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Gerry Alanguilan talks about the high art/low art divide; Carlo J. Caparas; and Francisco V. Coching, National Artist for Visual Arts.

Interview  Sam L. Marcelo | Caricature Bira

Comic book writer, artist, and publisher Gerry Alanguilan is also a comic book fan. American titles, mostly from Marvel and DC, along with a smattering of European and Asian works, are strewn all over his house, from the bedroom to the bathroom. Flip open a few and you might find the signatures of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Chris Claremont.

And then, there is the other part of his collection, which he keeps properly packaged in secure boxes: around a thousand vintage Filipino comic books and 200 pieces of original art from the 1940s and 1970s. Treasured among them are the pages of Francisco V. Coching, National Artist for Visual Arts. In 2004, Mr. Alanguilan began work on a four-year project to reintroduce people to the fantastical world of Coching, the “one-man comics-making machine” who wrote and illustrated 61 titles, a majority of which he also adapted to film. Without Coching, we wouldn’t have Fernando Poe Sr. in Hagibis,  Pancho Magalona in Barbaro or Rita Gomez in Maldita.

Through the efforts of Mr. Alanguilan, Coching’s El Indio (the 1952 sequel to Barbaro) was reprinted as a graphic novel, gathering in one volume all 35 episodes that were formerly released as five-page installments. “El Indio shows Coching at his prime, when he was doing his absolute best stuff. I consider it a masterpiece.”

How did you discover Francisco V. Coching?

I first saw Coching’s work in a magazine called The Philippine Comics Review, which came out in 1979. I was looking for comics at Alemars in Makati (now Glorietta) and I found this magazine. I was immediately impressed by Coching’s drawings. I thought his artwork was very powerful and very dynamic. His linework was—and still is—very strong and confident. It made me imagine Coching being strong and confident himself. And that’s something I admire in any artist.

His art is also very evocative of what the Filipino is. I can’t describe to you what that is, but I feel it when I see his work. I see it and it makes me proud to be Filipino and proud that this culture is part of me.

Tell me more about the El Indio restoration project.

El Indio is, of course, my favorite. I met Coching’s family and they showed me complete sets of stories in printed comics form. I was amazed. Here was finally an opportunity to have at least one book compiled. But there were no longer any original artworks.

In those days, publishers believed the original art belonged to them and promptly destroyed them to prevent other companies from using them. It’s an unbelievable, heartbreaking tragedy, but it happened. We lost thousands upon thousands of works of art because of this.

Digitally restoring the pages took a long time. I had to scan at a very high resolution, often at 600-800 dpi and then went in pixel by pixel to bring out Coching’s lines and strengthen the blacks. I had to restore lines that were blurred or erased and I removed dirt and errors. Sometimes, I replaced lettering that was too difficult to read by pasting letters gathered from elsewhere in the page. By the end of 2008 the restoration was finally finished. All that was left was to find a publisher. Vibal Foundation stepped in and offered to publish it for me.

Why does the past matter?

I think history matters because history is part of what constitutes culture and culture is what gives us identity. It shows us who we are, and how unique we are as a people.

Every citizen of the world is unique, of course, but it is our shared history as Filipinos that  gives us those characteristics that make us who we are. And to me that’s important.

When Carlo J. Caparas was declared National Artist in 2009 for his comic books (ahead of Coching, who, by that time, was already twice-nominated), what was your reaction?

I was disappointed of course, because it’s a perfect example of how short the memories of Filipinos were. They only remember CJC (that’s what I call Carlo J.) because he’s the one who makes the most noise. They’ve forgotten our pioneers who created the entire industry and put us on the map as world-class comics creators.

This goes back to what I said earlier. There are entire generations who were are not aware of our history and so guys like CJC get to grab all the attention. I do acknowledge CJC’s accomplishments—he created a few memorable characters like Totoy Bato and Panday. But his accomplishments, influence and impact on Filipino culture are nothing compared to Coching’s. Coching did not have to go around TV stations defending his worthiness to receive the National Artist title, trying to prove he can draw. We can already see it. I’ve tried very hard for the past 10 years to have current generations see his work and realize how important he is.

People often think of comic books as “low art.” Thoughts?

Low art and high art are terms bandied about by pretentious, elitist people. What is art but an expression of life?

For decades Coching expressed Filipino life better than most people in the Philippines and he expressed it not just to the 1%, but to everyone.

Art should be for everyone, not just a chosen few. His art touched millions who read his comics. Through his comics you felt what the Filipinos felt, and dreamed what the Filipinos dreamed. To me there is no better art than that.