Gerry Alanguilan interviews me about "Tabi Po"

This interview came out on Free Comic Book Day Magazine by Comic Odyssey and Fully Booked last May 3, 2014

Gerry Alanguilan: This is your first published book, printed by Visprint, and now available nationwide all throughout the Philippines. How does that feel? How is that feeling different from having the digital edition previously available?

Mervin Malonzo: I never really felt that I am a published author when my book was only available via digital (web comic, iTunes, Amazon, Flipreads). For example, whenever I get invited to talk alongside Budjette Tan, Manix, Carljoe Javier, Karen Francisco and other established authors, I shy away and feel like I do not belong in their league. Of course, my friends have since told me that this is wrong and I should have more confidence because the book is really good and it can be read in different parts of the globe. But still, there’s a real sense of accomplishment in finally having a physical copy of the book. For me it’s like it traversed the boundary between the world of ideas and the physical world at last! It makes me happy to touch and smell it and it really smells good by the way! Also I get to meet the fans in person! As an author of a new book, there’s nothing more satisfying than people lining up for you. I know that my story was appreciated before but now the appreciation seems more real because it’s staring me in the face!


GA: Can you describe the journey you took into creating this book?  

MM: It is really my lifelong dream to create an original comic story because I grew up reading Funny Komiks and Bata Batuta and was sad when they were discontinued. I took up Fine Arts in UP Diliman just for the purpose of honing my drawing skills to achieve this dream. But after graduating, life got in the way. I am the eldest son in a family of five children. My mother and father does not have a permanent job so I was expected to support my siblings’ studies so I set aside my dream and I applied for a 9-5 job. 

It was hard but I took advantage of the resources. I mastered photoshop while in a photo-restoration job. I also studied how to create websites by myself during my free time and I also studied animation and motion graphics and after a while I became really good at what I do. For a time it was good, everything’s nice and I got good pay for the work that I do. But finally, it got to a point that I became tired and bored with everything. The commute to work really exhausted me. I realized that this is not the kind of life that I want. So I decided to quit work and go back to my original plan of creating my own comic even if I don’t get money from it. The plan is to be a freelance designer to support me and my family while I create my own original comic story.

This was the point that I sent a message to you that I admire you and your works inspired me to push through with my own comic. I showed you my work and was really encouraged with your feedback.

Naturally, being a web designer, the comic was put up in the web. It was there ( where it all started. I didn’t realize that people will eventually like it. 


GA: What made you think about creating this story and these characters?

MM: The “Tabi Po” story has been in development since I was in High School. Having created rip-offs of Dragon Ball Z and other anime at that time as a kid, I wanted this particular story to really be my own this time. I wanted it to be original. At first it was a story for kids because essentially, I am writing it for myself and at that time I am in my teens. But it grew darker and became more mature when I started redeveloping it for an older me (I was 26). I’ve always been interested in anti-heroes. That’s why I like “Wasted”. For me a story is interesting if it’s morally ambiguous. It makes you think. And honestly, I don’t think that there’s a pure good and a pure evil in this world. So that’s why my protagonist is an aswang - not a good aswang that sides with the humans but a real aswang that eats people!


GA: How long did it take to write it, and how long did it take to draw it?

MM: The story is already finished in my mind before I started actually creating the comic. My process is a bit unorthodox. Since I already know the broad-strokes, I write and draw it at the same time. The outline and thumbnails are in my mind so all I needed to do was to put it on the page. The story unfolds panel by panel. And sometimes the characters develop a life of their own that my original plan for them  changes depending on their actions.

It really doesn’t take long to draw the actual pages. What is really difficult is finding the time to actually do it. I’ve been juggling my freelance work and my comic work so it took me four years to create 217 pages! But this will change now because nowadays, I’m really focused in creating comics!


GA: There is quite a number of comic books that deal heavily with Filipino mythology. There's TRESE, there's Skyworld, and earlier on there's the works by Arnold Arre like Mythology Class and Andong Agimat. Why do you think this subject matter is so fascinating not only to Filipino readers but to comics creators as well? What is your personal interest in Filipino mythology? 

MM: Interesting question! This is the first time that I’m going to admit it but at first I did not want to create yet another Filipino mythology story. In my observation, Filipino Mythology has always been the default subject matter for artists and writers wanting to create something uniquely Filipino so I was consciously trying to avoid it because I wanted to look for something even more unique. So “Tabi Po” is obviously not titled “Tabi Po” at that time. The original story was sci-fi and it’s about people that was experimented by the government causing them to have “mutant powers” enabling them to see ghosts. See the problem there? It sounds highly derivative! Without the mythology element, it was even less original! This sounds like the story of Wolverine, just change “seeing ghosts” with “claws”.

