Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Francisco V. Coching

Francisco V. Coching (1919 – 1998) is known as the Dean of Philippine Komiks. He started his cartooning career before WWII and during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, he was a guerrillero (guerilla) for the Kamagong Unit of the Hunters-ROTC resistance organization. His postwar komiks were stories of high adventure that inspired the next generation of komik artists. Unlike many of them, Coching never had the desire to work overseas. He was contented to write and draw his komiks, many of which were adapted into blockbusters.

I had the chance to conduct a short interview with Coching’s wife of 54 years, Filomena Nsvsles Coching who is 90 years old this year, and his grandson, Macoy Coching, 33 years old and a visual artist.

Coching is one of the pioneers of Philippine komiks. But for those in Asia who are not familiar with him and his work, how would you describe him and his impact on comics and culture in the Philippines?

Coching’s exceptional talent had inspired and guided artists, and being the only komik artist to be chosen as a National Artist in the Visual Arts in 2014, filled the gap between fine art and popular art. He is remembered as the “Dean of Philippine Comic Illustrators”, an exceptional artist and a master storyteller.

Did Coching ever wanted to work for Western comics in America, like many of the comic artists he influenced?

Coching never wanted to leave the Philippines to work for any Western komiks.

What was the private Coching like?

Coching was a great husband, a loving father and playful grandfather. His life was his work and his family.

How is the family keeping the Coching legacy alive?

We have held exhibitions of his works since 2009 in different parts of the country, even as far as New York and Hawaii. We have published 2 books, Komiks, Katha at Guhit ni Francisco V. Coching and later, The Life and Art of Francisco Coching by Patrcik Flores, which I recommend.

Lately, we have published 5 of his graphic novels but in Pilipino.

Filomena Coching wrote about her life with Coching in the International Journal of Comic Art Vol 13 No 2 (Fall 2011).

You can read more about Coching here:




Thursday, January 7, 2016

Fear of Comics

Asia always has a problem with comics from time to time. How else do you explain Singapore war heroine Elizabeth Choy’s tirade against horror comic books in the Legislative Council in November 1954. She said, “Something must be done. It is our duty to protect children from the inevitable effects of such detrimental reading material.” Mrs Choy, a teacher, was in illustrious company. 1954 was the same year that the US Senate went after comic books in America.

John Lent has devoted a chapter on Asia in his book, Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-comics Campaign (1999). Here are my examples of once-feared Asian comics that should still be read today.

1. Little Rascals by Tony Wong (HK)

I grew up being told that the policeman will catch me if I were read the violent HK kung fu comics like Tony Wong’s Little Rascals. I remember buying my first issue of this classic comic about street fighting and the gangs of HK at a provision shop near my place, and it was sold to me all rolled up with a white piece of A4 paper. Which meant I bought the comic sight unseen. I have no idea which issue I was buying or what the cover looked like. It was like a secret transaction. I told the shopkeeper the title and he just brought out a copy from under the counter. He did not know which issue he sold me either and frankly, it did not matter.

My eyeballs nearly popped out from reading the comic. There was fighting, gratuitous violence, a rape and murder sequence, secret kung fu training. The fact that it was black and white made it all the illicit and dirty. Needless to say, I never found the next issue and till this day, I do not know if the bad guys had their comeuppance. But this was a moralistic comic. The villains always bite the dust and die a horrible death.

So it is a mystery to me why such values-laden (good vs evil and good wins) HK comics were banned in Singapore in the early 1970s. It was reported that 19,000 HK comics were confiscated and destroyed in 1971. Imagine if these 19,000 copies had reached into the hands of our young and transform their minds, our new nation would have turned out differently.

2. Komplot Penjarakan Anwar by Zunar

Zunar is currently Malaysia’s most-feared political cartoonist. Well, if you walk the straight and narrow, there is nothing to fear from him. But if you are in public office and have broken your promises to the raykat you are supposed to serve, then you are fair game.

On 24 September 2010, Zunar was arrested in his office on the very day his book, Cartoon-O-Phobia was to be launched. All the books were confiscated. The next day he was brought to the court to be charged for sedition. He chose to defend himself.

Zunar: Why was my book being confiscated?
Police: They are seditious.
Zunar: Have you read the book?
Police: No. We just confiscated them yesterday.
Zunar: Then how do you know it is seditious?
Police: Er...

Police: But if they are being sold, they will cause social unrest.
Zunar: You have confiscated all copies. How can it cause social unrest?
Police: Er…

(* not verbatim)

The judge released Zunar there and then.

Zunar is following the footsteps of pioneering political cartoonists like Thomas Nast to take down giants. None of his books are on sale in Malaysian bookshops. You have to buy them online from him. But the printers who print his books are being harassed by the police. And now the authorities are demanding the credit card information of people who brought his books online.

