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Tradition Through Modernity - The World of Tony Velasquez

A column article, Classic Comics Cavalcade by: Rommel Earl V. Digo
An exhibition on comics pioneer Tony Velasquez surveys how comics reflected the philippines transition from a traditionally closed nation to one that opened enthusiastically to western tastes
 
The early 20th century heralded a highly volatile and innovative period  in the Philippines. It was characterized by the country’;s embrace of an American style  urbanization which significantly change the fabric of society. This  was accompanied by  new concepts of communication as well as an upsurge in mass  or popular culture. In the visual arts, American modes of expression were adopted voraciously, while traditional Filipino culture was reevaluated.
 
This buoyant optimism for things American made its way into th3 pictorial images of the day. Mass produced graphics such as comics  promoted consumer items and factory products as glamorous as fashion accoutrements. The expression of individualism also  emerged in the visual arts.
 
It should surprise no one that the art of illustration affects us more directly  than the works of  the great masters held hostage in the museums. For illustration is, in sum and substance,  tied to the concerns of everyday life.  The more indelible images , for some  of us, were fixed somewhere  back in childhood.
 
Just as perplexing are the images of those langurous women in the reproductions of illustrator Maxfield Parrish ‘s much reproduced painting daybreak, hanging in the family parlor, enshrined above the sofa next to the new victrola, or those Parrish reproductions sold at the Philippine Education Company in 101-103 Escolta, as advertised in the Philippine Magazine in 1929.
 
In America during what has been called the Golden Age of illustration- that is, from the late nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century, major magazines, including Scribner’s, Collier’s, Hearst’s Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, The Century, and Liberty vied for the servbices of top notch illustrators such as Will H Bradley, Edward Penfield, and J C Leyendecker for smart cover designs and the illustrations for  stories and feature articles.
 
There was little that the art of illustration did not touch upon. the more persistent middle class dreams  and aspirations were its business, even in the Philippines. Topicality was its virtue; it illustrated the period as well as the product. It even made Hollywood accessible outside the movie house.
 
Some illustrations, were sentimental monuments of an era.  Others, like the familiar, folksy  Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post sold in the Philippine Education Company along Escolta , became part of the sociology of prewar youth, the icons of monthly visits to the barber shop or beauty parlor.
 
To read about the major illustrators of the period- is to be reminded of an age of relative affluence under American colonization that accomodated the idiosyncratic.
 
Antonio "Tony" Velasquez (29 October 1910 - 1997) is a Filipino illustrator regarded as the Father of Tagalog comics and as the pioneer and founding father of the Philippine comics industry. He was the creator of Kenkoy, an “iconic Philippine comic strip character”.
 
Velasquez was born in Ulilang Kawayan, Paco, Manila. He was the sixth child of a Pangasinense father, Eusebio Velasquez, and a Caviteña mother, Andrea Santos.
 
Velasquez studied at the Jose Rizal College. While a student at Jose Rizal College, Velasquez worked as a part-time illustrator for Banaag Press, a publishing company which later became known as Acme Printing in 1927 after being acquired by Ramon Roces, a Filipino-Spanish businessman and publisher. In 1928, Velasquez – together with script writer Romualdo Ramos – created Kenkoy, a “Filipino comic star” character that first appeared in the Tagalog-language Liwayway magazine on 11 January 1929.Kenkoy was to become the  “Philippine’s first true pop icon”.
 
These local comics which made fun of common foibles and reflected the fashions and concerns of the time were able to displace imported favorite such as Blondie  and Nancy and Sluggo. Manila Times featured such strips as Wrigley’s Graphic January 26 1929; J A Williams’ “Out our Way” – J a Williams 1929; Gene Ahern’s “Our Boarding House” - 1929; and Martin’s “Boots and her Buddies” – martin 1930
 
Contemporary popular novels followed from week to week  by avid readers  of Liwayway  magazine  were ideal materials for entertainment fare for mass consumption.
 
As print entertainment with their own following, these novels when transformed into movies  drew into the moviehouses readers interested in seeing their favorite characters turned into almost flesh and blood people moving   and talking on the screen.
 
Kenkoy was a comedic character who wore a baggy pair of pants, suspenders and charol shoes, and had “ironed” or flattened hair.
 
