Book: Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat

"Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat"

A world that’s full of mystery and wonder. This is the world of Andong Agimat.

Yeah, the book synopsis doesn’t really give much away–but then again, Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a graphic novel. If it had a normal synopsis, it might have given the whole story away.

Yes, that’s a dig on how very short Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is (and most other local graphic novels).

The thing about Arnold Arre is that he is a master at creating these fascinating worlds based on what we know and on what is real, mixing the two to produce something that’s familiar yet new, shockingly present yet timeless. It was apparent in Mythology Class and in Trip to Tagaytay, but it’s on a completely different level here in Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat.

For something that was produced in 2006, this book still holds up really well. I credit this to the fact that Arnold Arre’s works are always grounded on human emotions. The new edition’s foreword has a lot to say about the author being unsatisfied, and how that underlines the story that the book is telling. But I would beg to differ. I think Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is all about fear: The fear of power. The fear of loss. The fear of excelling. The fear of being ordinary.

The fear of the inability to change.

Our main character, Ando, has a very checkered past; one that he’s trying to atone for, and feels that he will never leave behind. His past is what pushes him to be a hero–but it’s also what haunts his every moment, waking or otherwise.

Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a study on that fear–of never being more than what one has already become. Even after all the heroics, Ando never feels he is worthy to be a hero. So he doesn’t try to be one. That is, until he’s forced to.

This is where my complaint comes in. Arnold Arre creates this world with a very rich mythology: you have people yearning to be special, and being given the opportunity to do so at the risk of losing their innocence; you have an epic romance that spans lifetimes–and one that is more recent and more hurting; you have villains that have layers upon layers… And we get one rescue story out of this very rich world that the author created.

I don’t know if it’s the soap opera writer in me talking, but I felt cheated off the possible growth and development the characters could’ve had. I felt like the layers he gave the villains could have been explored more, while going into the backgrounds and drive of the protagonists at the same time.

I felt unsatisfied, to borrow a word from the book’s foreword. And it’s not something I want to feel after reading an exceptionally good book. Because Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a very good book–

It’s just also frustratingly short. It ends as quickly as it begins, leaving you wanting for more. And you will want more. So I guess that means I will only recommend this book to people who like getting hurt by their favorite books. Because this book will hurt you. And it will also quickly become a favorite. So if you’re a fan of being left wanting, then pick this book up. If you’re not… you might still want to pick the book up, and then join me in trying to find a way to get Arnold Arre to revisit this world again.

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Book: Bravos Manila and Bravos Cebu

"Bravos Manila/Cebu"

Superheroes are the norm in Studio Salimbal‘s two one-shots: Bravos Manila and Bravos Cebu. In it, celebrities have been replaced by tiers of super-powered individuals who are working to help innocents against… well… villains.

In Bravos Manila, a slacker hero named Kit Kamao finds himself in an impossible situation when he suddenly becomes the face of resistance against a giant dream-fueled monster. Meanwhile, Pedro Pilandok tries to recruit a new hero in the pages of Bravos Cebu.

Story-wise, both one-shots are awesome. I love this new superhero-filled world that the two comic books are establishing. But I found myself being drawn more into Bravos Cebu because of the art. It’s simple. Clean. Easy to understand.

The thing is, I think Bravos Cebu looks and feels simple because there isn’t a hundred and one things happening in every panel. I get that Bravos Manila is trying to set the tone of just how many heroes there are, but I thought it needed to scale down a little bit.

In the first few pages of Bravos Manila, I actually thought the whole world was filled with super-powered human beings. It wasn’t until later, when our hero tries to help kids that I realized there were non-powered beings as well.

That said, I do commend the artist for making the heroes not look a like. That’s a feat for someone who has to draw a thousand of them in every page. They all have personality, and you get a semblance of who they are or what they can do.

There’s just too many of them.

It does get better midway though, when we’re no longer scrambling through the peripheral heroes. Once the action sweeps our main protagonist up, the story and art becomes easier to follow.

And I really like how it ends.

I’m hoping though, that when the series Maharlika High does arrive, these two one-shots would still be canon. That they will actually have an impact on what happens in the series being set up.

Theater: Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical

"Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical"

Being a maid is tough enough, but when Mely lands a job under a group of superheroes, she steps up to the unique challenge for the sake of her family. Based on Carlo Vergara’s one-act play and graphic novel of the same title, Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady the Musical revolves around Mely and Viva’s sibling relationship, made complicated by an unsettling past and a budding romance, all in the context of an ongoing war between the superhero and supervillain teams. The musical takes us through the journey of the characters as each tries to find his/her place in the world.

