What’s the big hot thing in genre-entertainment these days? Most of you would say superheroes and zombies, with a chance of cowboys or aliens in the future. But in this ever-evolving – and ever-evolving – world of storytelling, is there room for a story about a chicken?
Recently released as a graphic novel from California-based SLG Publishing, Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan tells the story of a family of chickens living in a world where them – and all chickens – have attained human intelligence, consciousness and the good and bad habits that go with it. Publisher Dan Vado says its less Babe and more Animal Farm, but another way to look at it is Archie Bunker as a feathered farm animal.
Elmer cartoonist Gerry Alanguilan is best known as long-time inker to superstar penciller Leinil Yu, but back in his native Phillipines he has nurtured a growing career as a multi-disciplined comics creator with several miniseries, graphic novels and comic strips published. Alanguilan originally self-published Elmer was originally self-published by ALanguilan as a miniseries, one which got attention overseas from PW Comics Week, ComicsReporter.com and even iconic writer Neil Gaiman who called it “heartbreaking and funny”.
With SLG’s new collected edition on shores now, Newsarama talked with the Phillipines-based Alanguilan about Elmer, about chicken and about comics.
Newsarama: What a concept, Gerry. How do you describe Elmer?
Gerry Alanguilan: Back in 2005 during one of our local Komikons, I was asked when I will make another graphic novel and what it will be about. The last one I did was in 1998 when I wrote and drew Wasted. I since got preoccupied with inking to do any more. But when I was asked that question at the Komikon panel, I was actually already thinking of that next book. I responded that I would be creating a story about talking chickens. And everyone laughed. And then I was asked again, "No really, what's your next project?"
So I guess Elmer did begin on a very ridiculous, laughable idea. But I was keen on taking that idea and making a very serious treatment of it, wondering if I could make it credible. Elmer turned out to be many things. It became a metaphor for how we treat each other as humans just because we're different. More importantly, it became a story about me and my parents, and my fears of losing them as they get older.
There are many things in there that was based on my real life. When I was a teenager, I was rummaging through old boxes and discovered my dad's diary. In one page he wrote of the death of my brother Dennis who died when he was a baby, years before I was born. The words that came out were so honest, so painful that I could no longer read further. It was an aspect of my dad that I've never seen before or since. It was too much, too weird, too uncomfortable.
Nrama: In the world of Elmer, just how and when did people realize chickens were more than “dumb” farm animals?
Alanguilan: It's actually depicted in the story itself. One of the very first to realize this was Farmer Ben, who encountered an intelligent chicken years before the rest. In the story, there's a specific date, February 3, 1979, when all the chickens in the world suddenly become intelligent after one great massive worldwide flash. Whatever that flash is I don't dwell on. It just happened and moved on after that. To delve on the flash would introduce more sci-fi elements that would take away from the dramatic take I wanted to emphasize on.
Anyway, before this big event in 1979, a few chickens were getting intelligent before the rest. Farmer Ben encountered one of these many years before, to frightening results.
Nrama: This is a real family drama – the family just happens to be chicken. What is this family like?
Alanguilan: I wanted to portray a family that had a lot of personal conflict, but not to the point of making them stop loving one another. I suppose every family has that kind of conflict. Based on the relationship with my one other sibling, my brother, that kind of relationship can be colorful. You don't always agree, you believe in different things, you like different things, and so forth. It's one of the more challenging things to portray in the story.
Nrama: How did an idea for something like this come to you – do you have a pet chicken?
Alanguilan: Yes, I actually did have a pet chicken many years ago named Solano. His name was based on my old painting teacher Mr. Solano, who looked somewhat like a chicken with his big eyes, big wig and beak like nose. I was creating chicken comics as early as 1997 when my strip Stupid Chicken Stories came out in my mini comic Crest Hut Butt Shop. Those strips were funny takes on my experiences with chickens.
And I have plenty of brush-ins with chickens since I live so close to them every day. Just now I heard a crowing rooster outside. And there he goes again. I love watching chickens. I just thing they're one of the funniest creatures on earth. I guess it's only natural that I would eventually create a story with them primarily in mind. One day I just thought, what if these things could think and talk? What would they say and do? And it all started from there.
Incidentally, when Elmer was still a series, the back cover of #1 was a painting of three chickens by my old painting teacher Mr. Solano. He had asked, "Why chickens?"
I just didn't have the heart to tell him.
