Posted November 7, 2017 by Drew Bagay in Comics

LET’S TALK KOMIKS: Ethan Chua and Scott Lee Chua on Creating Philippine History/Mythology Comic ‘Doorkeeper’

Philippine history buffs are in for a treat with Summit Book’s newest graphic novel Doorkeeper, an anthology book that chronicles the country’s rich history and mythology with an added twist. Through a cosmic entity known as the Doorkeeper, the comic book journeys through various eras in Philippine history, mythology and literature.

We sat down with writers Ethan Chua and Scott Lee Chua to talk about their upcoming anthology comic book Doorkeeper – their artistic influences, on its inception and creation, and juggling several artists for an anthology book.

Doorkeeper-CoverFlipGeeks: What was the first comic book you’ve read?

Scott: Peanuts by Charles Schultz was the first comic strip I read, since my parents owned a collected edition. The next comic I read (years later) was Gaiman’s Sandman. I was maybe 12, and still too young to catch most of the allusions.

I followed Marvel/DC through the cartoons and animated series, and only began reading the comics recently as a result of watching the MCU movies and Netflix’s Defenders series.

What comics in particular did you read while growing up? How about now?

Scott: I would look for collected stories or finished arcs, since I wanted to read stories all at once. So Sandman aside, I recall reading the Batman: Black and White volume, Moore’s Watchmen, Moon & Ba’s Daytripper.

I also began reading Budjette & Kajo’s Trese series when Book 1 came out, and have kept my collection updated to this day!

Currently I’m following Gillen & McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which is so amazing I can’t wait for them to finish arcs–I have to read each issue as it comes out. I’m also following Ta Nehisi-Coates’ Black Panther run, which has an interesting take on vigilante politics and terrorism. Just this past week, I’ve read the first issues for the DC and Marvel universe reboots (Rebirth #1 and Legacy #1 respectively), but will wait for those arcs to finish before reading further.

Ethan: Recently I’ve been drawn to more autobiographical/biographical work, and slice of life style graphic novels. Of course Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi are up at the top of the list; I also recently enjoyed Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan.

Is there a theme that you look for in comics?

E: I’m really drawn to notions of memory and the memories that fill the spaces we walk through, whether knowingly or unknowingly – in the Philippine context, I’m interested in exploring colonial memory, and how we “create” memory in the wake of the psychic/emotional scars left by oppression and invasion. Though he’s not a comic artist I’m heavily influenced by the writer Italo Calvino in this regard.

S: I’m drawn to stories about transition: the end of an era, the leaving of a legacy, the inheritance of a mantle. For comic books, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader (and its predecessor, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow), about the legacies of Superman/Batman, are favorites of mine. For comic book movies, Logan (the movie) was especially moving. Something about the mythical nature of identity–how it’s retained, transferred, and lost–really resonates with me.

Both of you are based outside Philippines. Ethan – California, USA; Scott – Singapore. How is the comic book culture like over there? How do you get your comic book fix?

E: Well, there’s a pretty good range of comics in the States. I’ve picked up Miss Marvel, Hellboy, other titles I enjoy from bookstores here. But I don’t really get the chance to attend the independent cons I loved back at home since not a lot of that happens where I’m studying.

S: The Big Three publisher fandom here is present, but not as strong as back home. At the last comic con at Marina Bay Sands just last month, the biggest exhibitors were Disney (for The Last Jedi) and Bandai (for Gundam). So there are fewer Marvel/DC fanboys in Singapore. :)

There’s a strong graphic literature culture though. Pangdemonium, a local theater group, recently staged the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel ‘Fun Home.’ And the “Great Singapore Novel” at the moment is Sonny Liew’s ‘The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye,’ which recently won an Eisner.

Sonny Liew is just the man.

S: I freaking know! He came to my school, Yale-NUS College, to give a lecture and field questions, since my batch read his work as part of Literature and Humanities class. I wrote my final paper for that class on the creation of Charlie Chan’s identity. Fun!

E: Definitely Sonny Liew’s deft mix of historical narrative and personal narrative resonated with us when making Doorkeeper. There’s this wonderful thing in comics where you get to almost reanimate or resurrect bits and pieces of history … it’s a genre filled with life.

