A Platform for Philippine Komiks: An Interview With Penlab

Header for Penlab. A young woman looks off to the distance of the left against a sky back drop. She holds up a phone and sheets of paper fly out of it. The word "Penlab" hovers to the left of the image.

Filipino komiks (“comics”) have long had a commercial industry that goes far back as the 1920s, but it has been only until recently that interest in these works has grown outside of the Philippines.

With social isolation restrictions still in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many artists have been turning to ways to expand their reach online, especially if they haven’t previously done so. Many creators depend on the physical nature of networking and self-publishing, so what does that mean for something like komiks?

As a response to differentiate itself from the existing platforms that serve webtoons, Penlab had launched to serve as a centralized hub specifically to host Filipino ekomiks online. I had the opportunity to interview Bernie Mercado, Penlab’s managing editor, and Nissie Arcega, the platform’s webmaster. They took the time to share what went behind the development of Penlab, their own personal insights on the komiks industry, and their thoughts on the future of the art scene in the Philippines.

Thanks so much for taking your time to talk about Penlab with us! Can you give us a rundown on what led to the conception of the platform? How have your respective backgrounds influenced this?

Mercado: Our initial idea for Penlab dates back to 2019 when we founded our group, Kalabaw Kolektib (Carabao Collective). At that time, we wanted to make a comics website that would focus on SEA (Southeast Asian) content. There were already so many attempts at a Pinoy komiks website even way back and we were hesitant to do the same thing, as we weren’t sure if other creators would be game for it. When the pandemic happened, that shifted our plans, and we made it our goal that Penlab would be a place where you can read all kinds of Pinoy komiks.

We came into komiks with a film and advertising background, so that has played a great deal with how we managed the content of our group, and eventually, Penlab.

Arcega: I came from publishing, film, advertising, but I’ve always been a volunteer at local komiks conventions ever since I found out I could, haha. Having worked in huge industries has definitely influenced the way we conceptualized and created Penlab, but I think one thing that’s really guided us in this initiative has been the fact that we’re also creators as well. Whatever we do, we try to bring it back to how we would like to be treated, how we would want our work to be distributed.

We first wanted to be able to display our own group’s comics on a website, somewhere else that wasn’t a social media account. Then, as Bernie mentioned, we thought it might be a good idea to expand our network to include SEA creators as well. The idea was indefinitely tabled because we felt that a lot of creators weren’t jazzed about going digital, especially with the risks involved (i.e. getting your work pirated). When the lockdown came, the idea crystallized because we saw that a lot of our fellow creators started putting up their work for free as PDFs, so that really gave us the push we needed to start development.

We also kind of wanted to give people a similar experience during cons (but we don’t have any plans of replacing them of course haha), where readers and creators converge to share the thing that brings the community together in the first place, which is a love for komiks. A part of it is also trying to expand the community beyond Metro Manila [in the Philippines], to sort of decentralize it in a way, and involve other creators and readers from other parts of the country who didn’t have the means to participate in the conventions we hold every year. There are even those who don’t know that these events exist, haha.

Screenshot homepage of Penlab as viewed on a tablet. Various thumbnails of different comic series are displayed in a tile format.
Penlab’s homepage as viewed on a tablet.

Can you elaborate more on the sort of work that Kalabaw Kolektib does? What are a few specific examples you can cite from your respective experiences that you have carried over into developing this platform?

Mercado: So people abroad unfamiliar with our comics scene in the Philippines have a general idea, self-publishing is our main model of producing comics. We only have a few publishers here locally. Because of the unreliability of earning from comics, these publishers are also only able to publish only limited titles.

This hasn’t deterred our community from coming out with comics, however. In fact, the preferred route is self-publishing. The rationale is it’s your own investment and your own risk; whereas with a mainstream publisher, there are a lot of compromises you may have to take. Not everyone is a fan of this.

Typically, you’d see komiks creators as groups in convention tables. We’re one of those groups, but we mostly do collaborative work between writers and artists, and we have a system in place that helps our members sell komiks. Basically, Penlab is one of our collaboration projects, but we expanded it to collaborating with the entire community.

Kalabaw Kolektib’s core mostly has experience in media, film, and advertising, and we sort of brought that in when we got into komiks (with respect to managing and marketing content). We tested a lot of models with our own content, and then we brought those over to Penlab. For example, we tried a lot of things to build a following for our own comic book series, Katipunera Warrior. What worked with Katipunera Warrior has mostly set the template for how we do things at Penlab.

