Doing the Write Thing: Gerry Alanguilan
It was a sad day when we heard the shocking news that award-winning Filipino comic book artist Gerry Alanguilan had passed away.
Just a couple of weeks prior, we were chatting with Gerry about the Singapore edition of Elmer, his seminal graphic novel that put him on the global map. Incidentally, his book is also first in line for Epigram's new collection of graphic novels.
He had been talking about doing some collaborations—a blog, a video, and so on. He had previously posted on his blog that work and his poor health had meant he would not attend any more events in the foreseeable future).
While he stated that he would not be able to travel, he agreed to shoot a video using his "point and shoot camera"—"I'm kind of old school", he quipped—and sent us a document sharing his thoughts about Elmer, adding: "I'm so glad I have this chance to share my story further there. To be honest, I can't wait to find out what Singaporeans think about it."
A few days later, on Twitter, he posted: "The new international edition of Elmer comes out early next year! I didn't get to design the book this time though. But I'm sure it will look cool nevertheless."
Sadly, a few days before Christmas, he passed away — and mere weeks before he was able to see the Singapore edition Elmer.
Gerry, who started out as an architect, not only told brilliant stories through his images, he also laced his original tales with social commentary.
He began as an inker for Marvel, DC and Image, working on titles such as Wolverine, X-Men, Superman, Batman and Avengers, but also crafted his own stories, including Wasted, Bakokak, Humanis Rex!, Timawa, Where Bold Stars Go To Die, Rodski Patotski: Ang Dalagang Baby and, of course, Elmer.
The award-winning Elmer, which tells the tale of what happens when chickens can talk and think like humans, turned out to be more than a "what if" story. It began life as a serialised comic before it was picked up and published in France and the United States as graphic novels.
It won two awards in France—the Quai des Bulles-Ouest France and the Best Asian Album, Prix-Asie ACBD, both in 2011, and was nominated for an Eisner Award that same year.
Critics and fellow storytellers heaped praise on Elmer. Award-winning author Neil Gaiman said it was one of his favourite comics, "heartbreaking and funny and so beautifully drawn”; Publisher's Weekly called it an "engaging work that deserves attention"; while the Philippine Daily Inquirer hailed it as "Alanguilan’s greatest achievement".
But what did Gerry himself have to say about his seminal work? Here, in his own words, is one of our last email correspondence with Gerry, who despite his deteriorating health, charted his milestones with Elmer in his usual wit and humour.
There are several themes and issues running through the graphic novel, including discrimination and acceptance. But why did you decide to tell the story via a talking chicken?
I really didn't set out to write about racism and discrimination. It wasn't my goal. In my old neighbourhood where I used to live, packs of roaming chickens were pretty normal. I used to chase them around and their extreme reaction was a source of amusement for me. I began to speculate what it would be like if they could talk. What would they say to me? What if they were intelligent? What would they say? What would be their concerns? What would be important to them? The idea for Elmer came from this. I just wanted to write a story about chickens that talk. It all naturally flowed from that one idea.
What were the challenges in putting Elmer together?
There were a couple of pretty huge challenges when I was doing the book. Writing it wasn't really a problem. When I hit upon the idea of chickens becoming intelligent and now want to be accepted as part of the human race, every other single idea flowed from that. To be honest, it was more of a problem to choose which idea to use because ideas came through thick and fast. There were just so much. Elmer is the story of just one family. Millions of other chicken families had their own stories to tell.
Another challenge to overcome was just doing the work of drawing it and finishing it. The writing was the easy part. Drawing it was long drawn out and difficult. It was why I had originally released Elmer in instalments. So that it gave me that pressure to keep doing it.
The most difficult challenge involved a top goal I had for the book, and that was to find an international publisher for it. Ever since I realised the first instalment of Elmer, I had already sent copies to various publishers, editors, and reviewers abroad. All in an effort to find someone willing to publish it. It wasn't so easy. It took me two years to complete Elmer. And the end of those two years, I was just about ready to give up on my goal of finding a publisher. Then suddenly, I got an email from two different publishers. One would translate it and publish it in French in Europe and another would publish it in English in the US. I was ecstatic.
Elmer became a hit. Did you expect it to have the success that it had?
I knew I had a good book, with a unique story to tell. I knew that if only people gave it a chance that they would like it. I knew it could achieve a certain amount of success if given that chance. But I never expected it to go that far, winning several awards and even getting an Eisner nomination. That was totally unexpected.
And now there's this Singapore edition...
I'm so glad I have this chance to share my story further there. To be honest, I can't wait to find out what Singaporeans think about it.
How do you know when a story works?
I just feel it working. Perhaps one out of six ideas I have eventually start to "feel" right. I don't pursue a story if I don't get that feeling.
You were dubbed the "greatest man on the Internet" in 2010 by Ray William Johnson. What was the story behind that?
There was a time that I played around with making videos on YouTube. I actually have more than 600 videos right there now and I still make vlogs once in a while. For some strange reason, one of my videos went viral, getting like 6 million views. I was featured on various TV shows including The Graham Norton Show and other TV shows from Japan, the Middle East, China and so on. It was pretty crazy!
People started recognising me. When I went to Singapore for the first time in 2012 people recognised me at the airport. Things have simmered down a bit now. After all, I am 10 years older than that guy on the video so I look a bit different. It was a pretty nice experience. I really enjoyed it.
Not only that, a gif of you was also made into a meme. Do people draw the connection between your two identities: the reaction gif sensation and the artist that has worked on several notable works in the comics industry?
No. It usually unsettles people. I met a Chinese comic book artist by the name of Golo Zhao, who was apparently a huge fan of my video. We met at a comics festival and he couldn't seem to understand what I was doing at a comics festival. It took him a while to realise that I was a comic book artist too. Those who know me from the video generally don't know I do comics.
You started The Komiks Museum online. Could you tell us a little about that?
It was around 2000 when younger artists were approaching me to have their work critiqued. They were pretty much influenced by manga and other foreign comic book art. Not a single one was influenced by our great Filipino masters. I started thinking about it and I realised that I really couldn't blame them. It was hard getting reference material on the history of Philippine comics. There were hardly any books on the subject nor a culture of preservation and restoration of vintage comics didn't exist. So I took it upon myself to start collecting old comics and original artwork which I would scan and upload online. Ever since then, our comic book masters have become better known, and more books on our comics history have been published. I now have an actual museum here in my hometown of San Pablo.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer or graphic novelist?
Don't do comics for any perceived notions of glory, fame and money. You will just fail. You have to love the medium of comics. You have to love and be deeply interested in what makes comic books unique as a storytelling medium. If you love something, it will carry you through any difficulty and hardship.