LITERATURE

‘Alandal’ is a swashbuckling tale of conquistadors and pirates set in Sulu

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Author J. Philip Ignacio teams up with legendary DC and Marvel artist Alex Niño for a coming-of-age graphic novel about the daughter of a former conquistador. Photo courtesy of JAY IGNACIO

The final book of comic book illustration legend Alex Niño is a historical epic that starts with a bang.

It’s the year 1762. A conquistador is fleeing the chaos of a naval battle in Jolo. The Spanish military commander Sevellano Rodriguez is running, trying to reach his escape galleon as cannonballs explode around him and the collective wrath of the Kingdom of Sulu, Moro soldiers and the sultan’s agents give chase. Who is the child he carries with him?

Written by J. Philip Ignacio, with lettering by Lorraine Mare Garcia Barte, and illustrated by Alex Niño, under the imprint of Komiket Inc., this landscape-format graphic novel is all about the adventures of the young Sabina, her coming of age into her identity and an eventual date with destiny, as she trains under her father, the former conquistador who’s been exiled by the Spanish colonial forces.

“Alandal,” the first of a two-part graphic novel, debuted last Sept. 4 as part of the online Philippine International Comics Festival (PICOF) and has been hailed as a landmark return of the iconic drawing pen of Alex Niño.

J. Philip Ignacio and comics legend Alex Niño with their graphic novel Alandal.” Photo courtesy of JAY IGNACIO

A Filipino comics artist best known for his work with publishers like DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and his covers for Heavy Metal magazine, Niño was part of the Pinoy-wave of illustrating talents who broke into the comics business in the 1970s. Along with Alfredo Alcala, Nestor Redondo, and Gerry Talaoc, he paved the way for future local illustrators like Whilce Portacio (“Wetworks”) and Leinil Francis Yu (“X-Men”) to make it to the big leagues. Before he retired, Niño also worked on Disney movies like “Mulan” and “The Emperor's New Groove.”

Writer Jay Ignacio, also known for his stand-up comedy and a member of the band Da Pulis, is still pretty bowled over about it. The fact that he has debuted a graphic novel at the ripe old age of 48, and that the legendary Alex Niño has come out of retirement to be his collaborator on said comic makes him sanguine. This is his second collaboration with Niño, the first was the traditional comics “Merchant of Oltrarno” (2018).

“Now that it’s over, it’s only now that it’s sinking in,” says Ignacio, on a Zoom call with CNN Philippines Life, his ecstatic relief palpable after more than three years of hard work. “I realized hey… Oh, my God Alex Niño is my illustrator!”

Niño’s art is that classic rich and textured style that made him famous during an era where illustrating was a competition for detail and atmosphere. The darling of Heavy Metal, Creepy, and classic DC has mastered the techniques of overwhelming the eye through sheer beauty of overlapping lines, shades, and tones. His style is no different on “Alandal” as he depicts ships on rocking, mountainous waves, swarthy pirates, clashes between swordsmen and women and the courtside politics of Sulu and Spain-occupied Philippine islands. All are ripe and gorgeous on a landscape format like a mural, the black and white and grey flowing together to give life to Ignacio’s script. Sometimes, there’s a distinct vibe that the printing on the page is just playing catch-up with the original art, that something has been lost in this format from Niño’s original intent.

A preview of the first page of “Alandal.” Photo from JAY IGNACIO/FACEBOOK

The filmmaker behind the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) documentary “The Bladed Hand” (2012) and himself a practitioner of escrima system Kali Ilustrisimo Repeticion Orihinal, Ignacio was always fascinated with the roots of our national martial sport. “Alandal” was born out of the seed of his fevered dreams, imagining how cool it would be if he could bring to life the world and imagery of the 1700s, a time when it was almost perpetual conflict. According to Ignacio’s research for his film, arnis as swordplay was being taught to Filipinos by the Spanish colonial military. This was partly towards forming a militia that would aid their expansion in Mindanao against the Sultans and also to protect the galleons plying the shipping routes of the Sulu and Celebes waters, seas plagued by fierce Iranun marauders.

The first time Ignacio thought of pitching the story to Niño was at the 2013 Comic-Con in the U.S. Niño has been based in Los Angeles since the 1980s and Ignacio asked him to draw something for a documentary he was working on back then as B-footage. The illustrator drew “this Moro warrior, it was kind of a fantasy-looking figure in his typical style, he did it in just 18 minutes.”

