Reading ELMER, the latest opus of Filipino cartoonist Gerry Alanguilan makes apparent how much he is rooted in old-school comics storytelling. His character renditions and particular attention to detail looks like something that compare with the best black and white independent comics. The dark fantasy elements, creeping sense of dread, and punctuated violence, are descended from American comic book's pulp traditions. Even Alanguilan's religious adherence to the nine panel grid structure and heavy use of first person textual narration makes ELMER appear very traditional when compared to contemporaneous efforts.
If Alanguilan's sensibilities seem a bit retrograde, they are not there to draw attention to themselves but to serve the story that he's interested in communicating. In this regard he succeeds in telling a deeply felt and humane narrative. If one takes the premise of recently sentient chickens living amongst humans literally, then certain aspects of Alanguilan's world-building rests on shaky ground. For example, the chicken population's preference to integrate into human society rather than seeking to build their own autonomous culture is an unrealistic representation of real world international relations. But ELMER goes out of its way to avoid specific political allegory. Nor does it show any interest in addressing the science fiction underpinnings of its own premise. Human and chicken sentience are simply presumed to be similar despite their physiological differences. Instead, the human-chicken conflict functions more as a general metaphor for the way people fear what they don't understand and as a source of paranoia for protagonist Jake Gallo. Like most malcontents he's willing to blame outside circumstances, which in his case is a perceived human prejudice against him as a chicken. Jake and his siblings are summoned to take care of their dying father Elmer. His views undergo a change after learning more about his father's mysterious past and his friendship with a farmer called Ben.
While the comic is meant to be inclusive, Alanguilan taps into his own cultural background for raw material. Many rural people in Southeast Asia in general, and the Philippines in particular, live in close proximity to chickens and other farm animals. But the fighting rooster also plays an important part in Filipino iconography. During the early period of their sentience, some chickens use their cockfighting prowess to terrorize humans. The brutality of these attacks only exacerbates the war between the two species. One doomed character is described in admiring terms by his fellow chickens because of his exemplary sabong performance. ELMER doesn't use the chickens as a stand-in for any particular group. But on some level it plays with the fear of being overthrown by the things we subjugate. Alanguilan's chickens are drawn with far more grace than his stiff-looking humans. But even they pale into insignificance when compared to the richly detailed Filipino landscapes. This could be the influence of my own memories, but there's a sense of nostalgia that permeates ELMER's provincial setting which feels derived from Alanguilan's real life. But any preconceptions of pastoral innocence are violently subverted by the terror of many thousands of suddenly self-aware chickens being led to their deaths.
There is are sentimental and cliched aspects to the domestic drama that threaten to derail the whole narrative as the personal revelations start to accumulate. But ELMER is counterbalanced by many nice little character touches. Chickens have their own standards of beauty as well as a sense of modesty. What seems like one normal looking chicken to the reader is quickly reprimanded for being naked in front of others. They also have varying ethical attitudes. When two chickens taste pork for the first time, one reacts with quiet gusto while another is horrified to having eaten another farm animal. I like how most panels are drawn from a chicken's point of view, so that a sudden human appearance, even a friendly one, can seem quite ominous.
it's a shame that more people won't be exposed to ELMER because of the issues I've mentioned before. This is a work deserving of wider recognition from a creator who's learned to bend the conventions surrounding his craft to tell an intimate story that I think many would appreciate. But Gerry Alanguilan has chosen to work with a threatened species, the Filipino comic book pamphlet.
This is the first review based on copies purchased at the Metro Comic Con. I'll be slowly going through my small pile of komiks in future posts. In the meantime I've been posting pictures at the photo-blog from the con starting with this entry.