Old Made New

Still working on the next batch of reviews, and it’s taking me longer than expected. (Duh.) In the meantime… here are two of the book reviews I did late last year for the Philippines GraphicDwellers and Maktan 1521 were fun reads. I say they’re “old made new” because the former is about taking on new lives (and dealing with the repercussions of your old one), while the latter provides a new take on an old story.

I haven’t been keeping track of my bylines for some time now, so I don’t know if/when they were published and/or edited, or in which issue they were included. In any case, I’m looking forward to reading (and actually finishing and writing about) more books from Filipino writers!

In Another Life…

Dwelling on Dwellers

by KC Calpo

I’ve always wondered about how it would be like to live a new life. I’m not talking about the occasional “life hack” or, for lack of a much better word, rebrand. I’m referring to a total transformation: a brand-new name and identity, appearance, residence, job, interests, social circles… the works. Thankfully, I don’t have to have expensive plastic surgery, go into a witness protection program, or acquire fake paperwork from Recto to find out. The most feasible option for us regular folk? Read fiction.

Small book, big story.

This week’s book gave me an imaginative answer to my question — and reinforced the conclusion that all things considered, I’m good with who and where I am. Dwellers, the latest speculative fiction novel by Eliza Victoria (and Fiction Category – Novel finalist for this year’s National Book Awards*), gives two central characters the power to inhabit other people’s bodies and literally take over their lives. It’s an interesting ability to possess, and an equally interesting way to commit murder and disrupt the world’s natural order. Good to know this isn’t real life, huh?

With that premise, the two dwellers — now going by the names Jonah and Louis — work through two major story arcs: as runaways from their old lives in the north, and as the currently confused keepers of Meryl Solomon’s decaying corpse, hidden in a freezer in their basement. Moving on from a past life is difficult enough without the need to figure out and clean up the mess of a new life acquired with supernatural powers.

Dwellers employs the new Jonah as the narrator, making it easy for readers to go along for the ride. It’s easy to empathize with him and Louis, except for the murder part of the story, of course. Readers will feel as befuddled as they are, understand more of what happened once they do, and feel as they feel, from past to present. They also learn that every action has a consequence, regardless of who you were then and who you are now.

Told in three sections, the story takes on varying tones: from urban fantasy to a murder investigation to a flashback/retelling then a hostage situation and finally, a cliffhanger. Like Jonah and Louis picking two Does at random and getting used to their robbed lives, Dwellers seems like it’s trying on different identities to see which narrative style fits. Amazingly, Victoria stuffs the plot and subplots into a relatively short 130-page novel, and in a print size slightly larger than today’s phablets. The brief chapters and Victoria’s brisk pacing will bring you from cover to cover within an estimated three hours, good enough for those with limited free time and attention spans.

However, this concise writing style does have some pitfalls. Several chapters and events could’ve been fleshed out more, slowing the action down but giving more insight into why things ended up the way they did. And some characters feel underdeveloped and clichéd. One character, barely mentioned in previous chapters, suddenly becomes the antagonist and delivers the standard villain’s monologue mixed with a philosophical bent. (#PlotTwist!) Another character goes from neighborhood sleuth to stranger-trusting college girl to angry ground-and-pound toughie to duct-taped crybaby in the novel’s last act. The supposedly formidable and scary Auntie Leonora just wasn’t formidable or scary enough for me. And yet another character’s devolution to body-snatching and murder feels rushed, no matter how justified the motive or how sympathetic she is.

While Dwellers focuses on the two male leads’ literal commandeering of physical bodies, the two mentioned instances of rape (and the devaluing of the females’ worth and integrity) also help highlight that a takeover doesn’t have to be done in the most literal sense. Jonah’s assault of Mona, and Uncle Pedro, of his niece Celeste, emphasize sad truths that must be reversed ASAP: that a woman will always be called loose if she has sexual agency; and if raped, that she will be doubted, and given the burden for proof and/or supporting claims. The solutions? In Mona’s case, it’s to give Meryl a recording of the assault before her suicide. For Celeste, it’s to avenge herself, with five lives as collateral damage.

As for the ending? I called it a cop-out after reading it. But the fact that I wanted to know what happens next (and felt frustrated that I can’t and probably won’t) proves that (a) Dwellers (and Victoria) will make you heavily invested in its characters and story, and (b) any personal investment does have its limitations. In that sense, I guess the ending works as it should.

