‘Dead Balagtas’ represents a seismic achievement in comic book storytelling

The universe began with a lover’s quarrel.

So goes the story of Tungkung Langit and Laon-Sina, a Visayan creation myth in which the birth of the world is instigated by a god’s plea to bring his scorned lover back into his arms. In the throes of his loneliness after driving his lover away, Tungkung Langit creates the earth, endows it with life, casts Laon-Sina’s jewellery into the sky to make the sun, moon and stars, hoping the sight of his work might prompt her return. A broken heart instills order upon the chaos of creation.

The story does what a good creation myth does — explain the nature of the universe with all-too-human experiences. In this case: love, anger, jealousy, loneliness, heartbreak —  the works. Emiliana Kampilan, the writer and artist behind the comic series ‘Dead Balagtas’, certainly knows this, having adapted the story in bold, vivid colors and inventive paneling in her graphic novel Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Ang Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa to stunning effect. Though in order to understand the genius behind her retelling, we need to backtrack a bit.

Distances makes the heart: In the second story of the graphic novel, two childhood friends who bond over video games eventually drift apart over time. | Photo courtesy of Adarna Publishing

Part of the joy of reading ‘Dead Balagtas,’ a series of comics about Philippine history that Kampilan has been putting out since as far back as 2014, is how approachable it makes its subject matter. You might have seen her comics going around on Facebook or Tumblr — stories that imagine famous historical situations in fun, silly situations referencing modern pop culture to deepen our understanding of where we come from. (Not dissimilar to what Kate Beaton does for Hark! A Vagrant.) In one comic, Marcela de Agoncillo creates a version of the Philippine flag bearing the image of Pusheen. In another, General Luna references Frozen.

But with her graphic novel, Kampilan’s approach is a little different. It takes a heart-wrenching creation myth on the creation of reality-as-we-know-it, then allows it to bleed out into stories of, not iconic historical figures, but the kinds of people we encounter everyday..

What comes after the tale of Tungkung Langit and Laon-Sina are three narratives, each pertaining to a specific form of love or human relationship. The first story that comes up right after the myth follows the lives of two childhood friends who slowly drift apart due to differing interests and priorities, their friendship likened to the shifting of tectonic plates. In the next, two gay men — one a Catholic contractual employee and the other a Muslim man working in stocks, find love and common ground in their shared experiences as gay men. In the last story, two women do their best to make a romantic relationship work despite the perils of capitalism.

Labor of love: The last story partially follows a woman named Anais, who encounters taking care of herself and the people she cares about. | Photo courtesy of Adarna Publishing

Each story is accompanied by footnotes explaining natural phenomena, such as magma convections currents and the cracking open of ocean trenches. This is why it’s so brilliant that ‘Dead Balagtas’ begins with an emotionally driven creation myth. The myth sets the thematic grounding of the rest of the book: the human drama of everyday living, of love and loss, the foibles that come with being social creatures, are as monumental and significant as the processes of creation and destruction and renewal that define our natural reality. The distance between two people is as great as the distance between continents. The encounter and union of two strangers is as powerful as waves crashing into each other.

 

The myth sets the thematic grounding of the rest of the book: the human drama of everyday living, of love and loss, the foibles that come with being social creatures, are as monumental and significant as the processes of creation and destruction and renewal that define our natural reality.

 

That we love, that we hurt — these are experiences part and parcel of the greater natural order. It is the dance of land and sea, the fantastic order of the elements, that make us human, that make us Filipino, that make us great.

Ang Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa presents a viewpoint of Philippine history that proposes that the people around are just as important as the historical figures we read about in history textbooks. This book made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me feel cosmically important. How lucky we are, to be living in this place called the Pearl of the Orient. And how lucky we are, that Emiliana Kampilan, and ‘Dead Balagtas,’ exist.

 

Grade: A+

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