A 'Class' of its Own
by Ruel S. de Vera
(February 7, 2000 - www.inquirer.net)

Filipino comics achieves maturity with the extraordinary supernatural series 'The Mystery Class'

COMIC books have always had a special place in Filipino society, leaving an imprint on Pinoys as they grow up. This cultural significance has resulted in a diverse lot, ranging from Mars Ravelo's innovative komiks stories to the seminal tales in the serial Funny Komiks. But recently, younger artists have tried to merge Filipino sensibility with a Western-style art form: the American comic book/graphic novel.

Several groups have sprung up to foster this development. Alamat Comics has made persevering contributions for five years now. The results have ranged from the no-holds-barred catharsis of Gerry Alanguilan's ultraviolent "Wasted" to the whimsical hijinks of Marco Dimaano's "Angel Ace." Making serious waves internationally is noted comics creator Whilce Portacio's Avalon Studios, which is distributed through its mother company Image Comics. Avalon has notably produced the series "Stone," which adapts some Filipino mythos to slam-bang action and glossy, Western-style art.

Melding of forms

What appears to be the most extraordinary effort to meld Pinoy and Western forms together has finally arrived in Alamat Comics' "The Mythology Class," a four-issue limited series from UP Fine Arts grad Arnold Arre. The series has received critical praise for its unique take on Pinoy mythos, and its final issue, "The Mythology Class," consolidates the critical approbation.

In the near future, the largest mall is being built in the Philippines but the battle between good and evil continues. Bantugen's wife Datimbang embarks on a mission to recover all of the escaped enkantos and decides to recruit a new band of volunteers to help her. She recruits them under the guise of teaching a class as Mrs. Enkanta, hence the series' title.

A quaint bunch of characters, led by starry-eyed mythology fan Nicole, makes up the new Mythology Class. There are psychics and tech guys, fat funny guys and good-looking college kids. Combining magic and technology, they quickly round up the enkantos. But a rowdy group of frat boys accidentally releases bloodthirsty Aswangs, who hatch a plan to trap the good guys and gather more... food. The plan, of course, involves the mall.

Arre's art is quirky and impressive. The black-and-white panels combine an almost Manga-like sensibility with a caricaturist's sense of character. Each character in "The Mythology Class" is a standout, but none upstages the protagonist Nicole. Her snub-nosed cuteness is quite refreshing, though her anime-style curves are still a tad over-the-top. Most impressively crafted is the tattooed half-horse, half-man spirit Lusyo. You have to see it to appreciate it.


Furthermore, Arre's characters are sincerely appealing, ranging from the immortals, who will learn to appreciate these modern times, and the class members, who will, of course, discover their inner strengths through the important mission. Original witty touches abound, including a truly tiny, ambivalent Nuno sa Punso who will play an important role in the happenings. The Aswangs, as in classic Pinoy folklore, can transform into dogs, even cutesy puppies that pack a deadly secret. The only drawback here is that there are too many characters crammed in just four issues.

However, Arre knows how to pace his scenes within every issue, from the funny dialogue-oriented frames to the fast-paced action sequences. And like many good comic books, "The Mythology Class" starts off a little sluggishly with a text-heavy first issue, what with the immense amount of exposition necessary to explain the premise. The third issue is the most dramatic, giving that eerie "what-do-we-do-now" feeling that great cliffhangers have. Everything is wrapped up in a thorough and satisfying manner with the final issue. All the issues also feature lovely colored cover art by Arre.

Beyond that, as several writers have previously noted, it is the combination of GenX-style angst and adventure with the multi-dimensional battle between good and evil that makes "The Mythology Class" special. It is the seamlessness, the ease with which the series puts together magic and barkada gimmicks, that give "The Mythology Class" the feel of one of those deep daydreams during socioanthropology classes.

That "The Mythology Class" runs with a perfectly natural blend of Filipino and English dialogue again exemplifies what Arre has accomplished: updating traditional Filipino myths for today's audience and situating them in the 21st century. Arre gets the milieu right: a radio call-in show featuring a "Miss Zarffa," computers, junk food, scenes at the Oblation, thesis defenses, the works.

With a nod to the work that inspired his own (the third issue is dedicated to folklorist Maximo Ramos) and a fun, solid artistic vision all his own, Arnold Arre has produced the kind of comic book other people only dream of: one that's substantial, entertaining and still joyfully original. "The Mythology Class" is a wild ride that brings a new generation of readers to the powerful world of Filipino mythology. Hop on this tikbalang's back and hang on.

"The Mythology Class" is available at all Comic Quest branches