But Zunar is taking it in his stride. The last time I saw him, he was in Singapore for the Singapore Alternative Art and Book Festival in November 2014. He told me while on his way here, he received a call to report to the police for questioning about his latest book, Komplot Penjarakan Anwar (Plot to Jail Anwar). He told them he will report when he get back to KL. Zunar has yet to run away from a fight.

3. Sanmao by Zhang Leping

When the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and ignited the second Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese cartoonists took up their pens to defend their country. While I do not know if any of them were on the Japanese army hit list, the work by the likes of Feng Zikai and Liao Bingxiong were devastating in terms of hitting out at the foreign invaders and boosting the morale of the Chinese readers. But they were not jingoistic as they clearly depicted the pity of war. More than ten years ago, I wrote about these two pioneers in Rosetta Vol 2 (Alternative Comics, 2004).

Another cartoonist who drew about the war was Zhang Leping, who chose to show the impact of the conflict from on ordinary street urchins. He was already famous for his wordless comic strip, San Mao, when the war broke out in 1937. His ubiquitous orphan was sent to war and the cruelty of the enemy was exposed for all to witness. When the war ended, San Mao returned to Shanghai to find a cruel and corrupt capitalistic society. It was a critique of Kuomintang rule and the latter did not take it too kindly.

At the 2014 Angouleme Comic Festival, Fei Editions released the first ever French edition of San Mao comics. I had the good opportunity to chat with publisher Xu Ge Fei and Zhang’s son, Zhang Weijun about the book. (see photo) They shared with me the long process of bringing San Mao to Europe. They were confident that the book would do well in France. Their optimism reminded me of San Mao himself, that little rascal whose indomitable spirit represented hope for China in the 1940s and does so today.

4. Okay, the final one. About a comic that deserves greater attention. A comic that people do not know about. Ever wonder what happen when the censored censors someone else? This is a true story.

Back in 1992, I was the guy putting together the comic pages for BigO. In the September issue (#81), we launched three regular strips. Michael Ng was one of the artists. But the gem was MITA by Johnny Lau, one of the creators of Mr Kiasu.

Some context: Mr Kiasu premiered at the Singapore Book Fair in 1990 to great success. By 1992, it was a bona fide hit. Johnny and his partners, James Suresh and Lim Yu Cheng started Comix Factory and were about to launch another title, The Neow Brothers. So Johnny was hot property. I interviewed him for BigO and subsequently invited him to contribute comics to the magazine again. He accepted.

By this time, Mr Kiasu had come under attack by some members of the public for its portrayal of the kiasu trait and its use of Singlish in comics. Johnny had his fair share of run-ins with the moral majority, the censorship board and MITA – the Ministry of Information and The Arts. He did not take it lying down. And BigO, a rebel rouser in its own right who challenged MITA almost on a monthly basis on what was allowed or disallowed in a rock magazine in Singapore, was the perfect place for Johnny to say his piece. Or so it seems.

Johnny drew MITA, a satirical strip set in Singapore in 2034 where society is run by the Language Police, who arrest people who speak broken English. The top cop is MITA, a cyborg that is a cross between Robocop and the Terminator. MITA shows no mercy. He shoots you if you put a ‘what’ at the end of a sentence, has no qualms about punching a foul mouth woman in the face and rips your hand out if you give him the middle finger. MITA is scarier than Judge Dredd.

Johnny must have been influenced by the Robocop movies and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, released just the year before. The almost gratuitous violence and the noir look also took from the comics Frank Miller released in 1992 – Robocop vs Terminator and Sin City. This is especially so for the latter. Johnny was using heavy blacks, thick lines and the strip had a painted feel. It was nothing like Johnny had done before. MITA was an expression of Johnny’s anger at the censorship rules in Singapore.

All was well for the first two instalments. Then came the third episode, which introduced MITA’s nemesis, Mouth, whose Hokkien bad words have an explosive power. Literally. Two punks’ heads exploded when Mouth swore at them. It was no holds barred for Johnny in how he showed Mouth’s power.

And that was the problem. Look at this page and tell me what you see or ‘hear’.

Anatomy of the third page of the third episode of MITA: in the first panel the two punks realised Mouth was approaching and they were trembling in fear. One of them said, “Oh shoot!” We only see a portion of a silhouette of Mouth’s face. He is in the shadows. (Background sound effect: KA)

The second panel: the two punks are really scared now. “No No”. Mouth is still in the shadows but there is no background sound effect for this panel.

The third panel constitutes the reminding 2/3 of the page. The two punks had blood spurting out of their heads, eyeballs shooting out of their sockets. A gruesome scene. This panel has no borders, as if to imply the explosive power of Mouth is so tekong that no borders can contain it. Background sound effect was a big NA!

An impressive page by any standard. It creates the mystery of how Mouth looks like; we see his power first before seeing him. This page delays his full appearance, which is only revealed on page 4, the last page of the instalment. This was economical but effective comics drawing.

