Why do we remember good stories?
For comic book writer and artist Whilce Portacio, good stories connect to our emotions. “Once a storyteller can achieve that, the storyteller is no longer a stranger, but a friend.”
Portacio was one of the speakers of the Creative Futures virtual conference last June. Thirty years deep in the industry, he has worked on prestigious projects such as Heroes Reborn: Iron Man, The Punisher, and X-Factor, among others. As a Filipino who built his career in the United States, Portacio inserted Filipino nuances into his work, like a bomber jacket embroidered with the Filipino flag on a print issue of X-Men. Once, he even named a character after Regine Valesquez for an issue of Wetworks. While Portacio’s work is focused on superheroes and fantasies, he believes the best stories are believable to ordinary people.
“The more universal your stories are, the more believable it will be,” said Portacio. Take the viral sensation Trese, created by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo. It was written and animated in a familiar way to Filipinos – from the use of colloquial language, to the portrayal of Metro Manila’s streets. Familiarity is also evident in Iron Man, who was born with a weak heart, risking everything to keep it alive. In the acclaimed Pixar film Coco, a young boy aspires to be a musician, despite his family’s generations-old aversion to music. Even in the fantasy-heavy Spirited Away, a girl works in a magical bathhouse to free her and her parents from a secret world. These stories illustrate the importance of relatability – stories appealing to our hearts.
How can the Philippines develop a distinct yet relatable brand of storytelling in the international market? After all, Slumdog Millionaire was India’s answer to a visually dazzling and emotional blockbuster. In Singapore, there was Crazy Rich Asians. South Korea had Parasite, which won Best Picture in the 93rd Academy Awards in 2020.
Yet, that is not to say the Philippines hasn’t already laid this groundwork. There are examples of storytellers weaving Western genre tropes with distinctly Filipino themes and settings. like Mikhail Red’s haunted Catholic school in Eerie or the universal story of lost love in the quintessentially rom-com hit, Sid & Aya: Not a Love Story.
While a good plot helps, it’s also important to know your characters inside and out, especially during a time of hyper visual stimulation. The stories of Hercules and Dracula have been well-fleshed out for generations and Portacio believes there's an opportunity to explore Filipino storytelling through local mythologies. For example, a quick Google search of the Lumawig, an Ifugao spirit in Cordillera, northern Luzon, will find its folktale limited to academic journals and blog posts. An effort to make its story more accessible was done by Serious Studio last year through Gunitaan – a digital library and art zine initiative consisting of nine Filipino folktales, which included the Lumawig story. On their website, the Gunitaan description writes: “The memory (gunita) of who we are lives in the stories we tell. Mythical and of worlds within and beyond our own, these folktales carry the richness of being Filipino.”
In fact, Portacio envisions these mythology adaptations have the potential to be “universe” franchises like Lord of the Rings or Marvel, which displayed promising performances in the
foreign market. “The more interwoven our stories of mythology, the more our world of mythology will feel real,” he said.
“I can’t wait for everyone to hear about the devastating horror of manananggal, splitting into two and flying to grab you,” Portacio shared enthusiastically, “or how we’ve endured hundreds of years of conquest by other countries.” Even if these inherently Filipino stories are less understood in other cultures, the familiarity of characters makes any story relatable – stories connecting us to universal truths.
On his final note, Portacio reminds the audience that the stories we tell today become the people we want to be.