This is an article that came out on Today Weekender, dated September 20, 1998, a couple of weeks after Francisco V. Coching passed away. It was an excerpt from a book on Coching that Abe Florendo was writing at the time, a book that at present is yet to be released.
In the Artist’s Salon
By Abe Florendo
Today Weekender September 20, 1998
THOSE who knew him well believed that Francisco V. Coching should have been named National Artist for Komiks Illustration, but they didn’t know the first thing about how to get through to the powers that be at the CCP and make the nomination. Nonetheless, Coching will continue to be remembered by people who have ever grown up with the komiks in the 40’s to the 60’s, when this popular art and entertainment form was skillfully and beautifully illustrated and written – unlike today’s trashy and turgidly drawn komiks – and enriching people’s lives and a folk culture with myths and mythologies spun in strip after series that went on and on interminably. Komiks readers devoured every page of it. And the undisputed lord of the komiks series was the best novelist and the best illustrator of them all – Francisco V. Coching.
He died on September 1, at the age of 79, after a long and lingering illness; in his home in Pasay, on a street called Valhalla. He may not have been a National Artist but in the hearts of those who know and admire him, He is the Dean Of Filipino Komiks Illutration.
COCHING used to prop up a mirror on top of his drawing table and kept looking at it while at work. When he needed a sarcastic sneer, an ugly growl or a fierce stare, he coaxed these expressions from the mirror. Other than his wife who gamely posed for him every now and then, he was his own best model, this frustrated movie actor.
One of the younger Rocesses ( of the Ace Publications clan) has been quoted as saying that Coching continues to be remembered for the “photographic” quality of his sketches. Other critics, extending the virtues of that quality, have readily discerned “the cinematic approach” of his strips. With Coching’s illustrations, every gesture is grand, every emotion is exaggerated – such is the prerequisite of the medium. Said cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo (of Tisoy fame), “Comic art is for the easy consuption of the eye. The illustration should not be too naturalistic. It must be a little OA [jargon for “overacting”], like the illustrations of Francisco V. Coching. I consider Koko the best illustrator in the Philippines.
It would seem, thus, to one observing him from a distance, that the artist had finally flipped. He would hold up a clenched fist in front of him, drop to a crouch and fire an imaginary pistol from his outstretched hand, snarl or twist his mouth like one with the attack of palsy. Solitariness could indeed drive an artist nutty, and Coching’s solitariness was compounded by the novelist’s engrossment with exaggerated and dissonant levels of excitation and tension. When at work. he confided, he would spend most of the day in “a state of trance.”
During his peak in the ‘50s, when one magazine writer queried how he made up his stories – a subject which probably Coching never had the time to give thought to – he rambled: “First I think of an unusual plot…or at least a new twist to plots that have been tested…” He was quite honest, too. A commercial novelist could not resist pandering to mass taste while it lasts. If one is doing three or four novels at a time, for an audience that could never seem to consume enough, one just continues feeding the grist to the mill. However, Coching has stumbled upon a number of original themes.
The hero as underdog, for instance, was a theme prevalent in Coching’s strips long before such heroes became a trend in Hollywood movies. Wrote Ros Matienzo: “The Coching hero [fought] for the justness of his cause and he did so without appearing to take himself too seriously [and thus preventing his becoming a caricature], going through tribulations that would break ordinary men. And in the end he emerged a better man, with integrity intact, his goals accomplished.”
The outlaw heroine, likewise a character close to Coching’s heart, spawned a host of other gun molls, bandit queens and revengeful dames on the warpath who populate the comic books to the delight of male readers whose aching machismo, or their assumption to it, allows for a quivering jelly of softness waiting to be ravished by a forceful female. The amazon/or jungle girl, whose archetype in the Filipino consciousness ought to be Mara-bini, remains to this day a most durable character in the komiks.
His own wealth of experiences have contributed to a number of his narratives, life, he says, being a rich material for fiction. His underground activities, his wheedling and dealing days, his entanglements with women and those glorious girls of the cabarets – these have found their pathos, bathos and bedlam in his illustrated pages. For instance, he was the Anselmo who traded fisticuffs with American GIs for cigarettes in Gumuhong Bantayog; his underground friends once again raided enemy camps in Kalawang sa Bakal; the quintessential bella danced to a different tune and found new ways to pick up cigarette money in Talipandas.
