Poetic, Sci-Fi, Surrealistic Head Trip: Trip to Tagaytay
by Pepper Marcelo
(Localvibe.com, January 2001)
Sometimes, it takes a dystopian look at the future to prick our sensitivity to the present; within the imagination, the Future merely becomes a mirror for the concerns of the present. Pepper Marcelo writes about the sci-fi illustrated masterpiece of Arnold Arre, Trip to Tagaytay.
"Trip to Tagaytay" is writer-artist Arnold Arre's second work, following his highly successful and critically-acclaimed "Mythology Class", which bagged a 2000 Manila Critics Circle National Book Award. Whereas his initial limited series comic book focused strictly on a spiritually-inflected, fantasy-adventure story with indigenous cultural underpinnings, "Trip to Tagaytay" takes the opposite route, portraying Arre's highly personal vision of a futuristic Metropolitan Manila landscape. Taking place in the latter half of the 21st Century, this cityscape is filled with flying, "Akira-chromed", vehicles; vertically stretched industrial complexes crisscrossed with endless roads that twist and twine in all physically improbable directions; daring youth styles, which upon looking more closely, are not so different and shocking from our own trends; and most uniquely (though curiously not dealt with directly), a displaced lower class still immersed in poverty - left behind in the "gold rush" of humanity's socio-technological advancement. It is this last, more powerful aspect of "Trip to Tagaytay" that actually expresses a moral theme of social relevance, and acts as a type of "future-shock commentary" in relation to our own troubled times.
Our guide through this amusingly distinct, "Blade Runner-esque" third-world environment is a young, middle-class(?), nameless male protagonist (though obviously an Arre alter ego), whose perspectives and occasional, though listless, commentating evoke a feeling of overall apathy and malaise towards the city in which he resides. The only passion he does openly express (one could say unabashedly) is for his girlfriend, "Hyacynth" or "Cynth", a character who is only encountered through photographs. She seems to be little more than a device through which the character narrates his thoughts, which generally goes to the vital political and environmental events which have transpired in that century, giving the reader a historical bearing of time and place. No details are actually given as to their romance, to lend substance or emotional depth (Who is she? What does she mean to the protagonist other than he "misses" her?) for the audience to invest their own feelings and sympathy in, so his love comes across as trivial and adolescently simplistic. It is a shame, because in such a brutal-looking dystopia, Arre could have revealed a deeper, more humanistic side to the narrative, via the relationship with "Cynth". As it is, the supposed "story" itself is as one-dimensional and simplistic as the love portrayed; the protagonist is on his way from his home to a pre-planned getaway trip on a newly-constructed "ocean tunnel connecting Tagaytay to Cebu." It isn't revealed what his purpose is in making the trip, or what he's going to do when he gets there, or what, if anything, is his overall purpose in life (other than reuniting with his girlfriend).
Before the protagonist's "Trip to Tagaytay" takes place, however, he travels through the city and casually, almost blithely makes curt observations of a predominantly squalid Manila. Rather than creating a future too alien and unfamiliar, Arre took the temptation of concocting a future that pays homage to our present; Aga Muhlach is the president of the time, the E-heads are on a "reunion" tour, Nokia cell phones are sought-after antiques, and virtual-reality head trips, or "commercials" of glossed-over Philippine history, are sponsored by PLDT; these are just some of the cute details interspersed throughout the course of the book. Although littered with the latest gadgetry and immense advanced machinery, this "illusion of progress" can't mask the fact that most people are still living sub-human lives. Images such as a parent and child sleeping on newspapers, beggars with cups looking for handouts, weary merchants looking for a sucker to rip off, trash and debris strewn everywhere, and squatters and shantytowns which, unfortunately, remain all-too familiar even after so much "progress" has been made, are all graphically very impressive. It is the highly potent artwork - all in gritty, black and white - that makes "Trip" worthwhile. His visual style is reminiscent of the legendary underground graffiti artist/cartoonist Vaughn Bode, and not counting a few Japanese images littered here and there, is almost devoid of the unoriginal, manga-style rendering so popular these days in the local comic art scene.
But the curious question remains: why doesn't the character feel rage towards his society? Why does he subtly accept, not acknowledge, the conditions of his environment? Repulsively, the character simply feels sickened by the immense crowds and calls gang sub-groups "plagues", without any true moral awareness to question how or why this came to be in the first place. It is with that stroke, consciously or not, that Arre has created a real "future-shock" observation, which reflects on the apathy and indifference characterizing the youth of today. To many observers, most adolescents and young adults don't understand much of the societal injustices and inequalities occurring in our contemporary "modern" lifestyle, nor would most want to exert the effort to learn more and actually make a difference. All the youth care about is the improvement of their own personal/professional social strata, i.e. themselves (or as Jessica Zafra stated in a Newsweek article, "They want to be yuppies"). And perhaps, sad as it may seem, Arre's current work is an extension of that.
But "Trip to Tagaytay" isn't a propaganda piece to incite the literary masses, and neither is it, for the most part, a pretentious exercise in "pop culture-saturated" male angst. It's Arnold Arre's futuristic head-trip, and, though lacking slightly in narrative fundamentals, it is exceptionally deserving of praise, for it is one of the few truly "Filipino" comic books on the racks done with creative care, balls-out effort, and a unique voice which credibly captures the Filipino youth generation of today.
"Trip to Tagaytay", a one-shot comic book written and drawn by Arnold Arre; it costs P100, and is available at finer comic book shops nationwide. One can also take a look at the official website: http://trip.to/tagaytay.
About The Author
Pepper Marcelo is a freelance writer who specializes in press releases for a known firm.