The last time I met Tony…

Author’s note: I originally intended this piece to be published in one of my online news portals. Unfortunately, due to what turned out to be a faulty email address, I thought that it would never see the light of day.

 

The piece is timely in the light of recent events.

 

Up on the roof: Vinyl+Splash

What limited experience I have had of comic conventions was of huge crowds and long lines to get in. Sometimes, there were clusters of costumed people. It would be a struggle to meet the big comic book stars, whoever the organizers could bring in, and one would be lucky if they had a few words with the said person amidst a veritable mob. (Of course, I admit I am not a collector, so it was not necessarily a concern for me.) That was until two Saturdays ago.

The partners running the Vinyl on Vinyl space in Makati told me about what looked to be a promising crossover event. The space is well known for selling vinyl collector toys, but there was a certain comic book artist, Tony de Zuniga, who came to town some time ago and had a show at Vinyl. He is known for his Jonah Hex comics, and he is a veteran of the American comics world. When I spoke to him at the event, he said that the way he started in the business was this: “It’s called luck. I was doing a lot of educational book [illustrations] in New York and I met this editor named Joe Orlando. He’s a great editor.” Orlando, an illustrator and editor, was the associate publisher of satirical magazine Mad and head of DC Comics’ Special Projects division, and he gave de Zuniga a chance, one trial comic at a time. De Zuniga has worked for about 30 years in the comics world, and the work of which he is most proud was a book of illustrated short stories called The House of Secrets, published back in the 1970s.

 

Two generations: comic book artist Mark Torres gives a copy of one of his books to the late Tony deZuniga.

He told me these things at Vinyl+Splash Artists’ Convention, the first of its kind in Manila. It was held on 25 November 2011 at the Top Shelf events venue. Hosted by Fully Booked High Street, the event was a collaboration between Vinyl on Vinyl, Comic Odyssey (itself a venerable comic book establishment), and Red Monkey. The World Food Programme was the chief beneficiary of this event. While it was at one of the more prestigious bookstores in town, its owner and managing director Jaime Daez credits both his graphic designer Lorraine Menez-Obusan, and someone we will hear more from in a bit. “Francis Dayao was the guy who pretty much formulated the whole event,” he says, “and got all of us to do something special for the local market.” Daez is a comics collector, and his office at High Street is decorated with comic book art from artists both here and abroad. “I guess it was more of the business savvy that I learned during those early years [as a collector] that was my initiation into the world of selling books,” he adds, reminiscing about his mother’s shock that a collection she thought was a waste of money was actually a good investment. (Incidentally, Daez announced that James Jean, a notable Taiwanese-American visual artist and comic illustrator, will be returning to Manila in January.)

The name alone shows where the emphasis lies. Unlike other comic-related events, this was a time for the stars to shine. In an intimate venue, one side of the room featured the largest gathering yet of the country’s best comic book illustrators. Eisner Award nominee Gerry Alanguilan (Elmer) was in the same room as Leinil Yu, who did the Superman comics for DC, among others. “One of the main things we want to do with the event,” Daez says, “is to give greater exposure to the local talent.” And Francis Dayao, the event’s chief organizer, says that it all started with a half-meant joke: “We’ve seen how comic book artists were treated abroad. So why don’t we come up with something where they are a star, where they felt comfortable?” Then it turned serious. Getting them into one room so they could showcase themselves and their art. And then tying up with one of the United Nations’ workhorse specialized agencies, thanks to his day job working with photographer Mark Nicdao and a good friendship with one of WFP’s celebrity advocates, a certain KC Concepcion.

 

Right across from the comic book stars were local stars of a very different scene. From their large lair at the rear of the Collective on Malugay Street, Vinyl on Vinyl’s people brought on comic-inspired art from a very diverse group of people. Nico Puertollano and Marcushiro Nada, both graphic designers, shared space with Sarah Gaugler, tattoo artist and one-half of the duo Turbo Goth, and Vinyl’s own good artist friends Gabby Tiongson, Dex Fernandez, and Froilan Calayag. However, I met someone I knew who had extensive involvement in the small vinyl/designer toy circle. JP Cuison has worked both with Vinyl and with the other vinyl establishment in town, Secret Fresh, descendant of the first vinyl designer toy store here, Fresh Manila. On display was his own contribution to the local comic book scene, the independently produced, satirical and very much unwholesome Punxx Comics. “I wanted to do this as a tribute to [the local moralistic comic book series] Funny Comics,” he says, “and back then I wanted to do comics. I’m a frustrated comic book artist.” That day, he showed me a sketch of the next Meiday event poster, and it was a homage to another legendary comic strip, Peanuts, whose first Christmas TV special remains a classic of the genre. An advertiser by trade, he says that the disciplines of advertising carry over to his work making gig posters. And in one case, he made a gig poster for an advertising account.

The designer toy scene which Vinyl on Vinyl represents here started in Hong Kong but moved on to the US, and the first Filipino stars on the scene were the people behind Rotobox, brothers Stephen and Spencer Ong. Their childhood love for anime, comics, and video games, especially the Japanese robot anime genre, was what inspired their robot-like toys. It was when one of the brothers was inquiring about a toy from a company in the US that they got their lucky break. The company ended up inquiring about them after seeing what they could do. In 2009, the Gunmetal Celsius toy was released at the San Diego Comic Convention, the most prestigious event of its kind. For the event, they designed customized Rotobox figures of comic book characters such as Marvel’s Avengers. About these, brothers told me, “It’s a challenge, but it’s fun. We find challenges fun.”

Another visitor to the 2009 San Diego Comic Convention was Gaby de la Merced. I spoke her on the Tuesday after the event, at the Vinyl on Vinyl space. On display was a live art piece, one of two which were sold at auction that night for the World Food Programme. This was done by Vinyl’s group, and the other (which, in completed form, I was unable to see) featured contributions from the comic book stars. “It’s [becoming] more understood now that designer toy art is totally different from mainstream toys,” de la Merced said, citing the changes in peoples’ attitude since Vinyl, and later Secret Fresh, opened. She noted the differences in approach between comics and designer toys. “With comics, it’s really small, it’s the intricacy [that you notice], and the detail…with ours, it’s loud and it’s vibrant.” Saying that the interaction between the two sides of the room was quite vibrant and evident, she said, “Who knows? There might be a whole new community coming out of this.”

“The place was packed, the quality of the people who came [was good],” de la Merced reminded me, “and most people stayed from the morning till night…and that vibe is what we are looking for.” It was a totally different atmosphere from comic conventions she attended, she said. She noted that the WFP earned far more from this event than was originally expected. As for the future, she noted, “definitely it will be something different.” For de la Merced, that Saturday up on the roof of Fully Booked was “a historic event, a new chapter on both sides of [the comic and vinyl scenes], and the start of something new.”

 

Since this piece was published, James Jean did come to Manila, and Tony deZuniga died of a stroke at the age of 79 last 11 May 2012. This was the last time I met him.

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