Ronreads interview: Gerry Alanguilan

Another thing that Gerry Alanguilan is famous for.

Anybody who follows the comic book scene here in the country probably already knows that our very own Gerry Alanguilan was recently awarded the Prix Asie-ACBD 2011 for “Elmer”, which tells the story of a world where chickens have become sentient and are now fighting for equal rights with humans.

Even before winning the Prix Asie-ACBD, “Elmer” was already garnering acclaim, earning an Eisner Award nomination, probably the highest honor awarded to comic books.

This new set of honors is only the latest for the popular Marvel inker, who has worked on such titles as the “X-Men”, “Wolverine”, and “Fantastic Four” and who has come out with critically-acclaimed local works like “Wasted”, “Timawa”, and “Humanis Rex”.

I was lucky enough to ask him a few questions for an article that came out last week, and under the cut is the full transcript of the interview, with some answers that never made it to the final copy.

Was there a specific, real-life inspiration behind the creation of “Elmer”? Where did the idea for the comic book come from?

There was no specific chicken it was based on. I did it because I was generally fascinated by chickens all my life. I grew up with chickens roaming all around places I lived. Chickens are a favorite animal of mine to observe because I find them hysterical. They’re so paranoid and jittery, and they get quite indignant when they’re disturbed. They are just so fun to watch.

I began making comic strips about chickens in 1997 when I did my photocopied mini comic book “Crest Hut Butt Shop”, a comic book album of short humorous autobiographical stories. One of those stories was “Stupid Chicken Stories”, where I related funny personal experiences about chickens. One story was about Solano, a pet rooster I had as a child, who grew up with his crown so huge it flopped over to one side of his head, blinding one eye. From that time on Solano would only walk sideways very slowly. I constantly teased him and tormented him by calling him “chicken!”. One day he went and attacked me, trying to poke my eye out. Soon after, he died of a heart attack.

Well in 2005 I thought about doing my “Ultimate Chicken Story”, the most hysterically ridiculous story about chickens ever written. But as I explored the idea, the more serious it got. It became so serious that I decided to drop the “Ultimate Chicken Story” title, and looked for a different, more appropriate one.

The story developed through observing chickens who grazed outside our house. They always looked particularly pissed off whenever I would pass by, clucking indignantly, staring at me with their wide paranoid eyes. Are they mad at me for some reason? Perhaps they are. Perhaps they can smell the tinola oozing from my pores. I thought, what if they were intelligent and could actually speak? What would they say? What if those cluckings were replaced with actual words? What would happen? Would they be mad? Would they organize? Would they demand for rights? All that speculation led to the idea of doing Elmer. But instead of approaching it from a humorous point of view, I thought I’d treat the subject as seriously as possible, and just let the humor grow organically.

When you first started working on “Elmer” in 2005, did you already have a feeling that it would be as successful as it has been? What did you expect to accomplish with it?

I had no idea how successful it would be. But I knew it was good enough for me to actually invest some money to actually have the series printed at a printing press. I thought I’d go the photocopied mini comic book route with it, but as I created more pages, I thought the story deserved to be printed.

I don’t think I had any expectations, but I had a lot of hopes. I hoped people would buy it, read it and like it. I hoped it would free me from my insecurity of forever being labeled as a “one hit wonder”. Before Elmer I had created “Wasted”, but as much as I loved that book, I was concerned that it was the only thing I’d ever be known for. I knew I had more stories in me and I wanted nothing more than to share them.

How different was the early drafts of “Elmer” from the finished product that came out in 2006? What change in the story or artwork would surprise readers if they knew about it?

The very first draft of Elmer was a lot more gimmicky. It began with a chicken grazing on the ground in the middle of some foliage. It’s a quiet countryside scene, no captions or dialogue. Then the chicken suddenly gets paranoid and out of the bushes a man lunges forward and tries to capture the chicken. But the man trips and hits the chicken rather forcefully, as if by accident. At this point the chicken screams the loudest expletive you could ever hear. Then another scream: “CUT!!” Then the scene pans backwards to reveal a movie set. And the chicken, my character ELMER, is the star. I thought it was a nice beginning but I felt it was too gimmicky, and worse, a bit common. Too many times we see scenes like this in TV and movies where they turn out to be fake scenes, a movie set within a movie. I thought it could still work so I moved this scene towards the second half of the book and began with another scene. I felt better about the scene I decided to use, so I stuck with it.

