Master of simplicity
By Ruben de Jesus
Content and form in a body of work give us an idea of its creator’s concerns. The work may be purely personal or clearly intended for a particular audience. It can also exhibit the author’s stand on relevant issues, presented with humor or underscored with passion and persuasion.
Larry Alcala’s work demonstrates his commitment to his creative profession and his gratitude for its blessings. He cherished his family and saw every Filipino as part of his whole being. This sentiment he represented in works that show a light disposition in facing life’s daily tribulations.
As a student at the University of the Philippines, he was the recipient of scholarships. He was active in the Philippine Collegian, UP’s student organ, as a staff artist and as a representative of the board of management. Thus, he was an ideal model of the iskolar ng bayan, one who offered his creative and organizational skills to serve the Filipino people to whom he owed his exemplary education.
Alcala joined the faculty of the UP College of Fine Arts immediately after his graduation in 1951. He was to stay there until he retired 30 years later. Art education during his early years of teaching had a conservative slant and did not place any great importance on commercial art and design, but through his intervention, UP later offered the country’s first degree program in commercial arts.
Through his efforts, Visual Communication was institutionalized as one of the fields of study at the UP College of Fine Arts. He introduced the first 8mm animated cartoon film production as part of the Visual Communication curriculum in 1972. Illustration and graphic design as important components of advertising and editorial design were given ample coverage in the Visual Communication course offerings. This move kept the school abreast with the creative developments in more advanced countries while applying these visual standards to address local issues through effective images.
Alcala, lovingly called Mang Larry, shared with budding artists the technical skills and material components needed in translating concepts into crisp images. In this process of sharing, he enjoyed sitting down with his students and exchanging stories not about creating but about living. This made his mentoring productive and relevant. He was the chairman of the visual communication department of the UP College of Fine Arts from 1978 to 1981.
Alcala started his career by juggling schoolwork and cartooning. His dedication and discipline helped him endure the pressure of having to produce daily outputs for several decades. In the long and productive career as cartoonist, he created hundreds of distinct and memorable cartoon characters. His comic strips, exhibiting a balance of message and humor, served as commentaries on Philippine society.
His first comic strip, Islaw Palitaw, appeared in Liwayway Magazine after World War II. In 1947 he created Kalabog en Bosyo, his longest running comic strip, first published in Pilipino Komiks. The two bungling detectives featured in this work speak a blend of Tagalog and English as they go through their hilarious misadventures. Here, at an early stage in his career as a visual communicator, is his attempt to make his material more easily appreciated by a wide sector of society. Also, long before he started doing it in his famous Slice of Life cartoon series, Mang Larry was already inserting in this comic strip a cartoon figure of himself as a trademark of his work. Kalabog en Bosyo was eventually turned into a movie produced by Sampaguita Pictures in 1957, starring Dolphy and Panchito in one of their earliest team-ups. In 1962 Kalabog en Bosyo was given the Excellence in Cartooning Award by the Society of Philippine Illustrators and Cartoonists (SPIC).
In Mang Ambo, another comic strip, the titular character mirrors the weaknesses and eccentricities of the Filipino as he goes through daily life in Barrio Bulabog. Mang Ambo takes umbrage at the lack of good sense in his community though he himself sometimes tries to get away with his own foolishness to face life’s demands while keeping to his comfort zone. Through Mang Ambo and the citizens of Barrio Bulabog, Alcala affirms the Filipino’s trait of laughing one’s way through adversity and ending up victorious through resilience.
In Siopawman the titular character is a big-nosed, large-toothed, and overweight but energetic superhero. His “heroic” adventures are capped with a big treat of the pork-filled hot bun known as siopaw, or a dive into an enormous serving of Filipino dishes and desserts.
Asiong Aksaya, the titular character of another comic strip, may be regarded as the poster boy for wasteful ways and reckless spending. There are times when he tries to counteract his ridiculous extravagance by attempting to cut down on cost, but his supposedly alternative measures turn out to be even more costly and absurd. Asiong Aksaya later became an icon for an energy-saving campaign, and the comic strip was made into a movie in 1977 with a follow-up film in 1980.
As early as the 1960s, Alcala had already been making commentaries on the political system with his wit and critical sense. Bribery, vote buying, non-payment of taxes, and kickbacks from government projects are personified by the character Congressman Kalog. Because of Alcala’s lighthearted style, readers took to Congressman Kalog despite his inappropriate practices as a public servant. It could also be because of the fact that though corruption was already evident at that time it had not yet reached an alarming scale.