One of the main struggles of local comics creators is marketing; not everyone has a big following. With Penlab, we’re sort of setting a model that creators can use to market their own content. We want to see local comics flourish and perhaps expand from our comics bubble.

With a platform like this, we’re now able to democratize the playing field. It used to be that people outside the comics bubble—people who don’t go to comic conventions—only ever knew of titles and creators that had access to the bigger publishers. Now, there’s an opportunity for everyone to be discovered, and most of the top reads on Penlab are mostly self-published, independent work.

Cover for Katipunera Warrior #2 An adolescent sporting a headband, long ponytail, and shredded shorts looks off-frame with whitened eyes and an aggressive expression. They stand in a clearing with forestry in the background and the title overlay on top.
Cover and promotional artwork for Katipunera Warrior, a komik Mercado has written for under Kalabaw Kolektib and is also now on Penlab.

What were some of the difficulties when it came to developing Penlab? In what ways do you want Penlab to be distinguishable from platforms like LINE Comics and Tapas?

Mercado: There have been so many (failed) attempts at local platforms like this, so the first thing we had to address was how we were gonna be different. At first, it was difficult pitching this to other komiks creators.

We didn’t want to copy Tapas and Webtoon because our komiks production locally is invariably different. Creators mostly rely on self-publishing and put their stuff out in conventions. So what we looked into was our local conventions (Komikon and Komiket) and how we could do the same thing but online. Our planned expansions mostly take inspiration from them.

There are still so many great creators, however, who don’t sell at local conventions, and we’re hoping that with Penlab, we can fill that gap. We also plan to turn Penlab into a komiks archive for Filipino komiks and address the need for classics to be known by the younger generation.

Arcega: On the topic of the archiving project, we thought that getting things on digital would be a lot more accessible and efficient. With a digital komiks archive, we’re more able to collect and exhibit the gems of Pinoy komiks, as well as the landmark titles that have shaped the medium to what it is today. Right now, attempts at these are sort of scattered, from private collections to various documentaries. There’s even a komiks museum in San Pablo, Laguna spearheaded by the late Gerry Alanguilan. With this project, we were hoping to serve as a one-stop information hub for Filipino komiks. We want to be able to help readers and creators alike deepen their appreciation for komiks, going beyond merely consuming, no matter how passionate. The evolution of the form is so interesting, because we drew from a lot of influences, which is why it’s really hard to pinpoint a singular Filipino style, cause there’s literally a ton. The changes in the publishing landscape also affected the formats of our komiks narratives.

I think it’s also one step towards the goal of getting the medium recognized as more than just paraliterature, at least in the Philippines. It’s kind of crazy to think that even on a national level, comics is still differentiated from literature with a capital “L.” (Francisco Coching, one of the pioneers of the medium, is a National Artist for Visual arts, but not for Literature.)

Have you been able to reach out to these institutions and build connections to gain access to these resources?

Mercado: We recently released Kenkoy, in time for the late Tony Velasquez’s 110th birth anniversary. Kenkoy is considered the first ever Filpino comic character and Velasquez is the Father of Philippine comics.

For now, I can’t really say much yet, but we are reaching out to the families of our legacy creators, with the hopes of building a classics section that can be accessed, appreciated, and studied by generations to come.

Elaborating on those points, how significant is the consumption of webcomics in online Filipino communities?

Mercado: I would say very much. Filipinos generally love reading webcomics and manga. Online, outside of popular komiks strips, komiks don’t really have much presence and a lot of people don’t even know local comics conventions exist.

We’re hoping to address that with Penlab and I hope we’re successful in the long run.

Arcega: We also want to be a bridge towards digital for the more print-oriented comics. Webcomics is an entirely different format from the ones that are dominantly created and sold at conventions, and these are the ones that make the rounds on social media the most because they’re made for that type of consumption. With Penlab, we’re hoping to give the print-oriented comics a space on the Internet as well, which is why developing the comics reader was an important part of the website. We wanted it to be a good reading experience for readers, as well as a quality exhibition for the creator.

Due to the global impact of COVID-19, numerous mass gatherings have been put on hold until further notice, such as the cancellation of conventions and industry shows. These big events are important to many creatives, giving them channels to network and promote their work. How have these circumstances affected the Philippine art scene? Have you observed any noticeable uptick in creatives being more active online as a result? What can Penlab’s role be in a situation like this?