Coching has always been particular about period details, drawing them with as much authenticity as he could gather from his researches in libraries. The artist, however,allowed himself no little elaboration on costumes and background settings or, as in his fantasy novels, an unscrupulous intermingling of history and mythology. In “El Indio” (1951) he faithfully depicted the look and temper of 19th-century Spain and its Philippine colony. “Palasig” (1950) offers a fairly accurate picture of the American regime in Manila during the ‘20s but a sultanate in Mindanao, which is the setting of much of the novel, is a transmutation of the royalties and places of Arabian Night Dreams. “Hagibis,” set in the early dawn of Philippine history, if faithful to whatever scant material available regarding costumes, customs, habitations and tools during that time when spear-armed warriors ruled the land, Chinese corsairs harassed the shores and traders from faraway countries brought exotic merchandise. By the time Coching illustrated “Lapu-Lapu” in 1954 he had become a past master of the accouterments of that warriors time.
Coching’s output in three decades of productivity may be categorized into cartoons, jungle adventure fantasy, period adventure-romance, contemporary comedy drama. He never ventured into sci-fi and, with the sole exception of “Kaluluwa ni Dante” and perhaps also “Satur” (although these were hardly the macabre and ghoulish types that characterized popular stories in the ‘50s), he was otherwise not inclined to supernatural mystery. All his characters are believable and plausible within their time and setting; it would have been unlikely of him to concoct “Zuma,” “Bubonika,” or “Harimanok.” On the other hand, it is not possible to delineate “phases” in Coching’s works as he was wont to do any two of the above categories within a year as his fancy led him, or the clamor of a public whose tastes were as democratically chaotic as possible. It was during the final period, though, from 1966 to 1972, that he conspicuously devoted himself to the action-drama genre.
He did two cartoon series during the late ‘40s, “Bing Bigotilyo” (Silahis Magazine) and “Paloma” (Pilipino Komiks) – characters with a special knack of getting themselves or others into devastating embarrassments. The series displayed Coching’s frisky humor, street wise language (sikatuna, ebubut) and his facility with caricature that also saw several Liwayway covers and movie ads of certain comic wit.
He of course started in the komiks with a jungle adventure (“Mara-bini”), into whose broad tapestry he later embroidered fairy-tale fantasies (“Bulalakaw”), folkloric and pseudohistorical vignettes (“Hagibis”), tribalism and safari sagas (“Dumagit”) and a merry mix-up of time zones (“Haring Ulupong”).
His period adventure-romances drew their themes and settings from colonial history mainstream “Ang Barbaro,” “Palasig,” “El Indio,” “Tatak ng Espada,” “Lapu-Lapu,” “Sagrado,” “Don Cobarde”), to Nordic mythology swamplands (“Agilang Itim,” “Thor”), to a nebulous prairie that could only be associated with Zorro (“Marco Bandido,” “La Sombra”).
His comedy-dramas constitute some of his (unconsciously) corrosive comments on a society that thwarts an individual’s well-intentioned efforts and encourages sham values (“Maldita,” “Movie Fan,” “Waldas,” “Gigolo,” “Talipandas,” “Pulot-Gata”), but it was through his numerous action-dramas (“Salabusab,” “Laban sa Lahat,” “Gumuhong Bantayog,” “Bella Bandida,” “El Vibora,” etc.) that Coching gave vent to his obsessive theme of the misunderstood and his wronged hero who is forced to vindicate his rights and prove his innocence through violence and blood shed – a theme that marks Coching’s stature as a komiks novelist.
COCHING as Tony Velasquez says of him, became “an overnight artist.” If anything like that was at all possible, Coching made it so. With no more training in drawing beyond copying Tarzan on his notebook during his schoolboy days, he developed a style that was eminently his own, although a confessed admirer of Francisco Reyes, the pioneer illustrator of serialized narrative strips, Botong Francisco of “Siete Infantes de Lara” and Velasquez himself, as well as an avid reader of “Tarzan” and “Prince of Valiant” (both drawn by Harold Foster in ‘30s) and “Flash Gordon” (by Alex Raymond). “I would say,” Coching says, ”that I learned from Foster and Raymond essential elements in composition and continuity of action.”
Coching brought the continuity techniques of these foreign illustrators to an even more elaborate cinematic progression. Listen to him describe how he visualized and then proceeded to illustrate a scene: “Let’s say, a woman is falling from a tree. You show in that frame branches snapping and, in the foreground, birds fluttering away and leaves falling from the branches. In the background, a sketchy scenery of the forest. The next frame you show Hagibis from a distance seeing her falling. You emphasize the movement of Hagibis poised for the rescue. He grabs a vine. He swings. He lets go of a vine and catches the woman in midair by the waist. You don’t lose the impact. You convinced the reader that the swing of Hagibis has perfect timing. So you move the action further. The girl is affronted – she’s an amazon. She frees herself from Hagibis’s arms and slaps him.
“That’s how I do it. It’s interesting and delightful to the eyes of the readers. Perhaps you say the action is exaggerated, but frame by frame, you convince the reader that it is possible, how the hero swings from a tree and catches the girl with a firm grasp at her waist. Here you don’t even need words for the frames. The pictures speak for themselves.”
