Ronreads interview: Merwin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria

Skyworld creators (from left) Ian Sta. Maria and Merwin Ignacio, with bonus Jay Tablante

I grew up loving comic books, but I admit that I haven’t really been able to keep up with them lately. And Filipino komiks? My knowledge and familiarity with them is even more embarrassing.

Thanks to my job, I’ve slowly been changing that. I’ve been able to familiarize myself with the works of Arnold Arre, Gerry Alanguilan, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, as well as Carlo Vergara.

The latest komiks creators I’ve had the pleasure of getting familiar with are Merwin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria, the two guys behind the bestselling “Skyworld”. I spoke with them at the recently concluded Komikon, and they were very nice and humble about the success that their work has been getting.

In this interview, they talk about using Philippine folklore and mythology in their work, their early dreams for Skyworld, and what advice they’d give to other aspiring comic book creators.

RONREADS (RR): Did you guys worry when you were starting work on Skyworld since there aren’t a lot of resources for Philippine Mythology?

MERVIN IGNACIO (MI): Actually ‘yun ‘yung reason kung bait namin naisip gawin. Kasi growing up, ang gaming Roman mythology, Greek mythology, ‘yung superheroes, pero there weren’t really a lot of materials na mahahanap mo kaagad kung ago ‘yung tikbalang, ago ‘yung aswang, ago ‘yung nangyayari doon. ‘Yun ‘yung inspiration. Bakit hindi na interesting ‘yun sa mga tao ngayon? We thought maybe we can reinvent it and present it in a different way.

IAN STA. MARIA (ISM): I was very worried drawing tikbalang and manananggal. You can never know if you’re doing it right.

RR: Did you do any research going in?

ISM: Oo. The Soul Book. Extensive reading on The Soul Book.

MI: That was the one thing Budjette Tan and I had in common. I had bought that book before, tapos napagusapan namin when we were talking about references sa mythology. That’s a pink, square book that collected lahat ng sinaunang concept. Tapos doon, ini-explain ‘yung concept ng Sky World, na meron siyang seven layers. Buong-buo ‘yung concept ng mga Pinoy dati kung ago ‘yung heaven nila.

ISM: I was really into seances, mga ganon. Part of the research was talking to people who knew about seances at kaniya-kaniyang interpretations kung ago ‘yung tikbalang. Even going to Mount Banahaw in college. Hindi ko pa kilala si Merv noon pero plano ko nang gumawa ng comics.

RR: Of the research that you guys did, how did you decide on what to keep and what to throw away?

ISM: First thing I looked for was something that hasn’t been done yet. Kahit nung unang Komikon, ang daming interpretation ng tikbalang. When we started to design it, I just wanted to keep it so simple, design-wise, na angat siya sa iba. We went through so many designs, at one point para siyang Lord of the Rings look. Hanggang sa naging naka-bahag na lang siya and it kinda worked. More than anything, I think it’s the kuwento that holds everything together.

MI: In terms of what to keep and what to take out, tinry rin namin ipasok ‘yung history into it. Dun siya nagkaroon ng bagong twist. Usually what we do, uupo kaming dalawa, inuman. Kung pareho kaming excited sa idea, then game. Nagiisip ako ng kuwento na mae-excite si Ian na i-drawing. And then si Ian, ibibigay sa akin ‘yung drawing, and then I would rewrite my stuff. Bibigyan ko siya nung draft nung pages, ito ang mangyayari, usually wala pa ‘yung words. Visual flow lang. Drawing niya, has magandang interpretation, re-rewrite ko ulit ‘yun.

ISM: Mapapansin mo ‘yung chapter 1 and chapter 2 nung volume 1, the art style drastically changed. ‘Yun ‘yung art style na nag-tick hanggang ngayon. When we started naghahanap pa ako ng style and we didn’t want it to look too comic-booky. Somewhere along the way nahanap ko ‘yung style ko. Nagalit pa si Budjette nun! Tumawag siya, bait daw nagpalit ng style? Sa reader nakakapikon ‘yun.

RR: When you guys first met, did you plan on working on this together?

ISM: That was the first thing we talked about when we met.

MI: Nag-meet kami 10 years ago. May sideline lang kami together tapos inintroduce sa akin ng friend ko. Nagyoyosi lang kami tapos napag-usapan namin kung among comics ang binabasa namin. And then pumunta siya sa usapang kung bait walang gumagawa ng comics tungkol sa ganito. And then doon kaagad meron na kaming “Paano kung ‘yung lead character tikbalang? Tapos may ganitong mangyayari.” ‘Yun ‘yung first conversation namin. Then we got to work together sa advertising. Officemates kami, partners kami sa advertising company na Harrison Communications. Sabi namin, pang-relax lang, tuloy natin ‘yung pinag-usapan natin.

RR: You first started putting “Skyworld” out independently, right?

MI: Originally kasi it was just going to be one 50-page story.

ISM: No, it was going to eb a 20-pager. Less pa nga eh! Twelve pages lang na fight scene.