Mercado: When the pandemic started, most komiks creators put their stuff out for free online. This played a key role in convincing ourselves to finally do Penlab.

When Penlab launched, we went viral for a bit on Twitter (locally) thanks to one of our artists, and we were surprised and excited to know that more creatives were now considering to make new komiks because there was now a platform. Essentially, that’s what you want to do, provide our artists with the right channels so they can excel. We’re still in step 1, though, so there’s a lot of work to do.

With the lack of conventions, it gets more difficult to sell your work. Especially in the Philippines. We have tried it with our own group’s komiks to somehow set a template for what we’ll be doing on Penlab, but selling online is still really not as 100% as selling in a convention.

For now, we’re helping grow our community’s readership, in the hopes that our conventions will also grow by the time this pandemic ends.

Arcega: I don’t like thinking of our platform as a sort of savior for the pandemic putting a halt to these huge events. I think the stuff that we’re trying to address has always been there even before the pandemic, specifically the accessibility of comics. I mean, the uptick isn’t that huge a difference, I think that Filipino artists in general have always been aware of the importance of a digital presence. The question really more has been about how the community was going to adapt, in an economical and distribution sense. We’re hoping to help open up the digital aspect of that on-going evolution.

Cover for I Am An Avenger #1, by Leinil Yu and Gerry Alanguilan. A large array of different Marvel characters are dynamically coming towards the viewer, such as Spider-man, Hulk, and Captain America projecting most closest to the foreground.
The cover for I Am An Avenger #1. Leinil Yu is the penciler, Gerry Alanguilan was the inker, and Dave Mccaig did the colors.

As previously alluded, Gerry Alanguilan is a significant figure in the komiks community. Overseas, comic fans are more likely to only be familiar with his name due to his contributions for Marvel Entertainment. Is it a disservice, however, if his Philippine-based body of work is otherwise not as recognized outside of the Philippines? How can komiks overcome hurdles to find recognition in the global market, if at all? Is seeking that recognition even necessary? Is there even a desired standard?

Mercado: Global recognition is of course important, because it helps our local artists get more opportunities. For me, it’s not a matter of Pinoy pride or “recognition,” per se. Local creators only earn so little from komiks locally, so international distribution can definitely help us make creating komiks a more sustainable career.

However, I also feel that’s about steps 11-20 with what we’re seeking to do. So while the global market is important, we have to focus first with our local readership. Once we get to a point where komiks can be more mainstream in the Philippines, then I think we can finally address that.

We do have English-language komiks on Penlab and our own group is working on an English-language slate of titles to draw in audiences of all nationalities.

Arcega: I think this is a problem that any non-American or non-Japanese outfit faces, since these styles dominate the global market. Like Bernie said, it’s important, but I do echo that it’s not a huge concern right now for the Philippines. It’s more of a long-term thing we’ll have to face. It’s a lot more important for the entire community to come together on the home front, before we go and face the global stage.

I guess a part of this is also the ethos behind creating komiks for us. Franchising komiks in the same way America or Japan does it isn’t really something that every komikero wants to do, though there are definitely some. Our community even functions with a self-publishing platform, which is what the conventions are for. It’s basically a large art market. Though we did have “success stories” of that kind, namely Mars Ravelo’s works being reincarnated every decade with a movie, a TV show, or even a card game. There’s even a Darna reboot that came out in 2013 that kind of reflected the shifts in the industry and the readers, effectively outliving whatever it was Ravelo thought Darna would have been when he and Nestor Redondo started it.

I think the way that komiks will flourish won’t be based on the standards of Marvel and DC. I believe it will be heralding a different type of success, a different type of model for publishing and creation. We’re very creator-centric in the community, and that attribute isn’t going to go away easily. But industrialization is definitely one thing we’d like to take cues from in America or Japan.

Mercado: Now more than ever, more Filipino creators are starting to see the appeal of the global market. That’s definitely at the back of our heads, to be recognized for our own IP all over the world. But going back to the topic of recognition, most of our komiks are not even recognized locally. The local comic convention bubble has been growing the past years, but this is still a relatively small community of readers and creators.

If you go ask anyone outside the comics bubble about what they know of Filipino comics, it’s expected they’d just say Darna or Trese. When Netflix even came out with their Trese snippet, it was the first time that some Filipinos ever heard of it. And this is already a comic book published in the local mainstream. What more of our self-published work?