But Johnny was angry as hell when he saw the published comic. You see, the sound effects were not nonsensical. They were the essence of Mouth’s power: KA NI NA! And the power of the page was diminished when you realize that the NI was liquid papered out by the editors of BigO. Johnny was censored by people who were censored by the authorities before.

I do not really know why that was done. Perhaps the magazine had too many warnings from MITA in the previous months. And KA NI NA! might just be a breaking point if they were not careful. But this act of self-censorship broke Johnny’s trust in the magazine. He was so pissed that he tore up the pages of Part 4 that he was working.

That is the real pity of MITA. It was never continued, completed or compiled. But now you know the story. A lost classic in the annals of Singapore comics history.

MITA appeared in:
BigO #81 (Sept 1992) MITA (P) 55/9/91
BigO #82 (Oct 1992) MITA (P) 29/9/92
BigO#83 (Nov 1992) MITA (P) 29/9/92

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Interview with Dave Ross

Marvel/DC artist, Dave Ross will be in town to do a book event at Kinokuniya (Ngee Ann City) this Saturday 9.1.16 at 2 pm. Ross visited Singapore before in the 1980s and am glad to be back in this part of the world. He is here to promote his new book, Freehand Figure Drawing for Illustrators. Be there and get the chance to talk to a pro who started out in the 1980s.

Tell us more about yourself, Dave. Where are you from, where did you learn to be a master of your trade and how did you get into the business?

I learned initially through books, so you might say I was primarily self-taught. Favourite source material - the Andrew Loomis books, George Bridgeman, and to a lesser degree Burne Hogarth. There was also a lot of intensive study of my favourite comic book artists as well. And a little 'osmosis' through meeting comics pros and semi-pros over time, and of course picking their brains! In terms of formal training, I went to Sheridan College and studied classical Animation.

You studied animation at Sheridan – how did that come about? Did you always want to be an animator? What were some of your favourite cartoons and animation movies when you were growing up?

Initially I went to Sheridan to take a cartooning program, but I was 'poached' by a couple of Animation students, and convinced to switch. The classical training I received in the Animation program was invaluable. There were excellent lessons on storytelling/ storyboarding and on drawing freehand figures. The latter stressed natural posing, with an eye towards body language, maintaining equilibrium, or deliberately shifting the centres of gravity under characters when they were in motion. all of this was indispensable later in the comics work. As far as favourite cartoons, I loved the old Disney classics, and in particular their overall colour finish. They were lush, compared to the colour finish in the comics that I grew up with.

Why did you turn to comics instead?

Comics and the amazing artwork associated with them, was always my first love. After spending a couple of years working in the animation industry, I started seriously illustrating short comic book stories, and preparing sample sequences for Marvel and DC Comics.
Who were some of the more established names among your cohort at Sheridan? Do you wish you had gone into animation instead?
Some of my fellow students from Sheridan College went on to become major 'players' in their field - senior animators, series creators, and layout artists. Personally I have no regrets over the choices I made. I followed my first love, and carved out a career for myself.

What was your first work at Marvel /DC?

I illustrated an early story for Marvel centred around Carol Danvers that was written by Chris Claremont. After that I did two major projects for DC Comics - a Batman and The Outsiders Annual featuring the marriage of Metamorpho and Saphirre Stagg and Star Trek Annual presenting a prequel to the first episode of the TV series - purportedly the first adventure of the Enterprise with Captain Kirk at the helm.

Many fans first came across your work when you took over Alpha Flight from John Byrne (also another Canadian) in the 1980s. Was that a daunting task?

Alpha Flight was the first full-fledged series that I worked on. Following in John Byrne's footsteps wasn't daunting, but the work schedule certainty was! The stories were packed with drawing challenges with pages averaging about 6 to 7 panels each, and of course so much of it had to be 'on model'.

What are some of your recent comic projects?

I have recently completed work on a project to be published by Renegade Press called Necromantic. It's an all Canadian production with both the writer Lovern Kindzierski, and the colorist Chris Chuckry hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba. The finished look that Chris is giving to this book is beautiful!

Are there any creator-owned titles of yours that you would like tell us about?

I developed a series a number of years ago that was published by EVENT COMICS called THRAX. One issue was published at that time.

You visited Singapore and Southeast Asia in the late 1980s / early 1990s – can you tell us more about those trips? From your observations, how have Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia changed?

In the early 1990's I travelled through some of the countries of S.E. Asia, first on my own, and then with my wife Judi. Between us we visited Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. Changes? To put it succinctly - DEVELOPMENT, DEVELOPMENT, DEVELOPMENT!!!

What prompted this recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia?

The first visit was all about sightseeing. I was intrigued by the range of different cultures in the region, and that there was a strong appreciation of drawing and more specifically the art of comic illustration throughout the S.E. Asian countries. In the intervening years I have taken up teaching the craft of Comics Illustration at a post-secondary level. This time around I wanted to share with students some of the methodology we comic artists use to do professional work in the 'industry'. I have a new instructional book, published by Random House that will help them to do just that.