Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila: A Close Reading Part 1

Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang MaynilaZsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila is pretty loaded with social commentary. From its opening pages alone, the book straightaway comments on gender relations and socio-economic inequality.  All throughout, in a series of recurring flashbacks juxtaposed with scenes of Ada and Dodong’s interactions, the book explores the viability of a relationship between a bakla and a man. Can a man really fall in love with a bakla? But in addition to this, the komiks also asks: What does it mean to be a bakla? Is a bakla the same as a woman? What does it mean to be a woman? Ada’s ability to transform from Ada to Zsazsa, by itself is an attempt to answer these questions. I expect this thread of inquiry will be explored further in the promised two sequels.

But already telling scenes from Sa Kalakhang Maynila reveal some possibilities. There’s a seemingly inconsequential scene in Page 16 of an all-female crew of mechanics which hints at what the work thinks is possible for women in Filipino society. Then, there’s the more complicated answer in Page 29 where scenes from The Vava Vakler, Have You Any Talent Contest reveal the common notions of what bakla are capable of doing. There’s the Valuktot Vakler, a contortionist, the Nagvavagang Vakler, a sort of pyrotechnist, and the Vumivirit Vakler, a musical diva. By playing this up to an absurd level, and setting this within the context of a variety television show, the book comments on Filipino mass media’s treatment of the bakla as spectacle based on society’s narrow conception of the bakla as an entertainer which in the end really translates to the bakla as katatawanan (someone to be laughed at).

This critique of the tendency in mainstream media to turn the bakla into spectacle is an interesting choice of subject matter for Sa Kalakhang Maynila. Thinking about this led me to look at the subtitle more closely. The subtitle not only informs the reader of a change in setting, that Zsazsa is now in the state capital, but also indicates a shift in issues for both the character and the work as a whole. Referencing imperial Manila indicates that Zsazsa is stepping up to a more national platform that is to say Zsazsa, the character, will now be fighting big time bad guys as  a big time superheroine and at the same time Zsazsa, the work, will now be tackling issues of national import, including broader socio-economic issues.

Never has Vergara’s criticism of the mainstream media’s tendency to turn the bakla into a laughingstock spectacle been more timely. A critical essay on this media tendency to stereotype not only bakla but also tomboy by Cleve Arguelles of Pinoy Weekly provides the context and arguments that would make what Vergara is doing in Zsazsa even more lucid. (You can read the article here.) But we also have to recognize that Zsazsa the komix itself is media that is able to set itself apart from other komix precisely because of the gender of its protagonist. It becomes important then to interrogate the book’s use of the bakla. In what ways is it similar or different to mass media’s bakla as katatawanan treatment?

A careful reading of pages 11 to 15 yield, I think, an important answer. What’s also important about this section is that it shows a wonderful example of how form also carries content, and in its execution reveal just how well Carlos Vergara knows his craft. Ever since I read Adam David’s dissections/analyses on komiks at The QBCC and at the same time started taking a Coursera on comic books and graphic novels, I’ve become increasingly aware of and interested in komiks as craft. This has changed how I would normally read komiks. In the past, as in any work of fiction, I read comics to uncover the plot. But when I got to read Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila, I found myself driven by different priorities. I haven’t read the first Zsazsa komiks so I wanted to know how Vergara dealt with both form and content. How self aware would the work be? Thinking about these framing questions, I discerned a shift in my own motive as komiks reader from asking “What is the story?” to inquiring “How is the story told?”. I’ll go through this section page by page:

Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila Page 11

Page 11 looks like a pretty straightforward page from a comic book although there’s some komiks magic going on here already. The top panel employs perspective techniques to create a sense of distance and the impression that Ada and Dodong are taking a walk around the park, or at least, down the illustrated path. There’s also text establishing background music which at this point could be puzzling to the reader. Is this music coming from within the story? Or is this a meta-commentary about the scene itself as a made up scenario? It seems to be establishing two things. First, it romanticizes Manila, which points back to Ada and Dodong’s probinsyano hopes of carving out a new life in the big city. Second, it establishes a mood for drama.

The first panel in the second row zooms in on Dodong’s face. The reader is to examine Dodong’s facial expression as he makes this revelation. It is characterization and potential foreshadowing. Will this romantic past be the subject later on in the narrative? We’ll have to see. The narrow zoomed in panel juxtaposed to its longer partner also creates a sense of duration. The panels of equal width at the bottom row on the other hand help us focus on the action as it happens one after the other. By making the panels equal in width and keeping one element of the picture static (Dodong’s face) we are better able to process that this takes place in quick successive actions.

Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila Page 12

Page 12 mostly employs the same techniques from the previous page although the bottom row doesn’t quite work. The first panel where the border disappears works because it represents Dodong’s successful breach of Ada’s defenses. The borders disappear and we enter into intimacy. However, the next panel has the borders back and this time there are two of them constituting a frame, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what that’s supposed to mean. Does it prepare us for the collage of pictures in the following page? The scene doesn’t look photograph-worthy, I think, so adding the frame isn’t justified. Though perhaps if the frame layout had been tilted it would provide a more tangible link to what takes place next:

Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila Page 13
As Dodong suggests in the previous page (Lipad na, Ada!), Page 13 soars in terms of mood, content, and form. The rigid panels disappear. Instead we have a collage of pictures that defy the neat horizontal layout of previous panels. Ada is drawn comically to illustrate her glee, her kilig, as Dodong chases after her. Although the habulan scene is a cliche, drawing Ada here as a cartoon makes this one of the most hilarious and fresh moments in the book. The bottom panel, where jeeps literally fly, completes this scene in a flamboyance of the fantastic. There is glee and giddiness, high emotions which upends the neat horizontal layout of panels, the realistic sketch of the characters, the laws of physics, and even the purity of language. Page 14 is an elaboration of Page 13, where we see the upending of common socially accepted gender relations and what constitutes as work.

Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila Page 15

In Page 15 the horizontal layout is back but the panels are not yet broken down into short segments. They form long rows, long shots, which accommodate a gradual winding down of emotions, signalling the slow return to order, which sets us up, with great timing, to be jolted by the sudden twist in events brought by an object that falls from the sky in the bottom panel. We are caught up short, as are Ada and Dodong, and this puts an end to the elation that came before. Would this also indicate an end to any possibility of a happily ever after for Ada and Dodong? We can only guess.

Now returning to the interrogation of bakla as katatawan vs bakla as humorous character, Page 11 to 15, show us that the bakla is a more complicated person than the made up spectacle on the screen of prime time television or the local pageant stage.  Going further, Page 11 to 15 also show us, in a nutshell, what Zsazsa as a book explores: the ability, if not the celebration, of the humorous bakla character to upend order.

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Updated: Included reference to That’s (NOT) My Tomboy by Cleve Arguelles; Nov 6 2013
This is a repost of a blog that originally appeared in The Nightly Dump.

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