I’m torn.

On the one hand, I liked the musical enough that I want people to watch it.

On the other hand, I really want to break it down and remake it into something else. Something that’s the same, but also very different.

I actually wrote a very lengthy piece about the things I didn’t like about the musical, before I erased the whole thing. Because I wasn’t talking about the musical I watched anymore. I was already molding it into becoming a different animal altogether. I was turning it into something that was mine. And it’s not.

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical is the truest form of a Carlo Vergara child that we will get… for now. And it is special child. Unique. Beautiful to many, and to its creator–but not to me.

And it pains me to say that. Because I really, really wanted to like Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical. Well, I really, really wanted to like it more than I do.

I don’t.

I’m not going to segregate my reactions from bad to good, because there really isn’t anything bad about the musical. But there’s a lot of good in here that I feel was wasted. Which is why I’m not one-hundred-percent raving about the musical.

And here they are:

Nena Babushka and the love triangle that had an imaginary angle. I loved Nena’s character. I loved how tragic her love was for Leading Man. (And I loved the innocence that actress Giannina Ocampo brought to her character’s affections.) Unfortunately, because Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady is really a story about Mely and her sister Viva, the love triangle between Mely, Leading Man, and Nena wasn’t explored. And this is one of the reasons why I am torn.

As already established, I loved Nena’s character. But if her story wasn’t really going anywhere, why include it in the first place?

Then, there’s the Kayumanggilas and Senyor Blangko–the scene stealers.

As the musical’s main villains, I know we were supposed to root against them. But from the moment they were first introduced, I couldn’t help but cheer whenever they would come on stage. They were just so much more fun than our protagonists. And, from the looks of it, the actors were having more fun too.

And Domi Espejo as Senyor Blangko was just… exceptional. As was Vince Lim as the adamant villain Henyotik.

This was a problem.

Because I was rooting for the villains. Even when I knew what they were doing was wrong and misguided. Even when they were doing despicable things. I prefered them because they were more fun.

This brings me to Viva. We got Kim Molina in the role and she was, quite simply, the star of the show. She carried the musical, and I don’t think she was supposed to. At least, I don’t think she was supposed to carry it alone.

But her character is the only one to actually take the hero’s journey. And although her character is the ditziest and easiest to manipulate–she’s also the only one you don’t want to hit in the head with a frying pan. Because you will feel for her. You will understand her.

And, as the curtains figuratively draw to a close, I wonder–did Carlo Vergara rewrite the premise of his one-act play to make the villain a hero?

I feel bad for Frenchie Dy, our Leading Lady, Mely, because she gave her heart and soul to the role–but her scenes were cheap change compared to the gravitas given to the Viva character.

Now, at the end of it all, can you see why I’m torn?

I can list down so many things I wanted the musical to do right, and to change–but I can’t bring myself to say that it was bad. Because it wasn’t.

It’s just a work in progress.

Which is why I want to urge everyone to watch the musical, to support it–and to speak their mind about it. Because I want it restaged. And next time, I want it to be better than it is now.

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical continues its weekend run until June 7.

Book: Marvels

"Marvels"

Welcome to New York. Here, burning figures roam the streets, men in brightly colored costumes scale the glass and concrete walls, and creatures from space threaten to devour the world. This is the Marvel Universe, where the ordinary and fantastic interact daily. This is the world of Marvels. Collecting Marvels #0-4, by award-winning creators Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.

I don’t know when it happened, but I think I’ve fully become a Marvel fan. I mean, I will still like Batman movies and television efforts of the Flash, but when it comes to choosing to purchase a Marvel or a DC comic? A Marvel title would always win. And after reading Marvels, my love for the Marvel universe is all the more underlined.

This was my realization: Marvel knows their market is diverse and accepting of out-of-the-box concepts. And so they welcome diverse and out-of-the-box concepts, and are willing to believe in them. Of course, this is hardly a surprising realization. Marvel, after all, is the company who risked everything to build a film production outfit to make movies they want made. And I love them for it.

Before I dive into Marvels, I want to thank my friend Chris Cantada for recommending the collection. While I love reading comics, I don’t really actively seek them out. So it’s really helpful when a friend recommends a title. Or a reader. You guys can recommend titles to me too. Recommendations are always welcome.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the collection:

Marvels is the story of superheroes told from the perspective of the ordinary people. Our main character is a photographer who becomes witness to many of the fantastical things that have been happening in and around Manhattan–and has gone through the different stages of being exposed to such things.

