By TILDE ACUÑA
One of the highlights of the Philippine International Comics Online Festival (PICOF) 2021 last September is the launch of 10 Years To Save The World, “creative commissions in response to climate change and COP26.” The 26th United Nations Climate Change conference will soon be held in the UK on October 31 to November 12.
During last September 25’s PICOF panel, artists and writers discussed how they grappled with the anthology’s subject matter: comics from the Philippines usually set the stories in coastal areas, while those from the UK happen inland; an interesting but purely coincidental thematic concern for water and earth, respectively – as observed by the anthology’s editors.
Let us get some UK comics out of the way, to give the necessary attention to Philippine entries (warning: spoilers might be ahead): In introducing her series of comic strips, Clarice Tudor stated that the Fat Cat “represents Boris and Buckells’ brand of corruption disguised as incompetence”, a counterpoint to the UK prime minister’s prefacing of the COP26 primer. Sayra Begum, through the monologue of an endangered Uakari monkey, incriminates the cattle industry in the Amazon deforestation. Though the primate implicates Bolsonaro and the banks that finance food corporations, it also guilt-trips people “doing the dirty work for the rich”; despite its judgment that people do it out of “ignorance or desperation”, it believed that “they still choose to destroy protected land […] for profit” (emphasis mine). The comics called for “zero deforestation in your supply chain and from your banks”, to “[h]old all of them to account”, and to “eat less meat.” Zoom Rockman’s live action puppet animation is deliberately annoying, as the artist himself admitted, with Greta and a plastic-strawed turtle singing about the topic.
To varying degrees, Begum’s and Rockman’s work advocate for individual efforts, in the hopes of having a societal impact—a similar tendency apparent in Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s entry: “The Siren’s Executioner” starts with a one-sentence synopsis about the Trese franchise and proceeds with eponymous Trese’s forensic investigation, a somewhat psychic autopsy of the sirena Dyksona—only to find out that the cause of her demise was not her fierce, death-defying encounters with other sea creatures but microplastics that disrupted her digestive system, making her too weak to deflect enemies. By page six, the eight-page comics later brought the boy Ariel into the picture; Trese promised to help him solve the mysterious death of his friend Dyksona. Ariel told his sob story from page six to seven: a life of poverty with a drunkard for a father, who makes him throw out trash into the water—his treasured moment of peace away from home that prompted his friendship with Dyksona. Trese fulfilled her promise to the boy, with her conclusive sentence: “…she didn’t have to die. Not because of some stupid chore.”
As reliable contact of “good cop” Captain Guerrero, cocksure Trese – true to her character as a police of the criminal underworld or maybe a supernatural law enforcer – reprimands Ariel, a child. No attempts at debriefing him of the structural complexities of microplastic poisoning and water pollution. More than blaming individual misdeeds, especially those committed by deprived sectors (like people hired by big business in Begum’s), shouldn’t institutions and corporations take more responsibility?
Jack Teagle’s “You Can’t Take It With You” illustrates (in many senses of the word) greenwashing in the marketing / advertising / rebranding of single use plastics. Teagle saw the bigger picture, as Manix Abrera’s “Sound of Silence” did, though imprecise because silent comics, hence this disclaimer: For convenience’s sake, let’s assume his protagonist is a he/him, to lessen the slashes; we’re not provided with critical information of his/her/their preferred pronouns. After many failed attempts at catching fish, the fisherman was later washed away by a wave of industrial wastes. Then, he sent a letter to a gender-neutral person of authority and expressed frustration (expressed by question marks and exclamation points), only to be a subject of a social media post that went viral enough to be noticed by the authorities; these authorities later knocked on his door (a la tokhang), and dragged him into someplace, his whereabouts unknown. Only his hat was seen ashore by mutant fish that he tried to catch earlier.
The two most remarkable works next to Emiliana Kampilan’s “Climate Action” are Ren Galeno’s “I pray you are born with gills” and Kevin Eric Raymundo’s “Wild Wild West Philippine Sea.”
I find Galeno’s story more poignant than Abrera’s, which has something to do less with the quality of storytelling than with the relative intimacy of the story. We observe Abrera’s featureless fisherman—only distinguishable by what remained of his character until the end: his hat—from afar; not just alienated from his work, he is also obscured from readers. We are mere voyeurs like the fisherman’s social media snitches for neighbors with no means of further understanding his struggles. Galeno’s comics zooms in and out, advances temporally and returns to the moment of the expecting mom, who would rather have a mutant child—perhaps a “different” post-human with higher chances of surviving drastic shifts in the climate?
Abrera’s and Galeno’s stir emotion and explore aspects of being (and becoming?) human, while Raymundo’s is more straightforward and informative: Consulting AGHAM – Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, his well-researched piece tackled environmental impacts of territorial transgressions of China into Philippine waters. However, the penultimate page stating that “…now we are experiencing the effects of our neglect” misses the chance to hold the authorities responsible—something that Tudor, Begum, and Kampilan resolutely identified: heads of state, that often does the paper work and other necessary operations for trans- and multi-national corporations. Darren Cullen’s works (like Teagle) also mocked corporate greenwashing, but “Solar Tank” stands out in linking the climate crisis to fascism. Kampilan seemingly elaborated what Cullen insinuated: that the imperialist military industrial complex has been threatening life in various ways—from burning “forever chemicals” to terrorizing defenders of the environment. As if a mere extension of imperialism’s machinery, the publicly-funded Philippine military and police have notoriously been protecting foreign private interests, despite calls for emergency moratorium on climate risk projects.
Comics in the anthology complemented each other, revealing how different artists understand the climate emergency, or as in Raymundo’s comics, the shit we’re quick-sanding in. Some individual works, when read on their own, reproduce dominant discourses that dangerously put the blame on individual actors rather than systems of oppression managed by imperialists of “developed” countries and their comprador-landlord partners in “developing” ones. Much has been said about the futility of using metal or bamboo straws and other similar personal efforts to counter or reverse the detrimental environmental effects of corporate carbon emissions and industrial wastes and other large-scale pollutants.
If reading a comics page initially necessitates a “synthetic global vision” that logically zeroes in on details and “demands to be traversed, crossed, glanced at, and analytically deciphered” (Thiery Groensteen), then each comics of the anthology is indeed a “vision” of how to make a better world, despite impossible tasks such as demanding climate justice. Some visions are more myopic than others, some more comprehensive, hence more accurate and insightful. If each entry is treated as fragments of a whole, then the anthology might somehow salvage (not in the Filipino sense of the term) the world and be salvaged in return—as long as the naïve (and cruel) visions that fault the dispossessed are subordinated to ones that exhibit and extend compassion to the most vulnerable.
Interestingly, the Netflix-famous character with supernatural powers – the one who can investigate through her network that transcends worlds – couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) hound the culprits. Such is comparable to Superman’s image that circulated recently via social media. The man of steel joins a climate strike, which begs the question: Why would he join a rally, instead of using his powers to literally change the world and/or stop evil corporations? Probably because superheroes and other similar characters are created and owned by authors and corporate franchises with limited political imaginations. If Justice League would address real world problems, they ought to know its roots—but despite the team up, they haven’t dealt (or wouldn’t?) with imperialism. What more to expect from pinay™ girl boss Batman’s idea of climate justice—by pinning down kumareng sirena’s death to a poor helpless boy?