The story behind Marvel’s first Pinoy superhero cover

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The limited-edition variant cover for Marvel’s “War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas #1,” featuring Cebuana superhero Wave. She is the first Filipino superhero to have a Marvel comic cover. Photo courtesy of COMIC ODYSSEY

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Do you want to be part of a book that's gonna feature a FIlipino character?” asks C.B. Cebulski, Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief, to Comic Odyssey’s head honcho Sandy Sansolis.

Cebulski was talking about a limited-edition variant cover for Marvel’s “War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas #1,” featuring Cebuana superhero Wave.

“I saw the solicitation but didn’t know anything about the title,” Sansolis says. “All I knew was that it was going to feature a new Filipino hero, and I was already sold. ‘Okay, I’m on it!’”

On May 11, the second floor of Robinsons Galleria, home of Comic Odyssey’s newest store, was jam-packed with close to a thousand fans who were there for a signing that was only scheduled to last three hours, but extended to around eight.

The comic book signing of "War Realms: New Agents of Atlas" at Robinson's Galleria. Photo by ANTON HOLMES

The reception was more than what Sansolis could have asked for. Solicitations for comic books usually come two months before their release. These already have a plot summary and cover options. Retailers use these to assess the orders to be made, as it would have to go through a U.S. distributor before getting shipped here.

“I guess it makes sense that they offered it to me, a Filipino retailer in the Philippines,” Sansolis says. “I’ve been here since 1997, and I’ve had an account with Marvel and (international comics distributor) Diamond for longer.”

Sansolis was given free rein over the whole project, from choice of artist/colorist, to concept, to style of printing. He thought of Leinil Yu (who he didn’t know at the time was actually Wave’s co-creator) but the latter was working on another Marvel project.

Enter superstar artist Mico Suayan. He’s one of the most prominent local artists on social media, (where, incidentally, he was mistaken for a woman and thus given the nickname “The Goddess” by comic enthusiasts).

“I was surprised that the line was snake-like,” says Suayan. “Five hours and counting! That is the longest time I’ve ever taken for a signing.”

“I’m overwhelmed by the reception of the people for the character, but of course credit goes to co-creators Greg Pak (writer) and Leinil Yu (artist),” he adds.

The initial sketch layout of Wave. Photo courtesy of COMIC ODYSSEY

Also active in the convention circuit, Suayan has been on a roll with a series of exclusive covers he’s been working on with Unknown Comic Books. He has done covers for “Venom,” “Return of Wolverine,” “Avengers No Road Home,” “The Batman Who Laughs,” and more recently, the 1000th issue of Detective Comics. Naturally, he jumped at the opportunity to do another milestone project.

“Marvel asked me what I would want in the cover. First thing in my head was the flag. It can’t just be something like fighting Iron Man,” Sansolis shares with a laugh. “It had to be significant, and the flag was the only thing I thought that would really have that impact on the cover. I contacted Mico because I’ve worked with him before. I love his art, obviously. He’s at his prime. There’s always something better every time you get to see his work.”

Suayan says that he was given instructions on the composition. “They wanted something iconic or showing a Philippine landmark, or something Filipino as a whole,” he shares. “Sandy suggested the Philippine flag, so I did a few sketches and layouts and sent it to them. After a couple of days, I got the approval from Sandy to do this pose.”

Even with 22 years of comics retailing experience in the Philippines, the experience of working on the Wave variant cover was totally new to Sansolis. He was involved from the rough sketch to the finished product, adding how this was the first time he’s ever been this invested on a comic. It was a close collaboration with Suayan, he adds.

“I remember when I first saw the art, I felt shivers on my spine. Wow! It’s better than I had imagined,” says Sansolis.

The ink version of the Wave cover. Photo courtesy of COMIC ODYSSEY

Suayan was in fact still in the U.S. when he finished the cover. “It was a Sunday, and my deadline was Monday. I didn’t sleep. And then when I finally finished, I found out that my uncle did not have a scanner! So I took a photo and sent it to Marvel, just to show that I had really finished it,” he recalls.

The phone picture wouldnt do, as they would need the actual high-quality scan for the next process: coloring. “I asked for another hour and scrambled around Cerritos to find a FedEx office where I can scan my work. When I finally sent it, they were very happy. All my fatigue went away when I got their reaction,” shares Suayan.

Colorist Rain Beredo, whose works have also appeared on Marvel titles, took up the task of creating some splash for Wave’s debut cover.

“When I saw the colored version, I was even more blown away,” shares Sansolis. “I saw the originals, sketch to copics to color. Marvel asked if I wanted the Comic Odyssey logo up front, I said no. I wanted the art as clean as possible, but the title ‘War of the Realms’ was required. I had the option to do the virgin (pure art) variant, so that’s what I opted for, even if it meant higher cost. I was really worried. The cost to do those exclusives were too much, I had to borrow some money! ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” he says.

A couple of weeks after opening pre-orders, the variant cover with a print run of 1,000 pieces sold out.

The original price of the variant was ₱799, back when the 3,000 units of the regular variant hadn’t arrived. This is three times the usual price of a comic book they sell, but as it is a key book, the speculative market was on it.

“At first, they didn't sell as well, but they picked up midway when people realized that it featured the full art. Now it feels great,” says Sansolis. “I should’ve printed more, I should’ve gotten a third cover, but you don’t really know. I’ve been part of exclusive covers before, and they didn’t sell as good — it just broke even and took us quite a long time [to recoup].”

Comic artist Mico Suayan with cosplayer Nicki Roque, who had her costume rushed for the signing. Photo by ANTON HOLMES

Sansolis adds that aside from the newest Filipino hero, there’s also a K-pop hero, and a couple of Chinese heroes. This, he says, is indicative that Marvel is aware of the huge Asian market.

At the signing, only 50 issues remained. Some collectors chose to have it slabbed directly — to maintain and preserve the quality and value of this book. Due to scarcity, the remaining books now sell at ₱3,000. It fetches as high as $200 upwards on eBay.

“It's definitely a very profitable project. Now I know I’ll definitely do another variant in the future,” says Sansolis. “I don't know what Marvel's plans are, but all I know is she’s already part of the Marvel Universe.”

Sanolis adds: “[C.B. and the people at Marvel] are making the Marvel Universe more inclusive and it makes sense — it's not just about U.S. heroes. It just makes me think, maybe they have bigger plans for this character or more characters. It can't just be that Wave is the only hero from the Philippines.”

Suayan, himself a father of a young girl, is proud to be part of a project that puts a strong Filipina on the forefront. He hopes to continue inspiring through his art, as he has only gotten to where he is now with hard work and dedication. “My advice is to keep on dreaming. If you want to achieve something, you have to work for it. There’s no such thing as an easy way to achieve that goal.”

And dream they did. Now off to make bigger waves.