Even the covers of high end magazines of the time, such as A.V. Hartendorp’s “Philippine Magazine featured cartoons of Philippine vignettes  with the provincial everyman with slick Kenkoy hair . (Vol xxxiv, november 1937 issue).
 
And the “Clean, well combed hair (Graphic, March 10, 1928)  is promised as the hard rubber combs  advertised “ – not cheap…that the small extra cost is more than repaid.” (Philippines Free Press, February 5, 1938)
 
The ideal of the times were the men illustrated by leyendecker, in the Arrow Advertisements as sold by the I Beck Department Store (“Who’s who in the Philippines- Isaac Beck- Graphic, February 25, 1928) or less prestigious stores.
 
The fashionable American ideal  was, in a way, “educated” to the Filipinos through images in Country Gentlemen, Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, all advertised  by and sold at The Philippine Education Company (PECO), then in 101-103 Escolta and other outlets of periodicals. (Philippine Magazine March 1932
 
Although with a funny personality, Kenkoy courted Rosing, the Manileña (a woman from Manila) who represented the ideal and romanticized Filipino woman – a female who was timid, shy, kind, caring, prone to jealousy, and impeccable – garbed (like Philippine national hero José Rizal’s Maria Clara) in the traditional baro’t saya or the Sunday camisa (shirt) combined with the panuelo (kerchief), including the bakya (a pair of wooden clogs) footwear.
 
 
Tony Velasquez
 
 
The public adored them them and more characters leaped out of Velasquez pen.
 
Kenkoy’s competitor for Rosing’s love, affection, and attention was the handsome character named Tirso S. Upot (a wordplay, while "S" in his middle name meant to be "is", then "upot" in Tagalog meaning "uncircumcised", hence “Tirso is Uncircumcised”).
 
The name Kenkoy was derived from common nicknames for the Francisco, namely Kiko, Iko, Kikoy. Kenkoy first appeared on the pages of the Tagalog-language literary magazine Liwayway on 11 January 1929. Kenkoy had always been portrayed in misadventures. Kenkoy was the lead character for the weekly comic strip Mga Kabalbalan ni Kenkoy (The Misadventures of Kenkoy or Kenkoy’s Antics). Mga Kabalbalan ni Kenkoy was translated into several regional languages in the Philippines.
 
Nobody seemed to mind that time moved or stood still  in the funnies according to the whim of the creator.
 
Neither Ponyang Halubaybay nor Kenkoy aged a day in decades although the latter eventually had children of his own. Kenkoy and Rosing had eight children: their biological children Dayunyor Dyulie, Tsing, Doy, Dalisyosa, Etot, Nene, Piching, and adopted son Tsikiting Gubat, a mute but wily child.
 

AT ROCES PUBLICATIONS             

 
In 1935, Velasquez became chief advertising artist for the Ramon Roces Publications, Inc. As chief advertising artist, Velasquez designed labels for Philippine products such as Tiki-Tiki Vitamins, Castor Oil, and Cortal, among others. Along with such product label designs, Velasquez created cartoon characters that accompanied the advertisements for the products. The characters Velasquez created included Captain Cortal for Cortal, Nars Cafi for Cafi Aspirina, and Isko for Esco Shoes, among others.
 

THE TEMPER OF THE TIMES

               
An exciting cultural florescence  characterized  this period,  when lively  artistic experimentation, evident in graphics, architecture, and later films, extended across the intellectual, and artistic, but maybe not to the sexual domains. Among the publications that reflected the way  people thought and behaved in the twenties was the RamonRoces publications’ Graphic, a magazine published for a metropolitan audience.
 
Browsing through the magazine’s covers in the late 1920s, after appreciating the  cutting edge, avant garde depiction of the zeitgeist in its covers (including art deco/broken glass versions of flappers wearing racy waist high skirts ) when the magazine debuted in 1927, the sudden appearance of the quiet, rural Filipina in more provincial settings on the high end cover by the middle of 1928 would come as a jolt. Apparently the culture could take the depiction of the racy all american roaring twenties woman with her high skirts and Betty Boop hair to a point. In fact in the same year, artists such as Amorsolo also illustrated provincial women on the covers of other high end magazines as A.V. Hartendorp’s the Philippine Education magazine (which was soon to be called Philippine magazine by 1931). The heroines of the movies of the late 1930s looked like models for Amorsolo, while the contravidas vamped with the roaring fashions of the day.
 