Instead of superhero origins, we are thrust into the background with the people who have been living in the boroughs before, during, and after each battle. We are made to be one of them. And it is, pardon the pun, marvelous.

One of the more interesting parts about comics, especially in Marvel, is how each superhero is received differently by the bystanders. You have the X-Men who are despised and reviled; you have Captain America who gets celebrated at every turn; the Fantastic Four are celebrities, while Spider-Man is continuously painted as a bad guy even as he saves New York time and time again. And now, finally, we get a take on the way.

We fear the unknown.

Whenever something out-of-this-world crazy happens in our world, we are aghast. We are afraid. And then we become curious. Now, imagine if that out-of-this-world crazy thing is capable of thought. What if it’s human? Or human-looking? The fear is amplified. Because we know what we’re capable of, as human beings. We know what they can be capable of too. And we know that they can be more because they are more.

Until they become heroes, and then we celebrate them.

But until when do we celebrate the powerful? History has shown that the public makes or breaks a celebrity figure. We are the ones responsible for the Justin Biebers, and the Miley Cyruses, and the Lindsay Lohans. We put them on pedestals and make them feel invincible. We are the ones who make excuses for them when they do something… less than clean-cut. Until such time when we feel we can’t control them anymore. And then we start painting them in a bad light.

This is the thesis of Marvels. Until when is a hero a hero? Who hails them as heroes?

We do.

The power of the super-powered isn’t as powerful as public perception. And the responsibility to be fair and just isn’t in the hands of the Marvels. It’s in ours.

And I applaud Marvels for its clear depiction of this power.

Theater: Manhid

"Manhid"

What price is our freedom? MANHID is set in an alternate present day Philippines where the EDSA revolution failed; this musical features heroes and villains with superpowers, and a people sick with Kamanhiran (Apathy).

I want to heap accolades for Manhid. Mostly because it’s rock opera musical accompanied by ballet. Also because it creates superheroes out of characters from Filipino epics. And because of its history of being conceived by Aureaus Solito, with music from Eraserheads. The whole thing screams epic. And it is epic.

Unfortunately, so was its running time.

This is my biggest bone to pick with Ballet Philippines’ production of Manhid. It was trying to match the length of an epic, complete with side stories and interludes–turning it into a hodgepodge musical confused on whether it wants to speak out against injustice, or if it’s a juxtaposition of two love stories set against the backdrop of a revolution. In a time where short-form social media is king, you would’ve thought the creative forces of Manhid would’ve taken one look at the script and realized that at more than two-hours long, the musical was just too long. And too long not because characters are being developed, and are being loved. It was too long because each now plot twist needed explanation. Each new plot twist needed a backing musical number that tells instead of shows what the story wants to say.

Manhid is a gem–but one that needs to be polished. Just because this is how it was written more than two decades ago doesn’t mean you have to hold the true to the book. Stories like that of Manhid is supposed to reflect the times. And while most of the musical is still relevant today, important devices are visibly outdated now. Like, for example, lead character Bantugan’s job as a writer for a local tabloid. Decked out in a white sleeveless zip-up with headphones and a wrist-mounted computer, Bantugan’s entire personality screams techno-savvy individual. So why is he working as a reporter for a tabloid? No, I’m not looking down on tabloids, but they’ve been passe for some years now. Broadsheets are the new tabloids, and their online presence is way more visible now than ever before. Broadsheets online are the new mass-friendly tabloids with their clickbait headlines. If Ballet Philippines could update Bantugan’s look, why couldn’t they have updated his devices too? You’re not changing the musical, just the way the audience can relate to the characters.

Which, to be quite honest, was a hard thing to do. One, because there were too many characters. Two, because we get thrust into the story of Manhid with barely a brief of what world we’re about to enter. We get a spoken word introduction, and suddenly our lead characters are singing and dancing on stage and we have no idea what’s going on. It wasn’t until halfway through the second song before I realized that factions were being formed, that good guys were being hunted down by bad guys. And I only realized this because lead character Lam-Ang tells supporting character Dilim that the government attacked the club she was working at because they wanted to get to her.

Had the world been established better in the opening number, we wouldn’t have needed the clunky dialogue between Lam-Ang and Dilim. We would’ve just squirmed in our seats as we awaited their fate. As the villains closed in to the heroes. Instead, we scratched our heads at the action unfolding in front of us. The ministry of humanity was enjoying a show when a woman suddenly shows up to disrupt the peace. A fight ensues. And then the woman takes the lead singer of the show. If the dialogue didn’t say that Lam-Ang was saving Dilim, you can spin this off as an insurgent attack on the safety of the government.

