Kenkoy kick-started 'komiks'

by Chong Ardivilla
Manila, Philippines

 

The Filipino “komiks” industry began with sheer luck... or by accident. You must remember that accidents are just unplanned that could be fortunate or otherwise. Antonio “Tony” Velasquez was just at the right time and at the right place. In the late 1920s, Tony was working as a subordinate artist for the ‘photoengraving’ section of Liwayway magazine. The writer Romualdo Ramos had a great idea of writing for a comic strip. Since the chief artist for Liwayway then had a congested work schedule, the task of drawing fell to Tony’s lap and the rest is the history of Kenkoy.

Kenkoy was, and in a lot of cases, still is a Pinoy icon. The weekly comic strip Mga Kalbalan ni Kenkoy (Kenkoy’s antics) proved to be so popular that it was translated to several regional languages, generated comic spin-offs of minor characters, and raked in cash for a then burgeoning film industry. Kenkoy with his slick hair, ‘plantsado(starched) pants’ and hilarious antics has endeared himself to the Filipino consciousness. Unfortunately, Romualdo Ramos died suddenly and left Tony Velasquez to continue on his own. Tony proved to be quite effective with Kenkoy working on Kenkoy. Consider the Legacy of Kenkoy... he sparked a thriving comic book industry, the comic book artists came up with similar quirky characters that snared the general public’s attention and movie deals and advertising contracts.

Though considered a component of “Low Art,” komiks provided for the pulse of the people. Serious artists such as the musician Nicanor Abelardo wrote an entire libretto called Hay Naku Kenkoy (Oh my gosh Kenkoy!).

Early 20th Century Filipino poetry has been affected by the manner in which how Kenkoy would pronounce words as exemplified by the poem Ay Introdyus to Yu Mr. Kenkoy. Considered a horrific attack on the English language then, Kenkoy’s English persists and has evolved to ‘Carabao English’ to the recent radical form of the mobile phone SMS or what is locally known as txting (Example: Wru? M hir w8ng olrdy; Translation: Where are you? I’m here waiting already.). But the starkest legacy is the word Kenkoy. It all started when they were looking for a nickname for the main character’s Francisco... Kiko, Iko, or Kikoy are quite common so they thought of Kenkoy. In the Tagalog vernacular, Kenkoy has morphed from character to meaning of somebody who stands out for being funny or as the life of the party. It was Kenkoy who first ingrained himself as part of the Pinoy colloquial vocabulary, which was followed by Barok, Jeproks and other words invented by later cartoonists. Even the word Pinoy or the colloquial for “Filipino” was popularized by a cartoonist.

The Pinoy komiks industry has boomed from the early to the late 20th Century. The relative cheaper production costs of the komiks industry has easily churned out hundreds of thousands of issues for mass consumption. Considered as “poor man’s reading fare” because of its accessibility to the general public. Komiks characters have played with Pinoy imagination becoming apt metaphors for dreaming, struggling and eventually wining over several adversaries.

With the advent of the komiks’ popularity, politicians saw the potential of this medium and used it for their own ends. Komiks also provided for an easier and lesser intimidating educational tool. Radio programs, movie scripts, celebrities, fanfare and profit deluged the Komiks industry. With the sheer demand, the Komiks industry even managed to produce luminaries that eventually made their mark in the American Comic Industry such as Francisco Coching and Alex Niño.

Kenkoy proved to be quite formidable that he was the only not banned by the Japanese Occupation. However, Velasquez and Kenkoy were employed by the Japanese to disseminate about the health programs of the Japanese. Velasquez even created a comic strip about the life of the Pinoys under Japanese rule. It is not sure though that could be an act of collaboration by Velasquez’ part but just imagine the ruckus of the Pinoys then at the time of disastrous war without
Kenkoy to give them a semblance of nostalgia and balance.

I consider it quite the irony that the current Philippine komiks industry is ruled by Japanese influenced comic books such as Culture Crash and Questor. But you can’t blame the present generation of komiks fans for their “Japanization,” these kids were raised with Voltes V. ‘Japanization’ of the komiks is only exacerbated by local television’s bombardment of imported Japanese cartoons. Plus it is also important to note that since the late 70s, the komiks industry has been in steady decline to its now death-throes. Even the komiks publication houses of today have to compromise by making Pinoy “Manga” (Japanese word for Comics) to keep their industry afloat.


Komiks started to fall from mass consumption when other distractions were rendered accessible and more entertaining like the television, radio dramas, telenovellas, tabloids, Pinoy romance novellas and txting. The Golden Age of Komiks started by Kenkoy is now but only small talk of nostalgic older cartoonists that bewail the loss of their pantheon and now being overrun by outside influences. Of course, they tend to forget that komiks is also, first and foremost, an effective tool for American indoctrination.

Present-day comic book artists are divided. One group hurls expletives over the use of Japanese style to make Komiks, while the other group justifies that they were exposed to this Japanese style earlier and that they are products of the changing times. One rallying cry uses a famous Marvel character to instill patriotism in the comic book art form: “Wolverine is a Filipino!” This just shows that Filipino artists are becoming a visible component of the American popular Comic book industry. The other group says that komiks industry is evolving and MUST evolve to secure its survival. But people wonder which is worse, drawing komiks a la Japanese Manga (which is fast gaining popularity) or actually being proud to be part of a former colonial ruler’s vast, cold, conveyor belt factory-type of comic book publication?

What would Tony Velasquez and Kenkoy think?

Even Kenkoy has evolved from a komiks character to a popular culture icon. His funny face regaling over highbrow restaurants, t-shirts, and even on the cover of a coffee-table book about Pinoy pop culture. If there is one thing to be comforted, it is that komiks and the artists that produce them are veering toward the individualization of style albeit how painful and economically non-viable it is. Some argue that it really doesn’t matter which country influenced you.

What is important is the story you tell and the pictures you draw. So which better story to surpass than Kenkoy’s?

So only time can tell when will another Tony Velasquez come along producing another Kenkoy that captured the eyes, ears and laughter of a nation.

For now, Kenkoy endures...and that is pretty amazing.