So, really, the first hurdle to get past is local recognition. We have to reach people here first before we as a community can expand past our shores. The other thing is perhaps aggressiveness to build your IP as a franchise. Not everyone simply has the know-how and the network. When you’re on your own, it’s difficult to reach people locally, let alone globally.

We don’t have agents here that would represent us, and I’m not sure local creators would even be trusting of agents in the local level. Haha. As Nissie mentioned, not every komikero wants to turn their work into a franchise like in the US and Japan.

Art jacket spread for Trese #4, Last Seen After Midnight. An arrangement of ghoulish-looking faces and figures across a pan. Furthermost left, a young woman wearing a black coat and sporting, short black hair holds a sharp object in her hands. Flanking her sides are two, slender masked figures.
The art jacket for Trese #4, Last Seen After Midnight.

As a Filipino-American artist myself, I do notice there is a disconnect between Filipino creatives overseas and those based locally in the Philippines—a disconnect that exists due to the nature of our collective history that has created the Filipino diaspora.

For instance, speaking at least as a Fil-Am, as much as we strive to bring awareness to the social issues directly affecting our own distant relatives, we are still able to detach by not directly living in the Philippines. Another issue is the language barrier. What would it take for our creative communities to bridge connections? What are some of the obligations that overseas Filipino artists have when they create work in relation to their identity and vice versa? Is there a standard when it comes to what defines a work that is “Filipino”?

Mercado: This topic really interests me, because I also grew up abroad (Doha, Qatar) but returned home, so I feel like I’m in the middle. I think it’s a continuous process of learning by unlearning our preconceived notions of what it means to be “Filipino.”

From time to time, our small komiks community has drama, and this topic always comes up: What is “Pinoy komiks?”

I think because there are a lot of older people who want to put a linear definition to that, other creators get discouraged. And I think that shouldn’t be the case. Pinoy komiks are very unique and varied; we draw influences from so many things. We’ve come to a point where we’ve made foreign styles unique to ours.

For overseas Filipino artists, I would just say to do something that is unique to your experience, or do something you really, really want to do. As I said, it’s a continuous process of unlearning, and you have to unlearn the thinking that your work should have “very Filipino icons and elements” for it to be Filipino.

As long as you’re Filipino, it’s Pinoy komiks.

Arcega: I agree with Bernie. It’s kind of a no-brainer, and Filipino komiks has evolved in such a way that has included the postcolonial experience–even if there are people who tend to look back to the pre-colonial for a sense of identity–and that includes the diaspora as well. Though I think it’s of utmost importance to immerse yourself not just in the symbols that make up our culture, but also the social conditions that influence them. You can’t come into creating cultural works that are divorced from the social realities of the people whose cultures you’re portraying. Otherwise, you’re kind of just appropriating this culture that you virtually know nothing about. In the pursuit of being respectful to our culture, research is a prerequisite. And that doesn’t mean just Googling, haha. These cultural “artifacts” aren’t symbols of a by-gone era as museums would suggest, they’re all wrapped up in the lived experiences of our indigenous peoples, our city-dwellers, and the diaspora.

What are you hoping to achieve with something like Penlab? What role do you hope it would play in the komiks scene and for Filipino creatives in general?

Mercado: Democratizing the medium is something we always talk about. When you put all kinds of Pinoy komiks in one place, it’s fair game. Nobody can dictate what Pinoy komiks should be about. We still do curate to ensure it’s quality content, but Penlab is open to all sorts of styles, from Filipino creators all over the world.

Giving new works the opportunity to be discovered and encouraging more people to create are also some of our goals. We hope that as Penlab grows, the community also grows even further with us.

Arcega: Our goal is really simple, we just want to give Filipino komiks a digital home. We want to be able to create a space for readers and creators to come together, no matter their preferences and backgrounds. Democratization and accessibility are important to us, because this is one of the biggest ways that the community can grow beyond what we see it to be. I think everyone’s got this dream in one way or another, but we’re trying to take the steps towards that.

We’re also hoping to motivate more people to create more komiks. A lot of people say that komiks are dead, and Penlab’s library hopes to refute any notion of the kind. We’re living proof that the medium has always been there, is there, and will be there for years to come.

Various komiks titles can be read and viewed on Penlab here. Komiks creators can also apply to apply to be hosted on the platform. Kalabaw Kolektib’s work can also be followed here.

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things.