When Komikero Ryan Toledo posted this photo up at his Facebook, I couldn’t help but shed a tear. It’s been a while since I saw a “new” old photo of Arlan, and it reminded me of just how much I missed him.
Those of you who bought “Where Bold Stars Go To Die” know Arlan Esmeña as the talented guy who illustrated that comic book. Viewers of my videos at You Tube know Arlan as my frequent sidekick in our “Kwentong Tambay” videos, as well as the anonymous villains in my short films.
When he passed away on February 18, 2010, I realized that I lost not just a friend, but my best friend.
Arlan and I were both Architects, and it is through our local organization of Architects did I meet him. There was one major difference between us. He was a very good Architect and I wasn’t. A true artist, he was able to build houses that were astonishingly unique in both design and color. He would use colors that other Architects would never dare use on a house. He chose colors in conjunction with design elements inspired by the most surprising of motifs: robots, superheroes and chocolate snacks. A quick trip to his blog would demonstrate this as well as exhibit his other extraordinary talents.
As seeming proof of the impact that Arlan’s designs have had, some houses are popping up here in San Pablo have designs clearly inspired by Arlan but are executed by obviously less talented builders.
He was a geek like me, and it is because of that we have found so many things in common.
Arlan also loved singing. Unfortunately, singing didn’t love him back. He was by no means a bad singer. He could carry a tune well enough and that was enough. He sang confidently and he sang because he loved to. He sang at his wedding, and curiously enough, he even sang at his own funeral. Apparently, he had recorded a few of his favorite songs including “One in a Million You” and it was that recording that was played during his wake, and during the procession from the church to the cemetery.
There was something extra special about Arlan, something that he did not talk about with strangers. Some would consider it a gift, but Arlan at one point in his life, considered it a curse. Arlan had a third eye. Not a physical one of course. He could see the dead and other entities. And I believed him because me and Ilyn were there when he learned he had it, and we saw how it had tormented him for many months until he learned to handle it. Once in a while he would be off staring at something, only to tell us later that he saw spirits moving but did not tell us right away knowing it would freak us out. We told him that if he saw anything in our house while he was there, to just keep it to himself. We couldn’t see those things, so in cases like that, ignorance was bliss.
After his father passed away, he saw his father and spoke with him as he gave his final wishes to his family, divulging a few secrets along the way. Arlan could see things and knew certain things. He told me things about me that eventually came true. He didn’t readily open up about such things, but when he did, I bombarded him with questions about the stuff I was curious about. Through Arlan, matters beyond science was no longer a matter of faith or belief. To me it is already a matter of fact. I don’t believe it to be true, I know it to be true.
2008 was the busiest year of Arlan’s life, I could imagine. His Architecture practice was booming and he was getting clients not only from San Pablo but from other parts of the country as well. It was also the time he started visiting us in the house more frequently. He would just visit and hang out. Sometimes he asked if he could work on his architectural plans on one of the tables in our studio. Often times we would make a video. Arlan never completely shook his shyness off in front of the camera even as I kept encouraging him. And yet, he loved making those videos and had fun while we shot them.
I would often not tell him what I will be talking about in your “Kwentong Tambay” videos in an effort to catch him off guard and make him laugh. And he was *always* caught off guard. And I had fun being able to make him laugh.
We had the impression that while he loved his job, Arlan was being stressed out. I could understand that pretty well. I practiced Architecture for several years before I went into comics. It is one of the most stressful jobs out there. Arlan must have loved creating all these terrific designs, but had difficulty dealing with problematic, demanding and unrealistic clients. When he visited us in our house, he would rarely talk about his work and when he did, it was brief and it almost always came with a frown. He came to talk about comics, movies, TV shows, robots, painting, illustrating, and computers.
On the way to Manila to join a Coke Blogger’s event in 2008 (where Arlan and I created a video for a contest), Arlan suddenly asked me if I had a story lying around that he could draw. At that very moment, I was beginning to illustrate “Where Bold Stars Go To Die”, a comics story I wrote back in 2000, which went through several artists unsuccessfully until I decided to do it myself.
I asked him how well he drew girls. He said, yes, I can do that! And at the Blogger’s event an hour or so later, he demonstrated on a small piece of paper just how good he was. I knew he was good, but not *that* good. It turns out he was better than I expected. He harbored dreams of drawing comics you see, and he wished he could for a long time. In fact, he had come up with a 6-page pencilled submission on 11″x17″ and gave me five copies to bring with me to the 1999 San Diego Convention. I passed them around and showed one to my then editor Brian Haberlin. He said he could see the potential in Arlan’s work, but that he needed more practice, specially in the backgrounds.
That’s a page from Arlan’s 1999 comics submission. See if you can spot R2D2 on the dashboard in the last panel.
Looking at the entire submission again now, I can tell how serious he was. I remember asking him back then… what if you get a job out of this? I said, you’re going to have to choose between this and Architecture as both are time intensive jobs and cannot be done full time at the same time. And he said he’d love to do comics. Back in 1999 it was easier to believe him. In 2008 it was far harder to because his Architecture practice was such a success. But here he was asking to draw comics.
