When editorial cartoons were king
Social media can be very tiring these days. One day you are amused by someone’s posts about her mouth-watering meals, but another time you are irritated by the same posts that indicate the calorie count of the food that weighs heavily on your hips and belly. Politics in social media is a sure way to raise blood pressure because humor seems to be lacking in posts for or against Du30, Mocha and her minions, or the various issues the nation faces from drugs and EJKs or the President’s pores or the justice secretary’s wig.
What was the world like when we got our news from newspapers? Historians go through a lot of paper, rarely lamenting the trees sacrificed to produce hard copies. Years of leafing through old newspapers have made me realize that editorial cartoons are not what they used to be, and that in the Philippines sharp cartoons had been swept away by martial law and censorship. Cartoons and cartoonists nipped during the Marcos years did not grow back after 1986.
I was a college freshman when I first entered the Lopez Museum in Pasay, after hearing about it from my teacher Doreen Fernandez—and it was love at first sight that developed into a long and productive relationship. The paintings of Juan Luna were in one wing of the building, the paintings, sketches and drawings of Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo in another. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the historian Renato Constantino there, but he had retired by then, so I vented my frustration on the library, going through its collection of: old maps of the Philippines in the 17th-19th centuries, an assortment of letters by Rizal and objects associated with him, and what is still one of the finest Filipiniana collections
in the country.
I remember going over prewar publications with quaint titles: Telembang (the sound of a bell), Pakakak (a noisy horn), Buntut-Pague (stingray tail whip), Hagupit (To lash), and Aruy! (no explanation needed). The issues of the time were similar to the present day’s—politics, corruption in high places, changing mores and morality, etc. But the artwork that spoke of these were eye-catching, more so when you discover that the first national artist for painting, Fernando C. Amorsolo, had a sharp side you would never imagine if you were to base your opinion of him on all his bright and sunny canvases of the pastoral that was the Philippines during “Pistaym,” the carefree years before the terror of the Japanese Occupation.
Amorsolo made some very fine drawings, of a draftsmanship hardly seen today. He worked with numerous magazines like The Independent and Renacimiento Filipino; in Bagong Lipang Kalabaw he
illustrated Lope K. Santos’ text in a comic strip, “Ganito pala sa Manila,” about a young man from the province who tries his luck in the city only to realize that it is not paved with gold and good intentions.
He also made the most racist and politically incorrect cartoons. Very anti-Chinese: One on the four specialties of Chinese cuisine had a cat in the broth, which probably gave rise to the urban legend about cat meat in our siopao. He also made a cartoon in 1907 tracing how at the start Pinoy and Chinese water carriers began their careers at the same time, but a decade later the Chinese had become wealthy and traveled in a car while the Pinoy remained a water carrier but was older and wearier.
Amorsolo’s rivals were Jorge Pineda, who did the cartoons for The Independent, a magazine run by the firebrand Vicente Sotto, and Jose Pereira, who did the wonderful cartoons for the Philippines Free Press. Amorsolo and Pineda’s paintings sell very well at auctions these days, but their canvases do not reflect the other side of their lives—doing cartoons that sometimes dominated the content of the whole issue of the periodical.
Aside from Alfredo Roces and Alfred McCoy’s coffee-table book on Philippine cartoons and some other publications on komiks and komiks illustrators, we have yet to see a full history of the Philippine press or a full history of the way cartoons, being pictures, said more than the proverbial thousand words displayed in the articles and columns in Philippine newspapers and magazines.
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