Tell us about Doorkeeper. Could you tell us something about the main character? What were your individual contributions when making behavior and physical traits of the character?

E: The idea behind Doorkeeper is straightforward–he symbolizes choice. There’s an intense experience/pressure in making hard choices that we tried to personify with Doorkeeper. We wanted him to start off awe-inspiring, immense, unreadable, scary… like the avatar of endless possibilities.

The physical traits of the character, though – that was one of the really fun parts, as we gave our artists a lot of freedom to interpret what that’d be.

S: As cosmic beings go, the default costume is a black robe of stars. But we gave our artists the freedom to design Doorkeeper however they liked, so long as he had a door for a head. Jap Mikel designed this ornate, kingly Doorkeeper fit for a medieval-age story. Bow Guerrero went for an organic, aged-wood look. Gia Duran ignored the condition entirely and made Doorkeeper into an owl. Seeing the different designs was a lot of fun.

What was the research like when you both were creating Doorkeeper?

S: Writing our WWII and Martial Law era chapters took some researching to get our timelines and cultural references right.

E: While not “research” per se, writing Chapter 3 involved revisiting Balagtas’s classic Florante at Laura. Using that classic as a jump-off point for new stories was super exciting. We were asking questions like–what could’ve motivated Count Adolfo to take over the kingdom of Albanya?

S: Balagtas’ version also reflected mindsets both colonial and outdated. For instance, the ending in the original is that Aladin and Flerida, the 2 Muslim protagonists, ‘celebrate’ their victory by being baptized into Christianity–an ending reminiscent of Spanish-era evangelization of the indios.

Also, both the female characters Laura and Flerida were pretty much damsels in distress throughout the story.

So we made conscious shifts to these themes. Flerida is a major character in our version! And we shifted the discussion away from the use of religion as a colonizing tool, toward religion as a means of developing tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

How was editing like?

E: Editing was definitely tricky, since Scott and I were working from our respective college campuses and from different timezones. We really had to set up weekly Skype sessions to make sure we had time set aside to talk over the comic.

Scott and I both started as prose writers, and one major thing we had to learn throughout the process is that writing for comics is rather different from writing prose.

One really simple thing we didn’t realize until we started is that you just can’t have the same length of dialogue in comics as you do in prose. Now you’re not writing for the sake of the words – the text and art need to work in concert. So we edited a lot for brevity.

Also, dialogue is doubly important since for most characters that’s the only peek readers get into their heads– so dialogue needs to be distinctive.

S: A lot of editing was also for pacing. Page space matters much more in comics than in prose, and we had to negotiate how much could fit on one panel, then on one page. Thinking visually while writing was a fun new skill we had to develop along the way.

Chapter 1 preview. Art by Allen Geneta.

Chapter 1 preview. Art by Allen Geneta.

Were there any comics that you used as supplementary reference while working on this book?

S: Absolutely! For fight scenes, [Sta Maria’s] Skyworld was our gold standard. For realistic, thoughtful dialogue, we referred to Daytripper.

E: This comic is also a pretty big homage to Sandman and Neil Gaiman’s work.

S: So whenever we were in a creative slump, reading some Sandman would always help jog our creativity.

Usually, there would be one writer and one artist for a comic book project. How come Doorkeeper is made up of a big roster?

S: This is deliberate. Once Ethan and I decided that we wanted to write an anthology-type comic composed of chapters with smaller stories, we also wanted each chapter to look and feel distinct from one another. Since finding an artist adept in six, seven different styles is pretty much impossible, we divided the work!

Allen Geneta’s darkly-inked, bold style that makes for an epic first chapter set in precolonial times is quite different from Aaron Felizmenio’s impressionistic brush style in our quiet concluding chapter. We tried our best to match chapters to artists so that their art styles fit the mood of the story.

How did you select the artists?

E: We deliberately chose artists from a wide range of backgrounds. We wanted each era to have a different feel. Of course, we have really experienced comic artists on board such as Aaron and Bow. But sometimes we’d deliberately pick artists whose specialties weren’t in comics.

For example, Bianca Lesaca is more of a children’s book illustrator, so her watercolor-based style really shone for chapter 2 – which is about the memory of a child.

