Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Case for Pol Medina as National Artist

I once asked the President of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Mr. Nestor O. Jardin, during a lecture in the office, as to what are the chances of Pol Medina, Jr., creator of the "Pugad Baboy" series, to become a National Artist of the Philippines. I remember his answer was that it has not yet been clearly defined what form of art a cartoon is and that there has yet to be a serious push for the candidacy of Mr. Medina. In asking this, I was not only asking about the chances of the Pugad Baboy creator but also the chances of the cartooning greats that have preceded him.

I have the highest respect for Filipino cartoonists. I don't just dismiss this them as cartoonists who make drawings to make people laugh. People like Larry Alcala, Nonoy Marcelo, and Pol Medina are artists of the highest order.

Sure, they make you laugh with their drawings just like any ordinary joker from the street corner would, but that would be like saying the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello are just ordinary actors.

Messrs. Alcala, Marcelo, and Medina have made a giant impact on the social, political, and cultural psyche of the Filipino nation with their cartoons. Heck, I blame Pol Medina for opening my mind to Philippine politics when I started reading Pugad Baboy as an 11-year old kid.

I learned about the very ills of Philippine society from reading about the stories of his overweight community. From the kotong cops, pork barrel politicians, scheming businessmen, sensationalistic local television, Pol Medina illustrated them and showed how then can ruin our everyday living. But he did more than just gripe. He exposed these corrupt parts of society in order for Filipinos to understand what is happening and lash out against these people by turning them in the butt of jokes.

More importantly, Pugad Baboy showed the best qualities that Filipinos have: the capacity to laugh at our shortcomings as nation (poverty, rampant corruption in government, inadequate infrastructure and social services), to see the best in everything no matter what fate has brought our way (yes, the great rich-poor divide exists but life goes on), the strong sense of family and community (even in the age of CNN, Google, and the iPhone), the unshakeable belief that Filipino talent is not just world-class but a world-beater, and the undying romantic notion that tomorrow will always bring a better life.

Of course Pugad Baboy only gives a person a "cliff notes" understanding of the more complex way of life in the country but this is enough to push you to study more about it and move on to more nuanced academic works. I eventually went to a university and took up Political Science and now work for the government. I still can't help but think about the people of Pugad Baboy from time to time. OFWs = Kules. Military = Tomas. Politicians = Sen. Cabalfin. Students = Tiny. Police = SPO1 Durugas. And so on. But I have to admit, sometimes I think, "what would the folks of PB do?"

The "Slice of Life" cartoons of Mr. Larry Alcala, artworks that are set in various places, during different times or events, showing people from all walks of life interacting, are outputs of an artistic genius. I remember looking at them as a kid in magazines and different advertisement and I could just study it for hours. It was never a generic piece of drawing. Each work was a festival in itself and each depiction of an action had a life all its own. You try to understand it and you figure out that he is the one artist who knew how to draw the soul of the Philippines. Each drawing are of something that a Filipino would do or something that might happen to him. The whole picture is like one of those finest Swiss clocks that have hundreds or thousands of pieces but once turned on works so smoothly.

"Mang Ambo," on the other hand, focuses on the simplicity in living of the Filipino. The series starred the titular character as he interacted with his neighbors in the barrio. The neighbors he had were exactly what a normal Pinoy, whether living in the province or the city, would encounter. Through Mang Ambo, Mr. Alcala shows us that the local wisdom we have are still relevant and can cope up with the problems of today. Through Mang Ambo's gentle Filipino charm and wit, he tries to solve the problems of modern living whether they be complex or mundane.

I have a soft spot for Mr. Nonoy Marcelo. We went to the same university (Far Eastern University), studied in the same college (Institute of Arts and Sciences), and were members of the same student newspaper (The Advocate, where he was once a cartoonist and where I was once the Managing Editor); although we were enrolled 50 years apart. His character "Ikabod" was an anthropomorphic mouse who lived in a place that represented the Philippines and encountered problems similar to what we have in the country. Take note that he invented Ikabod around the same time that Art Spiegelman created "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," which is considered one of the best graphic novels of all-time. It would be sad if we can't bestow honor to Mr. Marcelo comparative to that given by the United States to Mr. Spiegelman.

Aristotle once remarked that Man is the only animal that laughs. Scientifically it's not true. But there is deeper wisdom in that observation, which is expected from the greatest of the Greek philosophers. Man laughs because he understands. He knows that there is a natural order of things. But the natural order often becomes flawed and corrupted. His intrinsic instinct is to say that this a flawed order cannot exist because it is not the way of nature. But it does exist and so humor is born to help the mind process, understand, and accept this form of reality. And from humor comes the start of the mind's work to find a solution to make right the order of things.

Humor makes Man and the men who bring intelligent humor to the people elevate the greatness of Humanity as equally as the great philosophers, academicians, and artists do. This is why cartoonists are a very vital part of the world of art. And this is why Mr. Larry Alcala, Mr. Nonoy Marcelo, and Mr. Pol Medina Jr. deserve to be national artists.

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