Comics superstar Whilce Portacio returns

Posted at 01/07/2014 5:44 PM

Last Saturday, January 4, Whilce Portacio walked into Comic Odyssey at Fully Booked Promenade much like he did in January of 1992 when he first made his triumphant return to the Philippines as a comic book superstar – quiet and unobtrusive.

The author shakes the hand of Whilce Portacio. Photo by the author

During that first promotional appearance in 1992 at the old Filbar’s branch in Cubao, Portacio wore a black long-sleeved shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He may have been Americanized in his fashion sense but when he spoke, it was in the vernacular and everyone hung on every word that emanated from him.

Sure there were other Filipinos who drew comics for DC and Marvel, the top two publishers in the world, but Portacio was a part of a time when comic books began to sell in the millions. The Sangley Point, Cavite native was likewise at the crest of the Image Revolution that brought the medium to greater awareness.

Portacio’s ascendance into comic book royalty and his return to Manila is a watershed moment in Pinoy pop culture because it inspired a generation of Filipino artists and opened the world to their talent and ingenuity.

Fast forward 22 years later, Portacio, now at the halfway century mark, pretty much looks the same except for the white lines in his hair. He entered Comic Odyssey in his first promotional appearance on home soil in ages and he wore a Francis Magalona shirt, jeans and brown shoes that are close to the cowboy variety.

He didn’t wade in like some superstar. Rather he entered quietly and without fanfare, never mind if several dozens of eyes all lit it up at his arrival.

But during the subsequent interview, what was supposed to be a 15-minute interview went up to 40 minutes as Portacio talked endlessly about the comic medium, Filipino talent, and his career. You would have thought that he was the fanboy.

The man simply has a lot to share. And the whole room brightened up. Everyone hung on to his every word.

Every one (I am not about to limit this to comic book geeks) has their own favorite superhero but for a generation of young Filipinos, Portacio is their hero.

In January 1988, I walked into Filbar’s along New York, Cubao to get my weekly stash of four-colored delight. On the shelf that day was The Punisher #17 with good ole Frank Castle leading a charge of vigilantes.

I never liked the character. In fact, I enjoyed Spidey kicking his ass so much.

However, this Punisher looked different. The art had a Japanese manga feel to it with unusual panel structures. In fact, the artist signed in Japanese. Later on, I discovered The Punisher magazine that were black and white reprints of the regular issues along with The Punisher War Journal and the art looked so much better.

When I picked up The Punisher #17, I remember thinking aloud, “What kind of Japanese name is Whilce Portacio?” Clearly, there is more to this than meets the eye.

In this bygone age of snail mail and news via newspaper and the monthly Marvel Age, I didn’t know anything about this artist. All I knew was his was a fresh and dynamic style.

By the time he got to Marvel’s mutants, word spread that he was as Pinoy as taho.

When he replaced Jim Lee on Uncanny X-Men and drew Colossus wearing a bomber jacket with the Philippine flag on it with the word “makulit” clearly written above, I raved just as any fanboy would. Yes, Whilce Portacio was Pinoy!

I get goose bumps to this day just remembering that moment!

When he released his own creative project, Wetworks, one of the major characters was a Filipino named Grail!

In a second project titled Stone (for Avalon Studios), Portacio brought creatures from Philippine folklore to a wider audience.

The creator of Wetworks, however, refuses to take credit for anything. Instead, he defers to those who came before – Romeo Tanghal, Ernie Chan, Alfredo Alcala, and Danny Bulanadi to name a few – who blazed the trail.

“Proud din ako na indirectly nag-inspire ng iba. Seriously, the only real thing that I did was to show that, ‘Pinoy ako at Pinoy din ako.’ Kung kaya ko kayo niyo rin. And we’ve seen the effects of that. There are also the dozens and dozens of talented but nameless Pinoys who are animators for DreamWorks, Disney and others,” enthused Portacio. "Then you look at all the people who are still here…"

In 1992, Portacio established Balete 55, a studio located in New Manila where then young and unknown artists like Leinil Yu and Gerry Alanguilan practiced their craft. The two have since made a name for themselves drawing comic books from Marvel to DC to Image to IDW.

Their ascension opened the floodgates for other local artists like Stephen Segovia (Thor and Batman), Harvey Tolibao (Danger Girl), Edgar Tadeo (Wolverine and the Silver Surfer), the Luna brothers (The Sword), Carlo Pagulayan (The Incredible Hulk), and Jerome Opeña (The Avengers) to name a few.

The artist also believes that now is the right time for Filipino culture to spread itself all over the world. “The world is hungry for something different,” related Portacio. “Years ago, it we’d see in pop culture Godzilla, manga, anime, ninjas etc. The world just gobbled it up because it was new. Then the world wanted something knew and that became Korea with their K-Pop and whatnot. But it is slowly changing again.”

“We have to stand up right now,” he declared after which he paused for effect. “We can take that spot that will be vacated by Korea. Everyone knows what a Filipino is and what we stand for. Who from abroad doesn’t have a Filipino friend? Aside from Manny Pacquiao there are a lot of other things Filipino making itself known abroad.”

“We can actually outdo Japan and Korea because we speak and think English. And that is still the international language. We can give them our culture.”

In this homecoming, Portacio is going to be talking to a few people about revisiting the Balete 55 studios. “You have to practice what you preach,” he said. “What I said about making a stand now? We should make it happen. Hollywood and the world are listening.”

The interview drew to a close and Portacio stood up to talk to a few people. Outside, a crowd had now filled up Comic Odyssey. Some with their eyes ablaze with excitement, some with hope that lightning will strike twice. And that they too can contribute to modern mythology.

Whilce Portacio looked at the crowd and smiled. The buzz had built to a crescendo. The man drew the freaking X-Men, Iron Man and Spawn. The man proudly proclaimed his Filipino heritage on the printed page. The man is a Filipino superhero not in spandex but in a Francis Magalona shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.

He looked at the crowd and smiled broadly. The next Yu and Alanguilan could be among them. He then sat down to sign his comic books.

The man simply has a lot to share. Everyone should hang on to his every word.