what has been missing for decades: he loves the medium and is totally disciplined. There was a comic book artist named Jack “King” Kirby whose career spanned many decades, from the 1940s to the 1990s. In the 1970s and 1980s, he did something spectacular—he drew four comic books a month. Today we can barely do one. Leinil has a lot of Jack Kirby in him. When he joined my studio in the 1990s, believe it or not, I didn’t want him, because he was doing a very bad imitation of my work. But he had been sponsored by my art director Gerry Alanguilan, so I relented and let him in.
Leinil Yu brings to the field what has been missing for decades: he loves the medium and is totally disciplined... Leinil has a lot of Jack Kirby in him.
One day I went downstairs and saw these beautiful line drawings, and I asked Gerry who had done them, and he told me it was Leinil. It turned out that the beautiful line drawings were his layouts, which he then ruined by trying to shade them like me, and he didn’t understand shading at that time. I told him, Leinil, if you really want to be a star, and I think you can, I don’t ever want to see a cross-hatch or a shadow from you, just line detail. Two months later, I got him Wolverine. So I’m very proud of being able to take in young artists like Leinil Yu and to help them move along. I advised him to stay in Manila, because with comics being so huge, within one year he was able to get a 10-year visa and he now gets invitations from all over, and gets one of the highest rates, so it’s no problem for him to fly to New York or Paris or wherever, and when he gets paid he gets more bang for his buck.
The Philippines, Whilce believes, is uniquely positioned to supply the world with both new artists and new material.
WP: In positioning the Philippines, because of our history, however you may look at it, we’ve had decades of absorbing the American psyche. When an American company has an idea for a project, the Filipino artist gets it, because he can think Filipino and also think American. Artists in places like Korea and Dubai get a lot of government help so they have an advantage over Filipinos in that sense, but it takes American companies a much longer time to explain their projects over there, so the startup is slower than here. That’s why when talented Filipino artists turn up, boom, they get picked up just like that.
Do you know how many Filipino artists there are in Pixar like Ronnie del Carmen and Ricky Nierva? A lot of them started in comics. There are so many of them there that they call themselves Pixnoys. Marvel, DC, Sony, Dreamworks, Bethesda Gaming, Blizzard Gaming— wherever you go, you’ll find Pinoys at the top. Imagine how it would be if you brought all of this top talent and all the millions they make for their companies home, and all the experience they could push down to local Filipinos.
Nobody knows about our stories yet. We have all the knowledge in the Philippines, and here in the States they have all the experience, and they should be put together. Hollywood and the world are open to what’s new, to the next big thing. They know all the European fairy tales, and we’re now going through China, Japan, and Korea. Our time has come!
It took Whilce himself some time to rediscover his Filipino roots, of which he’s now tremendously proud and eager to share with the world through his work. It’s time, he thinks, for Filipino superheroes to emerge—superheroes who will be culturally different from their Western counterparts, because of their kinship with the community.
WP: In high school in Hawaii, my teacher asked me to do a case study on the Philippines. I didn’t know anything about the Philippines then, so I asked relatives, but that generation didn’t like talking about the Philippines. So I was 12 or 13, looking for my identity, and with no input from Filipinos and hanging out with my friends who were mostly Japanese, I became a ninja, a samurai. But I was adopting someone else’s identity. When I came back to the Philippines in the 1990s, I discovered what I had been missing, and became very nationalistic. That’s my driving force now—there’s so much about the Philippines that the world still doesn’t know, and I just happen to be in a field that can get that out.
“Ate” may mean “older sister” to Americans, but to Filipinos, it’s more than a matter of age. She’s more than the older sister—she takes care of everybody else, ahead of her own self. That’s what being an ate, a kuya, or a bossing is about—a natural empathy, having so much more to give. We value family relationships because they endure despite everything else that’s gone on in our history, despite all our colonizers, despite politics. People relate to us Filipinos because we’re very human and can teach others to be human.
So I was 12 or 13, looking for my identity, and with no input from Filipinos and hanging out with my friends who were mostly Japanese, I became a ninja, a samurai. But I was adopting someone else’s identity. When I came back to the Philippines in the 1990s, I discovered what I had been missing, and became very nationalistic. That’s my driving force now—there’s so much about the Philippines that the world still doesn’t know, and I just happen to be in a field that can get that out.
