Book review: Carlo Vergara’s “Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila”

I don’t remember how I first heard about “Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah”, but I do know that the moment I laid hands on it I couldn’t put it down.

I read comic books alongside more “serious” material, and one thing I always found lacking in both were characters that my young homosexual self could relate to. The closest character I could latch on to was Storm, because that girl is fierce.

MAHOGANY 2012

So to see the main character in a comic book be a gay man and a hilarious woman? It was like the Powers-That-Be thought it was about time my childhood was redeemed.

And it seemed like I wasn’t the only one who thought so! Not only did “Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah” get turned into a movie (see above clip) and a blockbuster musical, it won its creator Carlo Vergara the National Book Award in 2003. It was just so great for me to see a comic book with a gay sensibility achieve not just mainstream success but also critical acclaim as well.

It’s been a decade since then, and only now has Carlo Vergara come out with “Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila”, the long awaited sequel to his blockbuster work. Will it live up to the standards set by the first book? Or will I just be bitterly disappointed?

“Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila” picks up right where “Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah” ends. After defeating a giant frog, zombies, and the Amazoniztas from Planet X (x x x x x x x), gay hairdresser Ada heads to the big city with his hunky boyfriend, Dodong, ready to live a life free from magic stones and superheroics.

It’s altogether a new set of challenges that Ada has to face in Manila. Aside from the fact that money is harder to earn here, he also has to grapple with his relationship with Dodong. Having already been burned once, Ada is reticent about plunging headfirst into love this time around. What if Dodong is just another iteration of the men who’ve used and abused Ada in the past?

Complicating matters even further is the return of the magic “Zaturnnah” stone, which once again decides to announce its presence by clonking Ada on the head during a spirited bout of singing. A giant flying cockroach and another superhero follow in short order, and Ada once again finds himself putting on the mantle of being Zsazsa Zaturnnah.

Perhaps the thing that’s most apparent in “Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila” is the fact that it’s an incomplete work. It’s the first of three volumes, and therefore does not enjoy the advantage that “Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah” — the version most people are familiar with is the one that collects all three volumes of the first story — had: a proper resolution, as well as an opportunity for readers to see and judge the story in its entirety.

I’ve read comments from other readers that this sequel isn’t as funny as the first book, and while there is truth to that, the reason why “Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila” is not as funny as the first one is not because the jokes fall flat, but because there really aren’t many of them right now. And I think that’s an important distinction to make.

There’s a lot more story and introspection in this particular volume, and Vergara does a great job of looking at some of the concerns of a particular set of gay men that we have here in the Philippines. I’m pretty sure that a lot of the insecurities that Ada has about his relationship with Dodong has been felt and expressed by quite a number of gay men before.

There is also some biting social commentary thrown into the mix, and it’s not just the usual suspects that Vergara dings with a little painful truths. To use drag queen parlance, everybody gets read in this book. Vergara is an equal opportunity thrower of shade.

Sure, readers looking for humor may not be as satisfied with this volume, but I think that they also have to understand that there are still two more volumes of story left. Ditching the story now because of that would be like not buying an entire album just because you didn’t like one song.

Yes, it’s an entirely different Zaturnnah we’re working with here — and I for one am looking forward to where she is going to take me.

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