Seeing how good he was drawing women (just take a look at THIS and you’ll see for yourself), I gave him “Where Bold Stars Go To Die” to draw. I asked him if he was sure if he wanted to do this particular story as I knew how conservative his background was. He was very religious and he had priests as close friends and a nun for an aunt. But he said yes nevertheless. And so we were off.
He attacked those pages with startling enthusiasm, finishing a few pages right away and went here and showed them eagerly to me. They were pretty good and I thought they would do fine for the book. I lent him a copy of Berni Wrightson’s Frankenstein as well as a copy of Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen and I can tell how blown away he was by those books.
He went promptly back home and redid those pages and they turned out spectacular.
It was while he was drawing “Bold Stars” that he learned that he was sick. He never said the word “cancer”, nobody did, but we all knew exactly what it was. He stopped working actively on his Architecture projects, and concentrated his efforts into drawing our comic book. He had joked that when he learned he was sick, he was suddenly compelled to work faster.
In his Afterword to Bold Stars he wrote:
No hospital bed could stop me from doing it, where I used pillows as a makeshift drawing table. It was truly a worthwhile experience.
It took him exactly a year to finish drawing Bold Stars. He bagan sometime in July 2008, and finished it sometime in July 2009. By this time Arlan had lost all his hair, and his body showed the effects of continuous chemotherapy. And yet I swear, that smile never left his face every time we saw him. He continued to draw and he continued to improve. His development as an artist was nothing short of astonishing. In just a short amount of time his work transformed from this:
It was as if a creative tap was suddenly opened inside him and it was now furiously gushing out. He wanted more things to draw, and he looked forward eagerly to our next project, which would have been “Rodski Patotski: Ang Dalagang Baby”.
I had began working for Marvel again during this time and my time was suddenly tight. I found less time to write the story, but I assured him that it was coming. I was also working to get a compilation of ELMER out, as well as the Bold Star book, in time for KOMIKON by October 2009.
I wanted to finish the layout of Bold Stars, and letter it, and somehow find the money to print it so Arlan could have the opportunity to experience launching and signing his comic book during one of the biggest comic events in the country. It is here I want to thank my friend Leinil Francis Yu as well as Jamie Bautista of Nautilus Comics and LSA Printing for helping make this possible.
That was me and Arlan signing at the Komikon 2009, talking with a fan. Actually, he’s my brother Noel.
I can’t even begin to say how happy I was that Arlan was able to experience that event. I believed that it was an experience that he will have over and over, but deep in the back of my mind I thought it might be possible that this may be the last event he could attend. It drove me to make sure that Bold Stars came out at that convention, just in case.
By December 2009 it seemed that Arlan was getting much better. He was further pursuing the development of his art, having taken up photography. He was able to attend the 2nd San Pablo Comics Festival as well as join us Komikeros in our monthly meetings later that month. His hair had started to grow back.
Arlan asked at this meeting how the writing of Rodski Patotski was going. I said I hadn’t started yet, but I was thinking of writing a short story for him, in time for the Komikero Anthology. Thinking hard as I looked at Arlan and the things that he had went through, I immediately knew what I was going to write. I wanted to tell the story of two people who, for some reason, have agreed to go out on a date once a week. The guy was dying of cancer, while the girl was depressed and suicidal. I called it “Mitch and Mischa”. I asked Arlan if the storyline was OK with him and he said yes.
I didn’t see Arlan too much in the month that followed, but we did keep in touch online or on the phone or through text (on my wife’s cell). He visited us once in January and I showed him the trailer to the live action movie of Battleship Yamato. He went berserk when he saw it, and so did I. He asked to see it several times, and couldn’t wait to see the actual thing.
By middle of January, we kind of lost touch for a week. No messages, no emails, Facebook updates or texts. I started to sense that something was wrong. Arlan never went for so long without getting in touch back. On January 29 he finally texted back to confirm what we had feared. The tumors had spread to his kidneys and lungs and he was confined at St. Lukes Hospital in Manila.
I visited Arlan on February 6 and although he had a full head of hair, he had difficulty speaking. But once again, he had a smile that never left his lips. He was actually game to do a video, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to bring my camera. I kidded him about hurrying up and getting dressed because we had a signing at Sputnik in Cubao that afternoon. He said “Let’s Go!”, and I could tell he was serious. I had mentioned that the store had run out of copies of “Where Bold Stars To To Die” so I brought 20 copies along with me to deliver to the store. When Arlan heard that, he asked to sign the books. ALL 20 books. And lying there on his hospital bed, attached to an IV and other gadgets, he slowly signed every copy. And when you look at those signatures, you would never know he was sick.
We received an urgent call on February 16, asking us to visit Arlan one more time, in case Arlan wanted to tell us something or for us to say something in return. The time was approaching, we were told, now that the tumors have reached his brain. He had difficulty remembering the names of friends and relatives the night before. I dropped everything and went back to St. Lukes that same day. Arlan could no longer recognize me, or maybe even see me. He could still hear me, I was told. So I held his hand and talked to him, thanking him for everything and assured him that we’ll see each other again.
Arlan’s family brought him home the following day, and on the early morning of February 18, we received the call that Arlan had passed away.
At Arlan’s wake, Mazinger Z, Voltes V and Optimus Prime stood watch over his body.