The artist’s studio, the center of much creative and innovative outbursts that contributed to the flowering of a medium which by the ‘50s had found its full resonance in a people’s psych, not surprisingly became a workshop and watering hole for many younger artists who eventually made brilliant names for themselves. Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala and Malang, then starting out as in his studio, observing him at work and taking pointers from him. Other latter artists who have not been directly exposed to Coching admit to having been influenced by him, notably Alex Niño who, in early ‘60s when he was searching for his own style, studied and burrowed the action and characters from Coching. Even a non-komiks practitioner like painter Galicano considers Coching “quite important in my life.” Says Galicano, “When I was starting in drawing I studied his line like only a master could. I wanted to capture his boldness of spirit and his delicacy. I copied him relentlessly. To me, he is the grand old man of illustration.”
Some, like Noly Panaligan, Celso Trinidad, Carlos P. Lemos, Nes Ureta and F. C. Javinal, came directly under his tutelage and supervision. After a time, when Coching is getting more commissions that he could handle all by himself, he hired young men who were eager to join the field to do lettering and inking for him. Intending for them to establish their names early on and to come into their own sooner or later, Coching allowed them full credit for the illustrations. “It was actually very magnanimous of him,” declares Javinal. “As a matter of fact, all I had to do, and so I did the others who worked for him, was to do the inking. All that had to be done was to brighten everything up with ink – it was very light work.” But he was very strict, Javinal adds. “He would not tolerate sloppiness. He wanted his lines done in one neat sweep. And he hate clutter in his compositions.” His assistants wanting to flex a little of his artistry, would put additional elements in the background not penciled in by Coching. When Coching felt that his assistants attemps were quite unnecessary (“Too cluttered”) or detracted from what he calls “the emphasis” in the frame, he made retouches or entirely rubbed them out with opaque.
JUST as Coching’s studio was a source of inspiration for many would-be artists, it was also the starting point for many of the movies which today we associate, with a tinge of heartbreak, with the good old days. Constructed on all powerful narrative lines, brimming with the suspense and drama and action, his stories made sure-fire cinematic material. Moreover, his serials could count on thousands of avid followers, thereby assuring a built-in audience for the movie.
Hagibis was the first of his novels to be filmed, the rights for which was bought by Palaris Production. Coching remembers being paid somewhere around P500 for it, handsome reason for jubilation in those days. “I could have charged more considering that the novel had a large following, but I was already being paid enough by the publications,” he gallantly allows. Not bad for an artist whom a muse, in her stern fashion, would rather starve than pamper, in those days when recession and inflation were unheard of ogres, Coching was commanding one of the highest fees for strips and movie rights. With no less than Fernando Poe (Sr.), the great movie idol of his time, playing the title role opposite the beauteous Erlinda Cortez, as Amihan, the movie drew huge crowds of people to whom Hagibis had become a genuine folk heroe in the same mold as Bernardo Carpio and Lam-ang. (Such was the myth-making power of Coching that an innocent generation grew up believing that Lapu-Lapu was yet another invention of Coching in the komiks!) Itself a “brother” to Pedrito Reyes’s Kulafu, Hagibis also spawned a postwar tribe of loin-clothed braves, among them the hero of J.K. Karlasig’s “Agimat” (Liwayway, 1948), drawn by Romeo V. Tabuena, and C.E.’s “Habagat” (Silahis- Bahaghari, 1948), and remains a name persistently conjured up by a generation that probably has never read Coching like the popular singing group, the local version of the American Village People, who called themselves Hagibis.
Soon after Hagibis, Palaris Productions brought Bertong Balutan, which was serialized in Pilipino Komiks, and again starred Fernando Poe and Erlinda Cortez. And so careened Coching’s satellite career in movies, bringing him out of cramped studio to the spangled factories of celluloid dreams. While his drafting table and the movie camera were not much different in intent, the latter provided him a new pace and education, as he always called upon to preside in story conferences, to do rewrites or cures, evem to peer into the camera during the shooting.
But not a few directors saw some wisdom in shooting the movie with a compilation of the komiks in hand, following the serial frame by frame. The serial, in effect, served as a script, too, since everything was there, in one glance, and drawn in cinematic detail yet: the setting, the dialogue, the facial expressions, the anglings, the continuous action, the cut-tos and flashes. But despite his increase exposure to Cinema, Coching affirms he was never led to deliberately adjust his frames to the confines of cinematography. “The only concern of my illustrations,” he says, “is the greater pleasure of my readers.”