It is important for us artists and storytellers to find our own voice - our own style. And I found it in Filipino Mythology. You are right in saying that a lot of stories have already explored Filipino Mythology. While that is true, there’s still a lot more about the subject that has not been explored. For example, no one in recent memory have tried to explain their existence. Usually, the characters within the typical story just accepts that there is an aswang and most probably would like to kill them. In their world, aswangs have always existed, no questions asked. While in “Tabi Po”, I’m trying to situate the aswangs in the real world, part of our history, where some characters would  readily believe their existence because a high member of the society, let’s say a priest, tells them so. While others are resisting the idea because they haven’t seen one, which proves to be problematic because if you see one, you’d likely be dead afterwards. So what makes my story different from existing ones is that level of realism. While I’m trying to revise the aswangs (they do not transform into monsters, they look human all the time), I’m also giving homage to what we know. In some regions, aswangs are believed to become dogs during the morning. I managed to squeeze that bit of information in my version of the origin of their name “asong buwang”. Basically, what I’m telling in the story is that what we know, what is written in our literature about these creatures, is just hearsay, tsismis lang and what I am presenting is the “real origin” of aswangs and later on other creatures of Filipino Mythology as well. 

Another comparison of “Tabi Po” to other stories is pointed out by Charles Tan in his review of my book. Let me quote what he said:

“If we talk about Filipino artists and myth, the two (well, three) popular creators people will mention will be Arnold Arre (for Mythology Class) and Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo (for Trese). My problem with these two works is that they're divorced from the source material and employed with different aesthetics in mind. Not that it's wrong per se, but there's a significant lack of literature, let alone comics, that deals with Filipino folklore outside of the context of urban fantasy. The Trese series for example simply treats our bestiary as either tools useful for the protagonist, or enemies that are easily dispatched in a panel or two--sensibilities that have more in common with today's Western TV shows where monsters are simply executed instead of being appeased, respected, or competed against.”

Indeed, “Tabi Po” is trying to bring respect back to our mythological creatures. Hence the title, we utter those words to show respect to the unseen. And part of what I am trying to show in my story is how humans and aswangs have more things in common and how humans might actually be the viler creature of the two. 

Arnold Arre’s “Mythology Class” and “Andong Agimat” (I didn’t know of Trese at that time) were the two great stories that actually convinced me to go for the Filipino Mythology route. Even his incorporation of our ancient alphabet “baybayin” inspired me to do the same in my story. I think creators will continuously be fascinated with our mythology because it is a source of great stories that is unique to us Filipinos. Much like how Japanese creators use and reuse ninjas, samurais and their own creatures and monsters in their mangas and animes because that’s part of who they are! I long to see tikbalangs and kapres be as famous as Japan’s robots and ninjas!


GA: As an artist myself, it is the art that I found really fascinating. What are the techniques that you used to create this artwork?

MM: For the longest time, I’ve been trying to look for a style that is cleaner and more mainstream than what I eventually used with “Tabi Po”. I wanted it to look clean and professional. I envy your style with Elmer for example! Andaming details! But alas! I’m generally a lazy person. It takes time to clean my pencils and then ink it. So what I did is give up on trying to make it clean. I just added the colors to make it look complete because the pencils alone would make it look unfinished. The good thing is it works with my story! It’s properly gritty, visceral, atmospheric and raw! So the style looks deliberate but it is actually the product of my  laziness.

The pencils are usually drawn on paper then scanned. The colors are done in photoshop. Flat colors first then another layer with Multiply as the blending mode and around 50%-70% opacity for the shadows (usually a grayish violet). I adjust the overall color a bit after that. Then as a finishing touch, I add a texture and a yellowish color overlay. The texture is what makes it look like it’s done in watercolor.  I have a detailed tutorial about my process here, here, and here.


GA: You reported that Visprint sold 288 copies of Tabi Po at Summer Komikon. I think that's amazing. What are your thoughts about that, and how your book has been received (I've been reading a lot of good things!)

MM: As I mentioned earlier, this story is meant for my own enjoyment at first. This is the kind of story that I would enjoy reading in a comic. So realizing that a lot of people actually like it too makes me feel good. Right now there are 1,791 likers in my facebook page. And 288 copies sold on the first day is a good number according to Visprint so I’m really happy. Also, this time there will be some monetary rewards which makes me even happier! I always say that I will continue doing this even without the financial benefits but earning money from something you love doing is really fantastic! My goal is to be able to profit from comic-making so I can finally let go of my other freelance jobs and focus on creating more comics. I really hope this happens.

I’ve received high praises from critics as well. I did a lot of work on this comic, a lot of time, effort, blood and guts went into this so when people see all that work, it makes it all worth it. I really wanted to contribute to the body of works that’s being produced in this generation. And based on critic reception so far, I think I’m on my way to doing just that. This realization provides me with renewed energy to go on creating more comics!


GA: You mentioned other work coming from you. Can you tell us more about them?

MM: I’ve opened myself to collaborations with different writers because as I mentioned a sentence ago, I want to create more comics. I have upcoming works with Noel Pascual (Crime-Fighting Call Center Agents), Eliza Victoria (Project 17, A Bottle of Storm Clouds), Carljoe Javier (Kobayashi Maru of Love), Adam David (El Bimbo Variations), Karl De Mesa (News of the Shaman) and Paolo Chikiamco (Mythspace). I also joined a new group called Studio Salimbal.


With Noel, I have an epic story called “Makina” and a series of short horror stories - our very own “Shake, Rattle & Roll” that we jokingly called “Shiver, Jangle & Spin”. With Eliza, I have a modern diwata story that happens in one single night called “After Lambana”. I’m doing real crime stories with Carljoe called “Pinoy Noir”, a chop-chop lady story with Adam, a cinematic, espionage aswang story with Karl, and a magic/shaman story with Paolo.

I will do all of this within two years. So watch out for it!