Well, that was one hell of a life to read through. Now, back to regular programming.

*Victoria won! Congratulations!

And it’s back to comics…

A Fight to the Death

Maktan 1521: From the history books to the komiks format

by KC Calpo

As of the first week of October 2015, the historical biopic Heneral Luna has earned PhP200 million after a four-week reign at the cinemas. It was also chosen as the Philippines’ official entry to the 2016 Academy Awards for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’. Two things are clear: that the public deserves (and will always shower with praise) well-made films, and our national history is rich in material for imaginative adaptations in modern media.

One such work takes another page from the history books, so to speak: Maktan 1521, by graphic artist and Meganon Comics creative director Tepai Pascual. Originally made as her thesis for the UP Fine Arts program, it got a second life as an indie publication, and then a third as a Visprint-published graphic novel. And in a sign of the growing recognition of komiks as legitimate literature, Maktan 1521 is one of the two finalists in the Graphic Literature (Filipino Language) category for the 2015 National Book Awards.

As the name indicates, Mactan (and nearby territories) in the year 1521 serves as the main setting, and the plot focuses on the lead-up to what is now called the Battle of Mactan on April 27. But this isn’t your typical rehash, either — the author herself calls her work historical fiction. While the Spaniards are the headliners in the usual history sources (e.g., Ferdinand Magellan/Fernando Magallanes, Antonio Pigafetta, Juan Sebastian Elcano/Sebastian del Cano), Pascual shifts the spotlight to the residents of Mactan and neighboring balangays like Sebu. Ample page time was also given to lesser-known characters like Sawili (Lapu-Lapu’s son), Paril, and Maya. Pascual has also exercised artistic license, as accurate native representation of that time in history is lacking: characters like Paril were invented to fill a gap in the story, and the heroes’ gold jewelry and clothing aren’t based on any first-person accounts.

Presenting the other side of history…

Half of Maktan 1521 was spent on background work, and half on the actual battle. Since the story is told from the locals’ point of view, there’s no mention of Magellan’s original mission of charting a shorter path to the so-called Spice Islands, or exactly how Magellan got sucked into local politics and convinced to take Mactan by force. There’s no mention of Lapu-Lapu being originally from Borneo, either, or him having other children apart from Sawili. These could be the result of story streamlining, or medium-related limitations. All readers see here from the Spanish side is their alok ng pakikipagkaibigan — this paints them as your standard one-dimensional villain offering only submission or death for its enemies. Then again, isn’t that how we often look at our villains, as one-dimensional, thumb-twiddling pricks?

The story moves at a relatively fast clip, getting us from the opening trading scenes to the Spaniards’ retreat in 167 pages. The different perspective is refreshing, and it allows readers to visualize and/or imagine what it would’ve been like to be living in the area when the first party of foreign colonizers came ashore. Things were pretty simple for the locals then: trade, survive, follow the datus, live in peace, ward off strange folk in enormous sea vessels who want to take over your land.

But as with any retelling, some portions aren’t correct at all. There were instances wherein the characters’ dialogue seemed a bit off, or lacking in depth. Lapu-Lapu’s rousing battle speech is reminiscent of every war-movie climax in modern times. And unlike what was shown in the panels making up the final act, Lapu-Lapu didn’t slay Magellan; his fighters did.

Pascual’s beautiful pencil and watercolor illustrations depicted the warring sides in two distinct palettes. The locals were drawn in brown, black, and yellow hues; while the Spaniards and their allies, in different blues. Maktan 1521 has a mostly dark palette due to the focus on the Filipinos’ side of the story, and the bulk of the scenes were set at night. This, paired with Pascual’s distinctive style of illustration, make for truly striking visuals. However, detail on the characters and surroundings can be difficult to discern in some panels. This reliance on darker tones significantly differs from the approach taken by the other National Book Awards for Graphic Literature finalist, Mervin Malonzo for Tabi Po. Despite having a protagonist with a gruesome nature (aswang), Tabi Po still uses bright colors and has a contradictory, dream-like quality to it.

Overall, Maktan 1521 is a good, one-sitting read for Filipino komiks fans, and those wanting to see a creative take on established historical events. The ending also begs for another graphic novel from Pascual — the other failed Spanish expeditions, perhaps? Or a fictional account of Enrique the slave’s life after Mactan and Sebu?