By portraying chickens that act, think and talk like humans, you really put a new perspective on interactions between one another – chicken to chicken, but also human to human. It’s an issue of race carried out to the nth degree. Is this something you keyed into early on?
Alanguilan: Yes, pretty much. The very first scene I formulated for Elmer was the office scene where this chicken was applying for a job but was refused. He believed it was because he was a chicken and he started freaking out. I knew this was a great opportunity to write a story about race but hopefully without offending anyone in particular. It was also interesting to me that the chickens, now that they're humans, to exhibit the same prejudices as us. For instance, Jake hates it that his sister May is hooking up with a human. May hates that her brother Freddie (who wants to be called Francis now) is gay. Joseph hates Elmer for eating meat. At the end of the story, these issues are never really resolved, which as it should be because such things are never resolved in real life.
Nrama: As you inferred earlier, I remember this coming out years ago through your own
self-publishing outlet but it was very hard to find here in the states. What led you to hook up with Dan Vado and SLG to re-released Elmer in this collected edition?
Alanguilan: It was my intention to find an international audience for Elmer. It's the reason why I wrote the story in English, and why the environment in Elmer is as generic as I can make it. I'm not entirely successful but it's all right. I like the fact that even though I was gunning for something generic, people still clued in to a Philippine setting. In a way, it helped prove to myself, at the very least, that an artist cannot help but be shaped by his environment, and I'm glad that by default, my culture shows in my work.
Anyway, even as Elmer was being serialized (it came out in 4 issues), I began a campaign to look for international publishers. I sent copies to every possible publisher I knew. I also sent copies to writers, artists, and editors, online comics magazines and review sites. I placed the entire first issue of Elmer online for free for anyone to download and read in different formats. There was an html file where you can read it all in one go and there was a .cbr file that you can read with an online comics reader. I even uploaded it up as a torrent. I started to get a lot of buzz when it got reviews here and there. The biggest push was when it was featured at Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter Site, which led to Forbidden Planet UK to review it, and ordered copies from me directly. All this may well have led to Elmer finding a home, at least a French translation of it, with Editions çà et là.
In the meantime, a copy I had sent to SLG Publishing yielded a positive result with Dan Vado getting in touch willing to take the risk and publish Elmer in English.
Nrama: For most comics fans, you’re known as an inker – most often paired with superstar artist Leinil Yu. What’s it like to be able to step out and show of your own drawing, as well as writing?
Alanguilan: In 2005 I was inking Silent Dragon with Leinil. By that time I had already been inking for 10 years straight. In the Philippines I had been writing and drawing my own stories. When I applied at Whilce Portacio's studio, he recognized that one of my strengths was inking so that pretty much led to a rather successful inking career. I actually do love inking as it gives me the opportunity to work with talented artists like Whilce and Leinil and Roy Allan Martinez. But in all these years my own creative impulses were getting stronger and stronger. I wanted to write and I wanted to draw. But inking is such an incredibly time consuming job that leaves me little time for anything else. I knew that at some point I would have to make a choice.
Silent Dragon was to be the last comic book I inked, at least for a while. I "retired" from inking and hunkered down to do my own stuff. In the time between 2005 and 2010, I was able to write and draw several comic book stories for other publishers and for my own Komikero Publishing. There was Humanis Rex!, Timawa, Johnny Balbona and of course, Elmer.
After finishing Elmer I got back into inking and now I've inked Ultimate Comics Avengers Vol 2 and currently Superior. I must admit I had missed inking, but at the same time I also don't want to stop creating my own stuff. So whenever I have a break from inking, I paint or work on my next project.
Nrama: Now that Elmer is out in stores, what are you working on next?
Alanguilan: I actually have one other complete graphic novel, which was published at the same time as Elmer here in the Philippines. Where Bold Stars Go To Die is something I wrote, and a friend of mine, Arlan Esmeña, illustrated. It's my tribute to nude Philippine starlets of the 1970s and 1980s. It's my attempt to create erotica that's hopefully romantic and at the same time intelligent and thought provoking. It's my reaction to an Anti-Obscenity Bill filed by a local senator that explicitly states that nudity cannot be portrayed in any media "regardless of the motive" of the author.
My next major project is The Marvelous Adventures of the Amazing Doctor Rizal, which is a fanciful take on the Philippines' National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal. It's going to be my first fully "All Ages" title. I hope to have that out by 2011.Bawk bawk ba gawk