MI: Sinabi sa amin ni Budj na gusto niyang mag-compile ng collection ng short stories. What started out as 20 pages na fight scene ng tikbalang versus aswang, humaba siya ng humaba. Nung una naming linabas, we didn’t know it was going to be that long. Kaya lang, hindi namin alam kung paano mag-end ng story hung time na ‘yun, so tuloy lang kami ng tuloy. Very organic lang. Nung dulo na lang namin kinokonnect.

RR: Kailan lumabas ‘yung unang issue niya? The independently-published one?

MI: 2003.

RR: So hindi pa kumpleto ‘yung story at that time?

MI: Wala pa kaming pera noon eh. Gawa lang, and it was always in our heads. Then we had a good friend na client namin, she heard the story. Bakit hindi ituloy? Wala kaming pa-print. So the next time we met, pinautang niya kami. Doon lang nagsimula ‘yung feeling na someone trusts us enough, baka meron doon. Binuo namin ‘yung first story, chapter 1, “Apocrypha”, so hindi pa namin alam kung san ‘yun tutuloy. Baka ilabas na lang ‘yun. And since we had money, colored na cover.

First day, it sold 150 copies. Wala pa kaming idea of stocks and everything. So sabi namin, 1000 copies, kaya ‘yun. Pinrint namin ‘yung Book 1 ng 1000 copies, ang dami pala! Eh three times a year lang kami nagbebenta para sa Komikon. Pero the money from Book 1, bumalik na siya, nabayaran anmin ‘yung utang, it became the seed money for Book 2 and 3. Habang may para tayo, paano itutuloy ‘yung kuwento? It was really us trying to teach ourselves how to write comics. It was us teaching ourselves the process

ISM: “Apocrypha” was really an experiment.

RR: Is 150 copies a good number?

ISM: Yeah, by indie standards.

MI: I think ang naging lamang namin is that most people come up with their first indie project, photocopy lang an 20 pages. Nung una kami naglabas, 50 pages. Tapos colored cover na medyo hardbound tapos may matte finish. Mahal ‘yung 150 pesos para sa mga bata, akala namin delikado. Pero surprisingly, kumagat siya. At very word of mouth, ni-refer, kinuwento.

Merwin and Ian signing copies of Skyworld at the recent Komikon.

RR: Were you surprised by the sucess

ISM: Sobra, grabe! Ang iniisip ko, kapag hindi ito nagustuhan ng tao, mababasag ang puso ko. When people started liking it, wow. Even with what’s happening with National Book Store right now, hindi ako makapaniwala. Very surprising.

RR: Did you guys worry when National approached you about reprinting that nobody would buy it because people have already read it?

ISM: Grabe, kinabahan talaga kami (laughs)! Mabubuwisit ‘yung mga ‘yun!

MI: For the past seven years before National, it was only available two or three times a year. We felt na kami naman ang nagdi-disappoint sa mga tao kasi dun na nga lang available, hindi pa namin nalalabas on time. Ang gaming mga gustong kumuha, pero walang tuloy-tuloy na interest kasi it was taking so long to finish. Nasisisra ‘yung momentum. Nung nilabas siya, it felt fresh again. Nung naging available an siya at any National Book Store, ‘yung word of mouth, tumuloy na.

RR: When were you approached by National?

MI: Last year lang. I think they approached Budjette, then they approached Ian, tapos very informal lang na what they thought of the book, when are we going to finish it. They were willing. They published Gerry’s “Elmer”, they were looking for a next book. That was a reason to finish it.

Ang unang naging question niya, are we willing to publish it as a compilation. In terms of stock, mahirap ang maraming stocks na ime-maintain. Nung binato nila na Book 1 and Book 2 together, Book 3 and Book 4, when we looked at it, mukhang impressive siya. one hundred fifty pages. Tapos ‘yung kuwento pa, bumagay sa pagkakahati niya. We finished Book 4 without printing that copy. Hindi na namin tinapos. Individual copies of Books 1, 2, and 3.

ISM: May magic na lumabas. All the singles that came out, suddenly, aging special edition collectors item.

MI: Eventually, sana malabas namin ‘yung Book 4, papamigay namin. Pero nung time na ‘yun, we add just sold 100 copies of Book 3, one time pa lang namin binenta, so we thought huwag na naming ituloy ibenta ‘yung Book 3, National na ‘yung magtuloy. ‘Yung 100 people na nakabili ng 3, they can but Book 3 along with Book 4 in Volume 2.

ISM: Ang galing nga nila eh. Imbes na mainis sila, ang nangyaring mindset nila is what they have a collectors item. They turned it into a positive.

MI: They’re very forgiving and they’re very supportive.

RR: What drew the readers to the work?

MI: Naglagay si Ian ng boobs (laughs). When we were writing it, we were writing it as fans. Ito ‘yung gusto naming makita, ito ‘yung kuwentong gusto naming marinig. Marmaing stock knowledge about tribes, Bagobos. Bakit hindi siya naikukuwento in a way na kahit ‘yung pins an namin na bata mae-excite? Nung kami lumalaki, ‘yung kuwentuhan ng aswang, highlight na siya. Pero ngayon, hindi na. I guess ‘yun ‘yung nakikita nila. We’re presenting it in a different way that sparks curiosity.