What was the most difficult part of bringing “Elmer” to life, in terms of story and art?

I actually had fun all throughout the creation of Elmer. I don’t recall any difficulties on my part in any aspect of its creation. However, the difficult part of it was surviving while I did it. I had quit a steady job in comics working for US companies, just so I could concentrate on writing and drawing my own stories.

The period between 2006 and 2008 were some of the most financially difficult times of my life, as I struggled to pursue a creative dream. But I had the most supportive wife in the world, and through sheer luck and some very understanding friends we seemed to have pulled through just fine.

What was the initial reaction from readers when you put out the first issue of “Elmer” in 2006? What was the best and worst comments you received?

I quite honestly didn’t really receive any bad comments about Elmer at this time. I actually still don’t  Most of the comments are very nice and congratulatory. Some of them are extremely long. There were a few letters that were highly critical, but they stemmed more from disappointments that Elmer wasn’t something they thought it would be or could be. A couple of letters ran down my numerous grammatical and spelling errors, mostly on issue #4. I’m thankful for letters like those because they were very useful in correcting mistakes for the compiled book.

How was “Elmer” received by critics? Was their reception markedly different from your readers, or did they have the same opinions on “Elmer”?

Elmer was received very well by critics who reviewed it. As soon as #1 came off the press I sent copies writers, editors, online columnists, reviewers, retailers, and artists, specifically for the intention of making people know that my comic book existed. And if I’m lucky, a few of these people would probably write about it on their blogs, or newspapers, and perhaps even get a few interested in publishing it elsewhere. Fortunately enough, those who did write about it liked the comic book. It led to an interview with the much widely read and respected Comics Reporter website, as well as good reviews from comic book writers like Steven Grant and Neil Gaiman.

Did you already have the whole story for “Elmer” mapped out when you put out the first issue in 2006? Or did its reception change the story in any significant way?

Not at all. The story was already completely mapped out on my head. I spent more than a year researching about chickens and coming up with ideas that would go into the plot of the story. Although I wrote down the story one issue at a time, I already knew the general direction the story would have up until the end.

Does the fact that you self-publish make it easier to write stories like the one you tell in “Elmer”? Would it have been much more difficult to tell a story like this one working for the admittedly few commercial publishers that put out comics? 

It’s definitely less stressful for me doing everything myself. At the same time I was doing Elmer, I was actually also writing and drawing “Humanis Rex” and “Timawa” for two different publishers. They pretty much generally left me alone to do what I want so I couldn’t say in all honesty that I was more creatively free doing it on my own. But it was less stressful because I was my own boss. And it felt better from a creator’s stand point because when all is said and done, I can proudly say that it was something I wrote, drew, published, distributed, marketed, and promoted all on my own. Being able to accomplish something like that is terribly exhilarating.

The French edition of 'Elmer'

When did foreign publishers start approaching you to make foreign editions of “Elmer”? How did you pick the publishers to work with? What’s the farthest country that “Elmer” has been able to reach?

As I mentioned earlier, I was already sending out copies of Elmer as soon as #1 was printed in the hopes of finding a publisher for it abroad. I accelerated my efforts when the the last issue was released a couple of years later. I started to get interest from a few publishers but nobody really bit. There was a specific publisher I had my heart set on, and I religiously sent the editor copies of Elmer with every issue that came out. He seemed interested at first, but later passed on it because they said their publishing plate was full. I pretty much got the same response from a number of other publishers I sent copies to. Some didn’t write back. This back and forth with publishers took several years with me getting somewhat dejected with every passing month.