And this is Jap’s first comic, as his experience is really more in graphic design, but his eye for color and detail really helped his chapter come to life.

Where did you find the artists–social media, websites, cons?

E: It was a mix! We discovered a couple at Asia Pop Comic-Con, where I went table to table pitching the project.

S: We found some others through referrals and recommendations. Omeng Estanislao, whom I’ve worked with before on a children’s book series, referred Allen to us.

What is the experience like working with 8 artists?

E: I mean, while logistically it was crazy – we were working from abroad over all sorts of platforms – some artists we talked to over Facebook, some over Viber, some over text message when possible, some over email. In practice it was amazing to have that many people involved in the comic. I’m used to writing as this solo creative process, but having an entire part of the creative process essentially out of my hands was super exciting.To me, it felt like co-dreaming – like I was building a world with nine different people (Scott + the 8 artists).

S: The year of creating Doorkeeper was the most filled my message and email inboxes have ever been. The day-to-day experience of it was rather managerial – answering questions about plot, approving designs, sending follow-ups. But it wasn’t all monotony for sure. Seeing anything new the artists would create, be it a new concept art sketch or a new page draft, was immensely exciting!

E: It was always this wait for what they’d send us over. I remember being floored by Gia’s owl design for Doorkeeper, and loving Brent’s heavy pencilwork for the church in chapter 5. Then seeing Allen send over a battle scene? That was mindblowing.

Storytelling is very important in any comic book, could you describe the storytelling style of each of your artist?

E: Well, there are eight artists, so it’d be a long-winded answer describing them all individually. Suffice it to say that we deliberately picked artists for the greatest breadth of style! So Brent’s artwork for Intramuros is heavy on pencil and ink, bringing to mind the shadowed enclaves of old churches … Bianca’s watercolors are almost dreamlike in their quality … Bow’s clean, sharp lines really speak to this hyperefficient, hyperproductive future-Manila … like everyone brought their own “voice” to the table. It’s this blend of historical (or ahistorical) context and personal style which really makes the art come alive.

All writers have their own unique flavor of writing, what similarities do you both have and differences from each other?

E: Well, my main writing experience is actually in poetry, and I’ve been writing poetry since high school – and I’ve performed spoken word several times in Manila, including in Sev’s Cafe before it closed down. So when it came to this comic I tried bringing some principles from poetry into my writing – an emphasis on clear imagery; economy of words. But there was a lot of adjusting I needed to do!

S: Ethan and I are both adept with the first-person voice – he as a poet, I as a magazine columnist and essayist. Writing third-person for our Doorkeeper characters was a nice challenge. We would ask ourselves: is this line just me speaking through the character, or is it something the character would actually say?

I do differ from Ethan in that I’m a more structured writer; I like to know that the story works even as an outline: that the twists made sense, that each major character gets enough airtime, that the threads leading toward the ending converge one by one. We work together pretty well–an ear for style and an eye for structure are stronger together.

But I also had to adjust to the uncertainty collaboration brings. When our artists would argue to reshuffle scenes, or our editors challenged our characters’ motivations, rethinking stories was initially difficult for me.

Although we finished the first draft of the Doorkeeper script in April, we continued tweaking and rewriting… and rewriting and rewriting, all the way through to September. So I got pretty good at it. Hahaha!

Both of you are in college and have majors that are quite not related to Doorkeeper or comics. What is it with writing? Why are you both not taking any art & literature-related majors?

E: Well your major definitely isn’t your life, right? It’s a significant part of your academic career but it in no way dictates the entirety of your choices. I mean, I’m still undeclared and figuring out what I want to pursue academically in Stanford; I’m currently considering physics but even that can change, but writing has been a constant in my life. I’ve written since I was a kid. I’ve been telling stories and just haven’t stopped since.

S: Like Ethan, I’ve been writing since I was young, independent of whatever I was taking in school at the moment. The writing and feedback process doesn’t have to be academic (e.g. in a writing class) to be effective. Writing for many different media/genres – the children’s book and its emphasis on clarity; the magazine column and its demand for brevity; the academic essay, the spoken word poem, the fiction story, and now the graphic novel – all these experiences have made me a better writer. Receiving feedback from readers and fellow writers has really helped me spot my flaws and improve.