Right now the world is so distraught that entertainment offers release, and we have to be very careful about skirting the edge of propaganda. But we need to start loving ourselves and to create our own heroes. A hero doesn’t have to be in the American mold of someone who stands up to proclaim his greatness. A Pinoy superhero will help his community and will always remain tied to it.
As lucky as he’s been, it has not been all roses for Whilce in his career. In 2000, he went into a diabetic coma, and didn’t wake up for a week.
WP: The week before that happened, my son was born, our first child. When I went to sleep, I was cradling my literal and most valuable creation. When I woke up, I didn’t ask my doctors what happened—I looked for my son. And then I found that I couldn’t get up. I didn’t realize that I’d been asleep for a week. So my whole concentration was on regaining my ability to hold my son again. I focused on the positive. But I couldn’t draw anything. It took me about 10 years to get back to drawing 100 percent. You see, a lot of drawing is intuitive, and artists can get very good at their craft in a silent world without necessarily understanding what they’re doing, and when they suffer an emotional trauma, that balance is upset and suddenly they’re not drawing right and they don’t know how to fix it. So I had to retrain myself totally, but this time, every time I achieved something, I sat back and tried to understand exactly what I had done. That helped me later with my teaching and with my own work, so whenever I got into trouble, I could figure out what was going on and find my way out of it.
That’s my driving force now—there’s so much about the Philippines that the world still doesn’t know, and I just happen to be in a field that can get that out.
Digital, Whilce believes, is the only way to go as far as medium is concerned. And artists can’t just draw—they have to learn to be entrepreneurs and managers as well, engaged as they are these days in a global industry.
WP: All of comics used to be garage—people just hung around, trying things out, until somebody came around and said, “Hey, there’s this cool program called Photoshop, it should be interesting to use that for comics.” So there was no formality, no discipline. But now that we’re in this as a business, with the world looking at us, we have to learn how to act professional and disciplined to make it last. All the earlier studios are gone because we weren’t thinking as businessmen.
I just do cover art now. I’m a computer nerd and would prefer to do everything digital, especially because I travel so much. I have a big Wacom Cintiq tablet that I can bring anywhere, and I can do high-quality 800-dpi work on it using SketchBook Pro, doing post-filters in Photoshop. Most artists use SketchBook Pro because the pencil brush in it comes closest to the real thing. The ability to draw an idea whether I’m in a hotel, or a plane, or a taxi—that’s money to me. Going digital also helps me in my studio because I can come in any moment as an art director and move jobs around and have different artists work on the same job if necessary under my supervision. Digital is the way everything is going. It facilitates expediency and allows for more experimentation.
Whilce will soon be working with Wattpad to help writers visualize their work. He has already directed artists Edgar Tadeo and Kajo Baldisimo on a graphic version of Reese Barcelon’s Prince of the Vampires, now readable on Wattpad.
The big studios are stuck with name-recognition characters that bring in the money. The indie world has to come up with new characters.
WP: We’re working on a tie-up with Wattpad to produce digital comics. The publishing market is very low now because we haven’t adapted to it. The big studios are stuck with name-recognition characters that bring in the money. The indie world has to come up with new characters. Guardians of the Galaxy—which is something I might not have picked up myself if it had been pitched to me—showed how open the world is to different things. Netflix, Adventure Time, and even YouTube where many cartoons start are showing that there are enough audiences out there who will pay, and you don’t have to reach 10 million people to succeed where 500,000 will do. It opens up the possibilities of what can be financed. Major companies like ABS-CBN, TV5, and Time-Warner are going through Wattpad for material they can use. But TV and film productions are expensive and time-intensive, while we can do a comic book from scratch in three weeks. So we can visualize the stories faster, and then Hollywood or whoever can have an easier time choosing. Physical comics come out in fixed print runs and are just too costly to reprint, no matter how popular they can get, so digital comics can work around that. We have to do comics for and adapt to the digital medium.
The Philippines is poised to become the global leader in this area... Everybody’s beginning to realize what we have out here.
I hope to eventually transplant myself back in the Philippines. It’s both a personal and a business thing. The Philippines is poised to become the global leader in this area. Ubisoft Studio tied up with La Salle-Benilde to open up a full-fledged gaming studio in La Salle’s Laguna campus. It’ll be headed by a Filipino from Toronto who was raised in the Philippines and who went to Canada to work with Ubisoft. Everybody’s beginning to realize what we have out here.
Butch Dalisay met Whilce Portacio when he attended San Diego Comic Con in July 2016, chatted with him for half an hour, and decided that he had to learn more about the man and his work.