ISM: I think it was Sir Gerry Alanguilan who said na sakto ‘yung pasok namin kasi everyone was doing superheroes in spandex. Maganda ‘yung timing kasi kami lang ang naiba. May bida kami na tikbalang, which is really fresh. Nakatsamba kami doon.

RR: Anong demographic ng readers niyo?

ISM: Sa totoo lang, I think it’s us.

MI: Pero mas bata lang (laughs). ‘Yung mga taon sa mga con na ganito, sila ‘yung everyday na pumupunta mula nung UP pa. ‘Yun ‘yung mga taong sinusulatan namin. Universal ang pagiging geek ng Pinoy market.

ISM: I’ve been asking around on Facebook. Usually it’s the kuya or kaklase na may kakilala na pumupunta dito. We’re lucky na may network na hindi sinasadya.

RR: But has your market extended beyond the geek market.

ISM: Paunti-unti. Friends of friends find out I did this thing.

MI: Sa umpisa kami, secret identity namin ito. Ngayon, lalapit ‘yung boss namin, sasabihin ‘yung book namin nasa bestsellers list ng National.

ISM: Some people have written in, very appreciative. They say they’re not comic book fans, na-curious lang daw siya sa National, he bought Volume 1, the next day he bought Volume 2, at natuwa siya at gusto niyang i-share tong culture na ito sa anak niya.


RR: Did you have any experience of readers whose first experience of Philippine mythology is with Skyworld?

ISM: Merong isang sumulat sa akin na Pinoy na pumunta dito sa Pilipinas para sa Komikon tapos bumalik siya sa States. He was asking what a tikbalang was, what a manananggal was. Maganda rin na it shares a culture which is very rich.

MI: Maraming Fil-Am na pumupunta sa con at sa kanila, fresh na fresh kasi gutom sila sa ganon. ‘Yung mga Pinoy kasi minsan, alam na nila. It’s so ordinary that they don’t take a second look at it. But there’s still the hunger in them. Mas nakikita mo lang sa Fil-Ams.

There’s a hunger for that culture theme. Kaya may resurgence ang Pilipinas storytelling. Stories that may not be told in Tagalog, but set in Philippine settings or with Filipino characters. Kay Gerry, manok. Kay Budjette, detective of the supernatural. Gutom ang mga tao for versions of our stories. Fresh sill, pero tungkol sa mga baggy na naririnig na nila.

RR: Is that something you guys set out to do?

ISM: Hindi (laughs).

MI: It was really just kung among masaya. It was therapy for us kasi. Makapagbenta lang ng 50 copies, masaya na ako. Dun mo mararamdaman ‘yung excitement, may dadaan na bata, titingnan ‘yung book mo, tapos magiisip kung may para ba sila. Meron dating balk ng balk, nagtatanong kung ibebenta pa ba kasi wala na siyang pamasahe. Baka puwedeng bilhin sa Komikon na sunod. Pinamigay na lang namin. ‘Yun ‘yung nagda-drive, ‘yung individual face-to-face appreciation. Pinanindigan na namin.

RR: Is there now pressure on you guys to always work with Philippine culture and folklore?

MI: ‘Yun ‘yung dapat napupuntahan. Marami kaming stories na reinvented din. How do you re-invent Filipino action komiks, detective komiks, alam mo ‘yun? Mythology lang kasi ‘yung pinakaunang love namin.

ISM: Mas nakakapressure ‘yung execution na. ‘Yun ‘yung mas mabigat everytime. Everytime you have to one-up. Ako, napre-pressure ako. More than just using mythology.

MI: Kung ano ‘yung bago na puwedeng ikuwento na kahit sila magugulat. ‘Yun ‘yung pressure.

RR: Are there plans to print this colored, or does it work better as a black and white comic?

ISM: It would work better colored. Pero tapos na ‘yan.

MI: The good thing with Budj, nagbu-burn in na ‘yung market. May has malaking awareness na sa comics. National Bookstore, sob rang nagtiwala sa amin na nag-publish. Baka they can see that even if we publish a thousand copies, kahit colored, as long as the market bought, they might. Mahirap kasi kung kulayan namin tapos ibenta ulit, sabihin hung mga bata, nabasa ko na ‘yan eh!

ISM: Kasama na ‘yun sa pag one-up. The progression.

RR: What advice would you give to other indie comic book creators?

ISM: Just get it out. Release it kahit xerox. Finish it and get it out. Kapag hindi mo tinapos, mabubulok lang ‘yan sa bahay and people will not know about it and nothing will happen.

MI: Ang daming gustong mag-kuwento at ang daming kuwento out there, pero until you put it on paper, until you draw it, wala pa siya. Kailangan mong maipakita sa bang tao ‘yung kuwento mo para makita mo kung paano siya mapaganda. Even when we were doing Book 1, ang gaming criticisms and feedback. Finish the story, allow people to read it, and sincerely listen to feedback and encouragement.

ISM: When people read it, that’s the only time you’ll know if it works.

(Photos from the National Book Store and Skyworld Facebook pages.)

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