At the same time, I’m also quite interested in economics, which is something that has to be learned academically. So I chose it as my major. As Ethan said, though, your major isn’t your life. And I’m also taking courses in genetics, philosophy, and sociology at present.

E: Definitely there’s something magical about writing. There’s the satisfaction of working through a craft, seeing yourself improve, realizing that you’re making artistic choices that you wouldn’t even have considered two or three years ago, and there’s also the raw thrill of storytelling.

S: Starting a story is daunting, but it also feels infinite – like you could do anything with that blank page. Accessing that infinity, whittling it down into narrative, wrestling it into coherence, that’s exhilarating.

Chapter 4 preview. Art by Gia Dominique Duran.

Chapter 4 preview. Art by Gia Dominique Duran.

Like I said before, both of you are not based here in the Philippines. You could’ve pitched this book to foreign publishers. Why did you pitch this to Summit?

E: Well, maybe we’re not based in the Philippines at the moment – but this is just college, and otherwise we’ve lived all our lives in Manila. Manila’s still home to us, 100%. So it just made sense to start with a local publisher as opposed to going to an international one.

S: Plus, Doorkeeper is rooted in Filipino history, mythology, and culture – it’s really our attempt to engage with many of our nation’s central narratives, literary and otherwise. And that needs to happen at home.

What lessons have you learned after Doorkeeper?

E: First off, that writing takes a lot of work. To be honest, Scott and I started this project thinking it would take two months at most, and that was a really naive assessment. Writing out the first draft of the comic took nearly a year. Then there was editing, editing, and more editing, plus working with artists, getting feedback as to how to better blend art and script, even major overhauls during the writing process.

Another thing for me was just this (re)discovery of the imaginative power of speculative fiction, this kind of fantastical exploration of different concepts and worlds can actually engage really well with issues such as colonialism, historical oppression, how to talk back to power. In many ways the imaginative work we did in Doorkeeper is also aspirational, a kind of reaching towards a better world through stories. Though of course that’s ultimately quite idealistic, the notion that stories have power is very real to me. They’ve definitely changed my life time and again.

Is Doorkeeper a one-and-done story or will there be continuation?

S: We intended it to be a one-and-done, self-contained story. Neither of us are fans of sequels made for the sake of making sequels. So unless we think of a story best told through the Doorkeeper universe, that door is shut, pun intended!

After all of this, will you guys create more comic book related projects?

E: I mean, right now the marketing and the logistics of getting Doorkeeper out there is keeping us pretty busy. But definitely Scott and I would love to work on more comics, especially if Doorkeeper resonates with Filipino readers. There are a bunch of other stories we’d love to tell, and we’re interested in deliberately highlighting obscure/sidelined historical narratives for future projects.

S: Some stories are best told in a certain medium, and Ethan and I have ideas for a couple such stories that we’re keeping secret for now. :)

Scott particularly mentioned that Doorkeeper was conceptualized after talking with Ethan about the butterfly effect. So far, were there any small choices/decisions you’ve guys made that impacted your lives in a big way?

E: Well, one was definitely deciding to bring up this idea I had for a character with a door for a head to Scott over dinner.

S: That one’s had quite a huge effect. For me, it was sending a Hail Mary application in senior year to Yale-NUS College, which had been my dream college since freshman year. Two years later, I’m studying in Singapore with some of the brightest minds I’ve ever met.

E: Another was deciding to attend an open mic at Sev’s Cafe several years back and seeing Juan Miguel Severo perform spoken word. That choice changed so much for me. It made me realize how alive poetry is in the Philippines and brought me back into a love for my home.

Watching Words Anonymous perform all over Manila ended up being this huge part of my high school life, and I’m still doing spoken word until now. Right now I’m lucky enough to be part of the Stanford Spoken Word Collective.

Doorkeeper will be launched at Komikon 2017, November 11-12, at the Bayanihan Center. Available soon at bookstores, newsstands, and convenience stores nationwide for P275. Published by Summit Books.

Drew Bagay

Drew is a lover of comic books, movies, and all things pop culture. He enjoys crime/thriller/noir fiction, playing the guitar, and taking long walks. He also doesn't like talking in third person.