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How Ian Sta. Maria reimagines Filipino myths and folklore

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Comic book artist Ian Sta. Maria talks about the creative life. Illustration by MARIA SARAH ORLINA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “A good story goes beyond aesthetics, I think,” says comic artist and senior concept artist for Lego, Ian Sta. Maria. “Stories can be told many different ways.” His latest work, “Salamangka,” is less of a comic book and more of an “interactive artbook” featuring the artist’s interpretations of local legends, from gods to giant beasts. Rather than telling a continuous story, Sta. Maria offers short stories to go along with each artwork, allowing readers to come up with their own tales.

Sta. Maria is known in the local komiks scene for deftly weaving Filipino culture, history, and folklore into his work. In “Skyworld,” a graphic novel series he co-created with Mervin Ignacio, a sword-wielding tikbalang named Makabo goes on a quest to destroy the aswang clan that’s ravaging Manila. In “Sixty-Six” (written by Russel Molina), a sari-sari store owner grapples with newfound superpowers on the day he turns 66.

The cover of Ian Sta. Maria's book "Salamangka" features a character called The Datu's Dispirited Daughter. Photo from IAN STA. MARIA/FACEBOOK

A sampling of characters from "Salamangka." Photo from IAN STA. MARIA/FACEBOOK

When asked about the values that are essential in each work he creates, Sta. Maria says, “Filipino culture is so rich with different kinds of stories. It would be nice if more young readers, writers and artists supported and/or jumped on this fun local bandwagon.”

As part of CNN Philippines Life’s series of Q&As with Filipino creatives, we spoke to Sta. Maria to discuss his process, the creative philosophy that guides his work, and challenges that comic artists face. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

There’s no real formula, I think. But I do have to say that being open to criticism, a nice work-life balance, and a lot of fortitude can go a long way.

What is the philosophy that governs your work? How does your day usually go?

Have a story to tell. A good story goes beyond aesthetics, I think. And stories can be told many different ways. Through concept art, sequential boxes in a comic book on a canvas, or a single sketch pad page. Before I do any pen-to-paper sketching, I would often write little tidbits of what can be a story. Then from there I’d start drawing out an image or scene or character from a line or two from a story I have in mind.

Tell us about your latest project. How does your core philosophy relate to or inform your latest work?

I just released my first solo book “Salamangka” together with an amazing team at Summit Books at the 2019 Manila International Book Fair. Like storybooks on flashcards, each page has a short verse that seems to be part of a bigger story with an accompanying visual. I’m a fantasy and mythology geek, so I played around with some Filipino myths and made it my own and along the way, created new ones… hoping that some readers might do the same.

In terms of artbook executions, I wanted to do something different other than just having visuals from cover to cover. I discovered Harris Burdick's book which inspired me to create micro stories from all the visuals I have. Like making an interactive art book of sorts. The stories presented had no beginning nor end but verses that gave you some kind of context for the visual. The goal was to make the reader imagine the rest of the story or make one themselves. And my editors and I thought it would be a nice way to make an artbook more than just an artbook.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

Yes, I do. Mostly for checking what works and what doesn’t. To see what else I should improve on and what techniques I should continue doing.

Whose advice do you seek out when you’re stuck in a bind?

Anyone or everyone. Getting stuck in a bind usually just means that I feel tired or stressed. Having good company around perks me up and helps a lot. Aside from that, I do moodboards a lot. This helps organize my thoughts when I become indecisive.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

I've had a lot of mentors. It's always nice to keep yourself open to different kinds of artistic execution. Getting yourself mentored by sculptors, writers, and directors will expose you to whole new perspectives in storytelling and make you more experimental with your work.

What inspires you?

Stories. Stories from video games, comic books, TV shows, and even day-to-day stuff that happens to me or a friend.

How important is social media in your work?

Very. It’s a venue for getting my work out there for people to criticize and/or appreciate. Free advertising.

What skills do you wish you had?

Sculpting. I’m a very bad sculptor. I need to really work on my sense of space.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

Proper exposure to specific fields you’d like to work in. More often than not, artists become generalized in terms of job descriptions. So some really good painters end up doing storyboards when they should be doing, say, background art for animation. I think being smart in understanding the specifics of what your skill sets are and the job that you fit into. So research and read more about what you want to be good at for a living.

What myth about your field of work would you like to debunk?

That there is such a thing as an artist’s block. That just means you’re tired. So rest.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

Perseverance. Talent is just really a small part of it. Hard work always pays off.