Tuesday, June 09, 2015

14 by Manix Abrera

Abrera is a Philippine comics creator: he's got at least one major series of stories in Tagalog (which I haven't seen, and wouldn't be able to read anyway; it's sad to be monoglot sometimes) and also creates wordless comics of real depth and power.

I've previously seen his book 12, which collected a dozen unrelated wordless comics stories -- humorous and tragic, surrealistically true, shocking and powerful and eye-opening. And so I was thrilled when he sent me 14, which is also a book of wordless stories but has a strong spine as well, connecting all of the stories and turning them into a whole.

Abrera's characters are doughy, almost unformed: archetypes or blank templates, ready to have the reader's experiences and ideas imprinted on them and to be filled with whatever events the story will bring them. In 12, they were Everymen and -women. In 14, they're even more than that: not bound by humanity or the "real" world.

On a rainy night, one person -- I thought he was a man, but Abrera's people don't need to be locked into any specifics -- returns to his apartment building, and rushes into the elevator, to get to his home on the fourteenth floor. And then, one by one, the elevator fills with strange supernatural creatures: giants and gnomes and vampires and more. (Philippine readers will recognize them all as specific mythic figures from their nation, and will know their true names. Readers from anywhere else will instantly know the most important things: they are supernatural, they are dangerous, they are mysterious, they are frightening, they are utterly unexpected here.)

The elevator stops on the thirteenth floor, and all of the supernatural creatures leave. The man is intrigued, and looks out: it's a vast mountainous landscape, with hundreds more of the various creatures, all assembling to face a tall rock. And then, one by one, people climb up on that rock and tell their stories. (All wordlessly, of course -- we see them speaking, but we don't hear their words. We just see the comics that tell their stories.)

Those stories are wonderful and terrible, of the intersections of human and supernatural, of assumptions and beliefs and desires and hopes and fears. It's not clear to me if the supernatural creatures understand all of the ironies they are telling -- but that only adds another layer to the story. The lone human is touched: joyous and saddened and enlightened and thrilled. And, in the end, he finds he has a story to tell as well.

Abrera is doing something even more difficult here than in 12: not just stitching together a sheaf of stories to make one whole, but mining his very specific cultural furniture -- specific and rooted and well-defined -- into stories that travel well outside that culture, that speak to readers who have no idea what manananggal or diwata or tikbalang or duwende or tiyanak are. (And, let me be clear: I am definitely one of them. I had to look up those names.) 14 is a magnificent, lovely work of comics, which creates its own world and invites us all into it.

14 is not easily available in North America, unfortunately: the usual online purveyor of mass goods doesn't have it. (They do have 12 available in Kindle format, though -- so you can sample Abrera that way, and I strongly recommend it.) I'm sure there are Philippine booksellers who would be happy to ship it -- and this could be one book that Australians might find easier to obtain than Americans, for once -- but I'm not going to be much help pointing you in that direction.

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