I was getting somewhat desperate. It came to the point that I had actually considered distributing the book myself abroad, which was a frightening notion. Frightening because it would be extraordinarily tricky and expensive. I might end up spending more than I would make. I was actually already doing that on a small scale with specific retailers in the UK, Canada and even the Soviet Union, but to mount distribution worldwide on my own was crazy. It wasn’t impossible, just crazy. I was crazy, but not that much, I guess.

In an effort to get more readers interested in Elmer, I decided to release the first issue completely for free online. The first issue had sold out in print anyway so I thought I had nothing to lose. Months later, I was checking my bulk folder in my email, as it has become my habit to do. Sometimes legit email find themselves in the bulk folder even through they’re not spam. Well I found a curious email from a French sounding name, asking about Elmer. He asked if someone had already bought the French rights to publisher Elmer. If not, he would love to read my entire book and consider it for publication.

That was how Elmer eventually got published in France. The US was a tougher nut to crack. After going through nearly all publishers I knew, I saw a Twitter post by an editor for SLG Publishing, formerly Slave Labor Publishing. They specialize in black and white independent non-superhero comic books. Their most popular title at the time was Johnny: The Homicidal Maniac. I thought well, it’s worth a shot. I sent them a copy and forgot all about it. But then just a few weeks after the French publisher emailed, I got an email from Dan Vado, owner and publisher of SLG and he wanted to publish the book! I was ecstatic, and finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Aside from winning the Prix Asie-ACBD 2011, “Elmer” has also been nominated for an Eisner. What do you think is it about the work that has resonated so much with readers and critics all over the world?

It’s tough to guess what people see in my work. In fact, I really try not to view my work in that way. If I try and study and analyze what people thought of my work, I might lose my focus and my focus has always been to follow my own instincts and write the best story I can. It’s my personal creative belief that I do not tailor my work to target any specific audience or market. I just do the story I believe in, any story that I feel like telling at the time. If I do my best writing and drawing it, I know there are people out there who will appreciate it for what it is.

How do you want this accolade to affect younger Filipino comic book creators, who seem mostly to be taking their cues from Japanese manga?

'Love Is In The Bag' is one of the more successful self-published comic books in the country.

I hope it shows my fellow creators that we as Filipinos can have the confidence to create things that could compete against efforts by creators around the world. I seriously do hope that young Filipino artists today who want to create comics further develop their craft, further study the comic book medium, and further develop their skills to create better comics. I see incredible potential in a lot of young artists today. I have no doubt that many of them will accomplish far more greater things than I could ever do.

I once interviewed Virgilio Almario and he said that while today’s Filipino comic books tell great stories, they have become more of a “middle class reading material”, inaccessible to the masa. Is it really impossible for today’s comics to reach the popularity they once had?

As a creator, I can’t afford to think like that. I honestly think that the masa is more receptive to progressive material than we expect.

I did an experiment a while back. I’m a huge fan of the British show “Doctor Who”. I bought the DVDs and I lent them to my assistant to show to her nephews and nieces. Now my assistant pretty much lives in the boondocks. The kids there most likely don’t speak or understand English. Much less English with a British accent. They’re pretty much the typical “masa” that people refer to, whatever that means. Now the kids, they love watching Doctor Who. They ask to repeat episodes over and over. They don’t understand the words, but they understand what’s happening. They laugh and cry at the appropriate moments.

After watching several seasons of Doctor Who back to back, they go back to watching Tagalog shows and I’m told how disappointed they are, saying how bad the effects are, how bad the acting is, how badly the shows are edited, how bad and embarrassing the stories are. They now demand much more from their entertainment. Not only that, they now run around speaking English with an English accent.

I lent the DVDs to two other friends and they showed it to their nephews and nieces. Same thing happened. Not only that, not only were the children entranced by this show, the parents are starting to appreciate it too. And they have now become more critical of other shows they watch.

What does this tell you? It tells me that the “masa” is not stupid. And that they can understand more than we, in our intellectually snotty and prejudiced preconceptions, expect. The problem is nobody is giving them better material. Because nobody thinks they can appreciate it.


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