The Filipino Komiks as Subversive Medium?

In the essay “The Structure of Meaning the Komiks,” Soledad Reyes presents mainstream commercial comics in the Philippines from its beginnings up to the late 1970s as an oppositional and subversive medium.[1] After going over the different trends and structures that pervade the comic genre in this historical period, Reyes concludes that the genre can be liberating for its readers by depicting “what has remained suppressed in life.”[2] Eschewing the line followed by the Frankfurt School about mass-produced culture, the drawback of “escapism” is dismissed by Reyes. For Reyes, it is in fact this element that makes the comic genre inherently resistant to an oppressive and unjust system. Escapism subverts present-day lived reality by offering a fantastic world that is “diametrically opposed to the world of oppression and injustice.”[3]

However, this turnaround does not allay the charges against escapism for it is precisely in the offering of this fantastic world that the comics’ readers are diverted from the real problems confronting them in their everyday lives. Escapism works primarily by diffusing the people’s discontent and redirects their attention into an imaginary world. “Entertainment is the prolongation of work under late capitalism. It is sought by those who want to escape the mechanized labor process so that they can cope with it again.”[4] The readers are thus barred from a concrete analysis of their real conditions and are shooed away from a collective response to the social ills afflicting them. All escapist art and literature, the comics included, in short thus functions as a “common mass  culture  safety valve  necessary  for a  society  in  need  of  recreation  and  fantasy  to  maintain  its  mental  and physical health.”[5]

But let us for a while grant Reyes’ proposition that the comics is not really escapist since the fantastic world it projects, while not completely mirroring social realities as they are lived, nevertheless depicts these realities in a hyperbolic manner. Let us for a moment agree with Reyes that the comics presents “That which society would rather not talk about openly and would rather sweep under the rug – such realities as violence, injustice, exploitation, usurpation of power, untramelled sex…”[6] Even then, the comics as a commodified genre still serves to reinforce and legitimize the ruling system in the very way it approaches these social realities. It must be stressed that the depiction of unwanted social issues does not automatically lead to subversion. The comics Reyes enumerates do give the reader “a heightened awareness that [social realities] may still be transformed.”[7] But how exactly are these social ills and injustices approached in the texts? The magical and fantastic resolutions in these narratives still lead the readers away from a relevant confrontation of the social problems that affect them. The predominance of superhero and vigilante-like narratives likewise lead readers astray and derail them from forming a strong resolve to unite for their democratic rights and interests. Social problems such as government corruption, massive poverty, inequality in the distribution of wealth, blatant human rights abuses, domination of foreign monopolies in the local economy at the expense of the poor are rooted in social structures of continuing neocolonial rule and feudal exploitation. The only solution is a consciously collective one. The mainstream comics, instead trains its readers to become individualists. Behind it “lies the whole concept of contemporary mass culture, which is based on the principle that only entertainment can liberate humankind from the social anxiety and conflict in which it is submerged.”[8]

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We thus arrive at a consideration of the fundamental flaw in Reyes’ analysis. Her answer to the question as to “immense popularity of the komiks”[9] fails to contextualize the medium in the light of Philippine socio-historical realities that is by and large overdetermined by foreign monopoly capital control of culture, language, and the production of knowledge. Reyes instead reverts to a self-confessed ahistorical stance that approaches the comics as a self-contained genre that is popular simply because it is read by the masses. For Reyes, it is essentially popular because of the way it gives form or encapsulates the people’s goals, aspirations, and desires through the images it presents. What this kind of analysis forgets is the fact that the comic genre as it is today, or to be more specific, the mainstream comics as a commercial commodity is itself an assembly line, a factory for the production of our conscious and unconscious desires: it “manipulates individuality so successfully because the fractured nature of society has always been reproduced within it.”[10] What Reyes thus misses out is this: the comics are popular not merely because the masses respond to it with gusto. The comics are popular because it is produced, marketed, and distributed by the culture industry. The commercialized comics thus “do as it chooses with the needs of consumers – producing, controlling, disciplining them.”[11]

The comics in themselves are not inherently oppositional. Popular literature like comics could either oppose the system and the dominant ideology or more likely reinforce and legitimize the unjust status quo. Most of the time, these only offers “to contemporary man, in his constant need to visualize the reality about him, the means of feeding on his own problems without having to encounter all the difficulties of form and content presented by the modern art and literature of the elite.”[12] Comics can attain a subversive value if they consciously criticize the present system and encourage its readers to rise up collectively for their welfare. Otherwise, it would remain, in the words of Reyes herself, “a systematic conspiracy to deaden the reader’s sensibility, and to make him/her believe that everything is all right in the world.”[13]

Notes

1. A timeframe that unfortunately excludes Apolonio Medina, Jr’s Pugad Baboy and other more recent Filipino comics with a more subversive edge.

2. Soledad Reyes, “The Structure of Meaning in the Komiks,” in The Romance Mode in Philippine Popular Literature and Other Essays (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1991), 270.

3. Ibid.

4. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Media and Culture Studies: Key Works, Revised Edition, Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 52.

5. Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, Fourth Edition (Hungary: I.G. Editions, 1991), 43.

6. Reyes, “The Structure of Meaning in the Komiks,” 269.

7. Ibid, 270.

8. Dorfman and Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck, 76.

9. Reyes, “The Structure of Meaning in the Komiks,” 268.

10. Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry,” 64.

11. Ibid, 56.

12. Dorfman and Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck, 31.

13. Reyes, “The Structure of Meaning in the Komiks,” 268.

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