And that could’ve been played with. But, obviously, the creative forces wanted people to relate to the insurgents. They want us to feel. Not to be numb. Hence the show’s main title and theme. But how can you care about heroes you know nothing about? Superman started with a destroyed planet. Spider-man had a dead Uncle Ben. Zsazsa Zaturnnah had a love interest whose safety was being threatened by colorful dominatrix aliens. We care about their fight because we know what they’re fighting for. In Manhid, we learn about our lead character’s fight as the first act wraps up. And that is the only time we see actual motivation from our heroes. When, during a musical number on how there came to be super-powered human beings, they fall in love with each other.

I don’t know how important the love story is to the main story arc. I know it’s important for one of the characters, for Allunsina, who you can say is the audience surrogate. But in the grand scheme of things, the love story of Bantugan and Lam-Ang felt shoe-horned. It felt like the creative forces just wanted to give heft to something that just wasn’t working out.

But, to be fair, as the first act wraps up, so does my complaints. Acts two and three had better pacing, and it also had a better grip on showing instead of telling. It also has a better love story between hero Urduja and the villain Radya Indarapata. It was still incredibly long, but time starts to fly faster because the story is now succeeding in absorbing the audience. I mean, there were still times when a break on stage becomes jarring, but overall, the last two thirds of the musical was more phenomenal than its beginning.

Ballet Philippines found a stellar cast to bring to life the characters of Manhid. I’m not completely sold on Lam-Ang, but I have to blame the material more than the actress. Bantugan’s vocals kept getting overpowered by the band, but he was serviceable. Apolaki’s forced conyo accent was funny, and I hope that that was intentional. And Dilim’s voice? Wow. The actors that shone the brightest though was Urduja’s, with vulnerability lacing her every word, even as she shows how strong her powers are; Radya Indarapata’s gray moral compass was conveyed majestically, and was most heartbreaking in his final moments; and Mamalahim-ma. There’s nothing I can say about Mamalahim-ma that will do justice to the power she brings on stage–which is an irony since she’s the only lead actor without an actual power.

And then there’s Allunsina. Played by Gold Villar with a fun abandon, Allunsina captures attention immediately even during the less-than-wonderful first act. I don’t know if some of her lines were just ad-lib, but everything out of her mouth feels natural, feels true to her character, and even at her most scathing, she was the most relatable and lovable in the cast of characters. Probably because her character felt the most true.

Allunsina is the star of Manhid.

Now, I could continue to go on and go on about Manhid, but the bottom line is this: it’s a great musical. It is. It just didn’t live up to the hype, and to my expectations.

But I have to commend Ballet Philippines (and Tanghalang Pilipino) for taking a risk in bringing back this rock opera musical. I hope next time they do, they don’t just update the costume, I wish they’d update the material too.

Book: Kick-Ass 3

"Kick-Ass 3"

Teenager David Lizewski loved comic books and superheroes. So why couldn’t he be the hero?

He tried. Lacking training and armed only with a pair of batons, Lizewski foolishly donned a costume of his own design and took to the streets to stop crime. His reward for taking on a gang of thugs? A trip to intensive care after he got his ass kicked.

But after intense training from the black belt tween prodigy Hit-Girl, David became the hero known as Kick-Ass. And Kick-Ass went viral in the public consciousness. Overnight, seemingly everyone wanted to be a superhero.

And of course, every superhero needs and archenemy. Chris Genovese, mafia son and the super-villain known as Red Mist, raised an army and tried to raze New York’s Times Square. Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl took them down…barely. But there were consequences: Superheroes were outlawed and Hit-Girl went to prison.

Now Dave must step up and lead the superhero team known as Justice Forever, just as a major threat appears on the horizon. Rocco Genovese, an old-school don whose weapon of choice is a golden pickaxe. He’s got 99 kill-notches on that axe. And he’s saving the 100th notch for someone very special.

I thought I was going to be able to predict the ending… I thought wrong. For a grim and gritty comic book series about the pratfalls of being a superhero in the real world, the series sure ended on a whimsical note. Not that I’m complaining. I like that the series ended on hope, even if not all the characters we’ve grown to know survived to the end.

But isn’t that what Kick-Ass has been about since it started? Superhero stories make it seem like everything will always be all right in the end. Even when the odds are obviously not in the hero’s favor. I mean, just take a look at the Superior Spider-Man title. Peter Parker died. Doctor Octopus took over his life. Thirty odd issues later and Peter’s back in his body, and the whole thing is about to get swept under a rug. So long as people need superheroes, they will always prevail. They will always get back up from their graves. Or, if they’re a DC title, they get rebooted for the nth time.