While Kenkoy has been described as a “ludicrous portrait of the Filipino pathetically trying but barely succeeding in keeping up with his American mentors” (according to Filipino illustrator and cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo) somehow Ponyang Halubaybay represented the acceptable image of womanhood.
 
While Kenkoy’s image reflected the “Screwball”, “Slapstick”, “Sock!, Bop!”, “Madcap” themes for male lead characters, Ponyang Halubaybay as serialized in those days somewhat  reflecting the staying power of the commonplace in popular stories where the woman is the lead character.
 
 
Tony Velasquez
 
 
In fact, it can be said that Ponyang Halubaybay’s image went against the tide of the all American image of womanhood as portrayed in the face of Joan Crawford on the cover of the Spanish speaking Manila Magazine Excelsior in 1930, and picturesof jean Harlow and the entire script of her MGM film “Suzy” serialized in Tagalog in the magazine Taliba in1936.
 
The high end Ramon Roces Publications’ Liwayway continued to put provincial women on the cover from the 1930s up to the postwar 1940s.
 
During the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines in World War II, Velasquez was forced to use his Kenkoy character as war propaganda to influence the Filipinos. Refusing at first, then Philippine President Jose P. Laurel was able to convince Velasquez to concede and use Kenkoy as a promotional too for Laurel’s health programs instead of as war propaganda.
 
In the genre of the propaganda cartoon,Velasquez continued the high standards of the form he has started earlier.
 
In 1947, Velasquez retired from Liwayway magazine to create the publishing firm Ace Publication, a mass producer of Philippine comic books and from that moment, Philippine comic books blossomed.
 
Through Ace Publication, Velasquez was able to produce “some of the best” and “most popular” Philippine comic books, such as Pilipino Komiks (1947), Tagalog Klasiks (1949), Hiwaga Komiks (1950), Espesyal Komiks (1952), Kenkoy Komiks (1959), and Educational Klasiks Komiks (1961). In 1962, Velasquez had to close Ace Publication due a labor dispute. Afterwards, Velasquez established the Graphic Arts Service, Inc. (also known as GASI Publications). Through GASI Publications, Velasquez was able to produce Philippine comic books such as Pinoy Komiks, Pinoy Klasiks, Aliwan Komiks, Holiday Komiks, Teens Weekly Komiks, and Pioneer Komiks.
 
In the 1960s, Velasquez went with the flow of the fashion trend, shedding Kenkoy’s outmoded clothes. Although he never aged, Kenkoy started wearing pairs of pants similar to those worn by The Beatles, collared sport polo shirt, and rubber shoes. However, Kenkoy’s trademark polished and flat hairstyle remained.
 
Kenkoy’s wife Rosing and Ponyang Halubaybay both maintained their traditional image and demeanor in their respective comic strips.
 
Tony Velasquez died in 1997, his twilight years having witnessed  the advent of sick humor and sick writing .
 
The exhibition sheds light on a little known and fascinating period of Philippine social history, in which an array of unique hybrid artforms  emerged from the intermingling of cultures via the comics, vividly describing society in a dynamic and turbulent state of flux.
 
All things considered – which was in fact their forte, American illustrators and their local counterparts did shape the taste of their time. No small achevement in itself.  
 
Velasquez was the mentor to other Filipino illustrators, namely Francisco Coching, Mars Ravelo, Marcelino G. Samonte, Jose Zabala-Santos, and J. M. Perez, among others.The success of his first comic strips, such as Tony Velasquez’ Kenkoy  and Ponyang Hakubaybay , led to the rapid  development of the form in later cartoonists, such as Larry Alcala with his lively Kalabog and Bosyo, and later, Nonoy Marcelo’s Tisoy and Ikabod.
 
 
 
“Who is Ponyang Halubaybay and Where is Kenkoy? A Retrospective Exhibit of Tony Velasquez” is ongoing from February 15-28, 2014 at the Cevio Art 

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