In 1952 Doc Perez of Sampaguita, the late mogul who gave the movies many of its true-blue celebrities, spun the moonlight-and-champagne image of a beautiful mestiza named Gloria Romero by casting her as Florinda in the Coching saga, Palasig, opposite Cesar Ramirez. Gloria emerged as the movie queen of the decade whose scepter was inherited (in the way these things are said in the fan magazines) by another Sampaguita ingénue, Amalia Fuentes. Amalia was catapulted to full stardom in 1956 through movie fan, Coching’s serial in Espesyal Komiks which was the earliest known work to examine the absurdity, paradox and daydreams of the movie fan in his worship of a movie idol – a dimentia that reached its height in the days of Nora Aunor.
Such was the facination with movie stars in those goody-goody old days that Coching even found himself fighting for his own favorites. When Sampaguita was scouting around for a suitable actress to play Maldita, Coching’s popular character in Pilipino Komiks, a brattish girl-woman in the slums, he insisted on Rita Gomez who earlier did a scene-stealer as a bandit belle in Ang Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (Best Picture for 1952; from the comic strip by Amado Yasoña). Rita Gomez even then showed the impetuosness and condor that were to charactrize her off-screen persona, spiced with a chic wickedness and high-minded vulgarity only a grande dame like her could get away with. Coching’s choice of this new star material was vindicated when Maldita went on to become one of the Top 10 Moneymakers in 1953, Rita Gomez tirned out to be a consistently polished performer, and in 1958 won her first Best Actress Award in an adaptation of Coching’s Talipandas. No one else could have played this quintessential Coching character of a bar girl with a heart of gold.
It was not unusual either for two or three of Coching’s novel’s to be winning awards in the annual rite of the Famas; in 1954 Salabusab, produced by thrillers. “Action stories accounted for his enduring popularity as a writer, even as they also ideally suited the vigorous, pouncing strokes of his drawing pen. In 1960 a young agricultural engineering student, Danila Santiago, tackled his biggest directoral debut job for People’s Pictures in Kalawang sa Bakal, Coching’s sensitive study of people struggling for survival, love and self-respect during the Japanese Occupation, utilizing his own experiences for a humane view of history. But the film did not fare as well artistically as two other Coching stories filmed during that year – Gumuhong Bantayog, directed by Conrado Conde, and Sa Ibabaw ng Aking Bangkay, directed by Cirio H. Santiago – both of which received nominations in the Famas.
It was Cirio who virtually churned out Coching serials as fast as they came off the presses, in his capacity as either director or producer. These pictures include Pasukal, Laban sa Lahat, Panagupa, Pistolero, Tiagong Lundag, Ang Limbas at ang Lawin, Marko Asintado and El Negro. Significantly, Santiago’s work’s also showcased the talent of many-and- upcoming “action” stars who became the acknowledge kings of the genre – Fernando Poe, Jr., Jess Lapid, Eddie Fernandez, Jun Aristorenas. Not only did Jess Lapid manage to change picture girls brought with them to sleep, he also starred in movie after blockbuster movie adapted from Coching’s works: Black Jack, Pistolero, Tiagong Lundag, Ang Limbas at Ang Lawin, Marko Asintado and Sibad.”
But it was Jun Aristorenas who brought the action genre to its highest artistic excellence in the movie Dimasalang, advertised in papers for the benefit of its millions of komiks followers, as “Filmed as serialized in Liwayway by Francisco V. Coching.” Produced by Aristorenas himself, the movie in 1970 romped away with the coveted Raha Soliman Award for overall excellence by a unanimous decision of the jurors of the fifth Manila Film Festival, carrying with it the Gatpuno Awards for Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Actress, Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Music, Sound, Editing and Child Actor. Coching, needless to say, received a special award for his story which, with much timeliness then tackled the issue of landgrabbing.
Dimasalang came out at the peak of the Era of the “Bomba” (onomatopiec for the shock caused by a nude scene), historically significant for both komiks and movies for its influence on latter-day intent and content of both mediums. It had in the female lead role Marle Fernandez, the era’s bomba queen. She was shown emerging like a brown Venus from the river in all her unconcealed glort: a dripping icon that was to become almost a cinematic cliché for launching every aspiring “bold” goddess, from Gloria Diaz to Alma Moreno to Stella Strada.
Dimasalang, in all its vastness and voluptuousness, its blood and thunder, its artistic prestige, seemed appropriate as the final laurel on the long and much honored career of Francisco V. Coching in the komiks and in the movies. Three more of his stories were filmed after Dimasalang, notably El Vibora, but these proved to be anticlimactic to a saga he was immediately to write Katapusang Labas to. When he did so in 1973, after his last novel Sa Ngalan ng Batas, the Golden Age of the Komiks that began with him also, at last, ended with him.