Pinoy komiks is alive and kicking with Dead Balagtas

MANILA, Philippines – The first few pages alone of komikera Emiliana Kampilan’s Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa will take your breath away. Depicting local mythology’s creation of the universe, each page is a luscious spread of lively lines and bold colors. The attention to detail and mastery of each element leaves you awestruck, and while you can’t imagine how the rest of the book can get any better, it does. 

The next chapters are a narrative feat, interspersing short stories between pairs of Filipinos and the geological birth of the nation. The tangled tales between each pair of characters serve to personify the actual physical shifts that occurred in our geography millennia ago: when two friends drift apart, the Philippines’ original, ancient land mass cracks apart and drifts farther and farther away; when the crowd inside an MRT spreads out and gives way to two men making their first, heated exchange, the Philippine sea plate spreads; when two women share their first kiss, they depict the geological event called the Palawan Uplift, etc.

It’s the most artistic science lesson you’ll ever read. 

But, yet again, this creative, sharply-researched double narrative is just one of many other amazing aspects of the book. The actual stories between the pairs of characters are compelling and important in and of themselves, especially as they capture all manner of key issues, from labor to religion to gender.

It is the deft use of queer love stories that is probably the most memorable, as they do not tokenize the characters and their conflicts. They are presented as stories between two equal individuals, emphasizing that the Filipino experience occurs among all kinds of people: men and women who come from different backgrounds, adhere to different mindsets, pursue different goals, and feel love in different ways.

You can’t help but be overwhelmed after finishing this book. It boggles the mind how well one author-illustrator can talk about so many enormous topics so deftly. Interestingly enough, Kampilan, whose shorter comics pieces already have a cult following, chooses to keep her true identity a secret; she appears in public wearing a bayong mask and camisa de chino.

Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa is so many things all at once: an ode to the Filipino and her many, many struggles; an absolutely gorgeous geography lesson; and a sincere exploration of love. Despite the name, Dead Balagtas is very clearly a book on life.

The book will be launched on January 21 at 2 PM, at Fully Booked, Bonifacio Global City. -

Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Opinion section, and is (happily) wrangled into voice over and hosting work. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for 6 years. She is also a fictionist.