When Ignacio took his moonshot, telling Niño as best he could about the opening scene, how conquistador Sevellano Rodriguez was running with a child in his arms, dodging bullets and trying to reach a galleon. “But that was just an image, there was no story yet,” said Ignacio. “Really, it was a patapon pitch. I expected na babalewalain, so I didn’t care what he would say afterwards and at least, I told myself, I took my shot. But when he said ‘Yes’ it was a holy sh*t moment!”

“Well, we better get started on your comic,” Niño told Ignacio. “While I am still alive.”

“[Mang Alex’s] condition was: ‘just give me a synopsis and 100% I will take care of the rest,’” recalled Ignacio. “So he had zero input during the process, but it all paid off when, after sending the illustrator the first three chapters, he received photos of the covers a month later, drawn on sprawling 18" x 24" art paper. Photo courtesy of JAY IGNACIO

Ignacio got to cracking on a full script, mindful of the time pressure that the ageing Niño—now 81 years old—cautioned him about. Ignacio threw himself into the research and execution. He consulted historical experts like Dr. Felipe Jocano Jr., learned some Indonesian silat (what would have been the combat system of the Mindanao warriors), dutifully shot reference photos and videos, and took trips to Zamboanga and Basilan.

“I went as far south as I could,” said Ignacio. “I also wanted to go to Jolo and Tawi-Tawi as well but they said I needed a police escort because, that time, the Marawi siege had just finished.”

Writing “Alandal” came with its own valleys and hiccups. Primary among them was the illustrating conditions of Niño. “[Mang Alex’s] condition was: ‘just give me a synopsis and 100% I will take care of the rest,’” recalled Ignacio. “So he had zero input during the process, but it all paid off when, after sending the illustrator the first three chapters, he received photos of the covers a month later, drawn on sprawling 18" x 24" art paper. “I was shocked and surprised at the details! I was enthralled by the imagery,” said Ignacio.

The greatest difficulty for Ignacio, in the three-year process of birthing “Alandal,” came in late-2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and his friend passed away. “That was when it got to me,” Ignacio said. “Because Danry Ocampo was one of the most eager to see the release. His death affected me so much that I lost motivation for several months. I just couldn’t work. Everything was delayed and I must say “Alandal” should have been released last year. Every day I was thinking: ‘Who’s going to buy this comic now? Who’s even going to care about this?’ After several months I snapped out of it and said to myself: ‘Wait, teka muna, Mang Alex is waiting for this and it is his last comics!’ I have a duty to finish this. I remember him saying ‘gawin na natin yan habang buhay pa ako.’ That rang in my head: ‘while I am still alive.’”

Ignacio promises that the next part of Princess Sabina’s saga, part two of “Alandal,” will have much more explicit fight scenes, and the swordplay that eventually became our FMA systems, featured in the drawings. Taking inspiration from Arya Stark of “Game of Thrones” and a real life-ancestor of Ignacio’s, Sabina is based on the Westerosi princess turned assassin and Princess Sabina Sabane of the Davao Kaagan Tribe — a person that Ignacio can trace his lineage back to the Spanish occupation.

“Alandal” was born out of the seed of his fevered dreams, imagining how cool it would be if he could bring to life the world and imagery of the 1700s, a time when it was almost perpetual conflict. According to Ignacio’s research for his film, arnis as swordplay was being taught to Filipinos by the Spanish colonial military. Photo from JAY IGNACIO/FACEBOOK

“I also hope readers get curious about the truth behind the fiction,” said Ignacio, referring to how the style of Indonesian silat versus Filipino arnis battles are contextualized in true historic incidents, like the Spanish teaching the Visayans militia tactics.

The title itself, “Alandal,” is a clue that brings clarity and drama to the story, both from an FMA and historical perspective. Though, discussing the intricacies of the story here would be too much of a spoiler, so you’ll just need to read the graphic novel to find out what or who that is.

“I hope that readers learn more after reading about the tribes of the Sulu archipelago. There’s a flash forward there, my statement about colonization and the atrocities that were done against the people of Jolo. A lot of Bangsamoro issues are rooted in the forced annexation of their territory and “Alandal” tackles those, too.”

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.Alandal” is available at Komiket