Tuesday, March 14

Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat

"Pu(*>#@%!!! Hindi ito Myth Class!!!"

When I was a kid, I remember watching these local shows on TV- movies and sometimes TV series- with some pretty wild shit. There were improbable, impossible stunts like the hero taking out two different targets with his last remaining bullet by placing a knife in front of his gun barrel. Or a guy becoming bulletproof thanks to a magical amulet. Or a gang of martial arts-fighting vigilantes dressed in matching red shirts and leather vests.
Weird funny shit, but also pretty cool in a way (though we'd never admit it). These were cult films, pulp action Filipino-style antics that could be seen as our own local version of Superheroes.

Superheroes and supervillains in denim jeans and jackets, bandannas, puruntong shorts, dusters, kamisetas and tsinelas without any capes, spandex or fancy-slick english code names in sight. Here, a hero can be named Berto and his nemesis could be that drunkard Roy down the block. Aling Nena the old fishball vendor could be a frickin' mangkukulam or sorceress for all you know. Jomar the taho vendor could be a half-demon in disguise. That's how it is here. In a word? Awesome.

But the World of Andong Agimat isn't a pretty, happy place. It's a bleaker, grimier, more seedy version of present-day Metro Manila (not even the flawed but hyper-realistic urban tableau he envisioned in Trip to Tagaytay). There is widespread poverty and garbage littering the streets, creeping about like a weird form of algae. To make matters worse, there's an alarmingly large amount of supernaturally-empowered individuals hovering about. Like gangs of goblin-like hooligans, unnaturally strong and quick gangsters and- most dangerous of all- a growing cult of almost diabolical, bloodthirsty and seemingly unstoppable cultists.

Into this world of super-powered crime and supernatural creatures steps in the titular Andong Agimat. A perpetually frowning protagonist whose eyes seem eternally hidden by his shadowy brows, Andong's quick hands with a gun and his invulnerability to bullets makes him the ideal occasional ally for the embattled police. But Andong is a drifter, a drinker and has his own ghosts to haunt him at night... crimes past and lost love. Obviously, Ando's not the ideal hero to lead a desperate battle to save a person of incalculable value from the stinking forces of evil, but hell, he's all the side of good has. So, he's gonna have to do. Bahala na si Batman.

Arnold Arre's latest graphic novel stands at over 200 pages- a pretty impressive work by any measure, and certainly one of the artist's more impressive showings. As always, Arnold's art is the first thing to notice- page upon page upon page of incredible panels full of bold, black and white lines, movement, action and characters jumping at you or from panel to panel. His art has improved once again (especially in action and fight scenes), though I gather that a lot of Andiong was actually made in the course of the past several years or so. As always, every panel is literally crawling with tons of detail and characters. It's such that you can pretty easily imagine the smell of the garbage and shit on the streets, or imagine the wonderful smell of characters like the pus-filled Big Bad slinking in the shadows. Once again, Arnold's mastery of ink and pen shows and then some.

To populate the metropolis is a cast of Arnold's most interesting character designs yet. Although Andong himself is admittedly just Arnold's own perpetual Hero-type Kubin (Myth Class) on a bad day, I find myself loving wilder, harsher designs like the skull-faced Hari ng Tondo, the malevolent and inaptly-named Jun Pogi and the fiery (literally) Tonyo Baga. Of course, it wouldn't be an Arnold Arre book without the BABES, and Agimat has them in spades, from lead heroine Silang and salamangkera Nara to uber bitch Satina and the incredibly cute speedster from Bicol, Mariang Tinik (Arnold's speedy characters are always damn cute). While Arnold's art is hardly manga, fan service is something I always look forward to and enjoy a lot in this one.

However, along with the welcome titillation is a heightened bit of violence and language, though while not blatantly presented is heavily implied... and this may raise an eyebrow or two among conservatives. I just hope that this doesn't restrict the book (though I dare say that little kids wouldn't get it anyway) or cause an uproar again like Tala's bare boobies in Myth Class.
Still on the topic of language, it cannot be ignored that Andong Agimat is written entirely in TAGALOG. In that, while I understand the story for the most part, some lines of dialogue, particularly the ones heavy with archaic Tagalese leave me bewildered and groping as to what the heck is being said. To be fair though, these lines are probably intentionally vague and you can usually understand through context.

That said, Agimat is not without flaws. While many sequences, particularly the opening scenes and pretty much all of the many action sequences, are brilliantly presented, the movement from one scene or stage to the next is sometimes a bit too leisurely given the urgent manner of the quest. Also, I question Arnold's decision to place the main hero away from all the action during not one but two crucial moments.

Given that there are so many things Arnold wants to show, say, express and explain, it's inevitable that there will be unwieldy moments and spots where the storytelling could have been more efficient, where clarity gets somewhat compromised. But these nitpicks are more than made up for the intricate and minute details poured into the panels, the almost cinematic way pages are presented and the action brought to still, yet moving, life. Yeah, it will take me a couple or may be more read-overs to get the whole thing but damn... this book looks so damn gorgeous that I don't mind.

Andong Agimat is undeniably again another spectacular epic rom Arnold up to the quality we've come to expect from such a passionate, prolific creator. The story is gripping and moves you to move page after page until the end, and even then you're left craving for more. As I've no doubt mentioned, the darn art is incredible and the detail is just crazy. This is also Arnold at his grittiest, which is something new to see, but not entirely off the rack.
It's still an Arnold Arre book, and that means there's still those Arnold Arre-ism that I've come to expect. Things like Good always winning over Evil in the end. Love conquering all. And the most darn awesome car-and-runner chases I've ever seen in comics.

Andong Agimat succeeds with the single act of bringing to life in language, theme, feel and design an incredible new world peopled by a pantheon of heroes and villains that are so visually striking, evocative and most importantly, undeniably Filipino. And it's a world that I definitely want to see more of.

In that, I'd readily say that it's my favorite of his works so far. Easily.

Andong Agimat is now available at comic book stores and good bookstores in Metro Manila (already confirmed to be in stock at Comic Quest Megamall), Tagalog language, Black-and-white art, 220 pages, Php400.00. If you love comics, run over to your comic store for your copy and enter the World of Andong Agimat. Now Na.

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