The best thing about Kick-Ass is that his creators, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., granted him something no other superheroes have: an expiration date. David Lizewski gets an actual ending. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why Kick-Ass will live on in fans’ hearts as a great work. Because the plots didn’t need stretching. Because the characters were allowed to grow, and to keep growing until they reached their natural end. And because no weird subplot had to be introduced just to keep the title alive.

There really isn’t a lot to say about Kick-Ass’s final foray into superheroics. It kicked ass. Spectacularly. And I will remember it fondly.

Book: Hunter

"Hunter"

The defeat of the near-invincible villain Krodin has left a void in the superhuman hierarchy, a void that two opposing factions are trying to fill. The powerful telepath Max Dalton believes that the human race must be controlled and shepherded to a safe future, while his rival Casey Duval believes that strength can only be achieved through conflict.

Caught in the middle is Lance McKendrick, a teenager with no special powers, only his wits and the tricks of a con artist. But Lance has a mission of his own: Krodin’s ally, the violent and unpredictable supervillain Slaughter, murdered Lance’s family, and he intends to make her pay.

In the fourth installment of Michael Carroll’s acclaimed Super Human series, Lance–unwilling to be a pawn in Dalton’s and Duval’s plans–turns his back on his friends, breaking his ties with the superhuman community. He embarks on a life-changing journey across the United States, searching for the skills and means to attain his true goal: vengeance against Slaughter.

I didn’t know this was coming out. I didn’t know it was out. Good thing I got stuck in a mall then. Because Hunter? Is wicked good. And I’m not just saying that because it focuses on my favorite character from Michael Carroll’s series. Hunter really is good. Even if I still don’t know what the book was supposed to be about.

But why don’t we figure it out together?

Hunter is about Lance, one of the more important characters from the series of novels author Carrol wrote as a prequel to The Quantum Prophecy trilogy. He’s not a superhuman, but he isn’t completely human either. He has a gift of gab, which is one of the reasons why I enjoy reading him. And while he’s plenty annoying at times, he’s not wring-his-neck annoying like Seth from Fablehaven.

Unlike Stronger, Hunter’s bridging of the prequels and the original trilogy is more linear–and easier to follow.

Hunter has Lance traveling through the United States of America, before flying off the country. He also sows seeds that were missing in the prequels, but bloom in the original trilogy.

Overall, it’s just a better bridge between the timelines.

Hunter features a side-story where Lance spends time working for a carnival. And it’s a fun little side trip that really doesn’t add anything to the story–but sets up an event that will, I think, be important in the next book.

Hunter starts with a goal that we know wouldn’t come to fruition. A goal that gets a satisfying ending, but is ultimately a frustrating mislead because it’s so obviously a set up to get Lance out of the main action. Because he is never mentioned in the original trilogy, and there has to be a reason why.

But the book is good. It’s an enjoyable (and fast) read. And even though it was, ultimately, just a set-up for the things that happened in the original trilogy, and the things that will happen in the (maybe) finale, you wouldn’t mind. Because it’s an enjoyable read.

In a way, it’s similar to Jonathan Maberry’s Flesh & Bone. It’s just a bridge between events. Our main character develops his personality. He grows as a person. But unlike Flesh & Bone, we don’t feel a palpable tension to the events that will unfold. We don’t feel the drama leveling up. We don’t fear for the characters because we know that they will be just fine. Because we already know what happens with The Quantum Prophecy. This book is more an explanation of how things change, more than an actual stand-alone story. And that is a point against Hunter.

And yet it’s a fun read. Wicked, and not just because the cover is green. So I don’t feel like I wasted my time reading this book.

I just wish there was more meat to it. I wish we spent more time building up to what happens after The Quantum Prophecy. Because, obviously, something big is coming up. The end of The Quantum Prophecy teased it. Stronger teased it. Hunter spells it out in the epilogue.

So why wasn’t there more to Hunter? Why did we have to spend so much time on an ultimately useless, albeit entertaining, chapter of Lance’s life as a circus worker?

Was it wrong for Michael Carroll to turn Hunter into its own novel, instead of keeping it as flashbacks throughout the final book? We’ll find out for sure when said final book comes out.

In the meantime, I’ll stand by my stance that Hunter is wicked good. If only because it’s a fun book to read.

I couldn’t find more than one review online though, so you’ll have to make do with mine–and this guy’s (Judge-Tutor Semple) for you to make your mind up on whether you’re willing to give this book a chance.