Alcala’s fans would always look for the caricature profile hidden within the busy scenes and situations depicted in each weekly release of his Slice of Life artwork. His camouflaged profile was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in his films. Common practices, local traditions, community events, and even national issues were presented in a panel of tableaus of the Filipino way of life. Alcala made the viewer not just an observer but also a participant in the situations that he depicted. His houses and buildings are rendered in straight and precise pen-and-ink lines, giving a hint of his earlier leanings towards engineering. His people are rendered simply, as dictated by cartoon visual standards, but are variably expressive depending on the situations and events. Creating crowds is a visual skill that, if not masterfully handled, results in clutter and imbalance. Rhythm is the key to his execution, grouping similar elements in horizontal or diagonal succession.
Slice of Life won the Best in Humor Award from the Catholic Mass Media Awards in 1988. It was cited “for helping to keep the Filipino’s ability to laugh at himself, through the lively marriage of art and humor, and through commentaries that are at once critical and compassionate, evoking laughter and reflection”.
Alcala was one of the founding members of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY), the agency that spearheads the celebration of National Children’s Book Day every third week of July. His involvement in the reading advocacy of PBBY came at a time when foreign titles still dominated the bookshelves of libraries and bookstores. With local stories still waiting to be shared through words and illustrations, PBBY started to organize activities that promote the creation of reading materials for Filipino children.
In 1991, PBBY organized a children’s book illustration workshop conducted by a German illustrator through the Goethe Institut-Manila. As PBBY’s illustrators’ representative, Alcala was the overall coordinator of the workshop. The participants aimed to form a group to professionalize children’s book illustration in the country. With the blessing of Alcala and the entire board,. Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (INK) was formed. Today, INK is the only recognized organization of artists involved in the creation of children’s books in the country. INK has raised visual storytelling to a level that recognizes the role of the children’s book illustrator as a vital co-creator with the author, Alcala was elevated to the roster of INK’s honorary members.
PBBY conducts a yearly national competition to encourage more children’s storywriters and illustrators and to increase their chances of getting published. The award for illustrators was named PBBY Alcala Prize in recognition of Alcala’s valuable contribution to the organization’s reading advocacy and the standards he has established for visual storytelling. Illustrators who have made it to the roster of winners in the PBBY Alcala Prize have become prominent names in book illustration, cartooning, graphic design and studio arts.
Alcala was president of Samahang Kartunista ng Pilipinas (SKP) from 1979 to 1989 and continued to be the adviser of the organization from 1989 to 2002. His illustrious career and respect from peers in the creative industry became the prevailing standard for the succeeding leadership of group. Among those who became SKP presidents were Nonoy Marcelo, Roni Santiago, Boy Togonon, Neil Doloricon, and Boboy Yonzon.
Alcala gained respect and goodwill among Asian artists when he represented the country in international grants, symposia, and exhibitions. He was the Philippine recipient of the Australian Government Cultural Award in 1974. Alcala was the country’s representative to the First Asian Cartoonists Conference in Hiroshima in 1984. There he met Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy and known to be the proponent of the manga revolution in Japan. The professional bond between these two icons continued with cordial written exchanges of their thoughts on how cartooning can be fostered in the Asian region.
At home, the family dining table was always a venue for lengthy discussions about anything under the sun with Alcala and wife Lupe encouraging the healthy exchange of ideas. He made sure that his children were exposed to the arts and sciences by bringing them to museums, science fairs and concerts. He instilled discipline in his children but allowed them to take breathers from their studies and assignments to watch television.
Alcala humanized objects that were dear to him and his family. He gave names to the cars they had through the years—“Choy” for their Chevrolet, “Bok” for their Vaux-hall, “Itoy” for their Toyota. In the 1950s, he named their television set “Teban.”
He enjoyed taking photographs of his family and recording the beautiful singing voice of his wife Lupe. He even had audio recordings of his own parents and cousins playing roles from Kalabog en Bosyo. He recorded his kids singing, telling fantastic stories, throwing tantrums, or just being at their silliest.
When they stopped in traffic, he made his children ob serve the pedestrians crossing the street and guess what this man or woman could be thinking at that particular moment. Alcala created his own stories about these people based on his observations. According to the eldest, Lauro “Boyet” Alcala Jr., he and his siblings acquired this gift of keen observation and boundless imagination from their father. Boyet Alcala also remembers that his father always made sure that they heard Sunday mass before visiting his grandparents in Singalong for their weekend gathering with their relatives.
Filipinos from all levels of society can appreciate Alcala’s art. His galleries are the dailies. There is mastery in his simplicity. There are messages in his images. Most of all, every Filipino is part of his family.
Through Larry Alcala’s art, we can find the Filipino, facing hardships with a light but critical disposition. Through his art, we are reminded to return to the positive values that may have been blurred by the complex and often chaotic images that surround us.