By Jessie Krahn
Montreal-based Filipino Canadian comic artist Allan Matudio’s debut graphic novel Kasama is an action-fantasy jam-packed with drama, lighthearted humour, and mysterious folklore. Beyond that, the comic is also exceedingly successful as a heartfelt homage to Filipino culture. Published in 2021 by Winnipeg worker cooperative Anak Publishing, the book is a fresh entry in a medium oversaturated with Western superhero comic influences.
Set in Orikidias, a fictional city in the Philippines, Kasama follows Allison, a plucky sweetheart, and Kia, Alison’s surly counterpart, fellow traveller, and paranormal hunter, as the two stumble onto a mysterious crisis in the city. Aswang, evil entities of Filipino folklore, are terrorizing Orikidias. A manananggal, a vampiric creature, is stealing babies in the dead of the night.
Kasama is both a love letter to Filipino culture and an exercise in educating readers about it
As some of the few people in the city with knowledge of aswang – besides their newfound friends Jay, a studious city kid, and his lola, or grandmother – it falls to Allison and Kia to stop the creature from wreaking havoc.
Visually, Kasama is remarkable. Matudio’s subjects pop out of monochrome backgrounds. Choice highlights draw important details out of luscious environments that are splashed with soft, warm hues during day scenes and liquidy cool hues at night. The illustrations look textured and the colour work is a testament to the way sparing splashes of colour can create a more idiosyncratic, memorable style in the long run than throwing an entire colour wheel into the mix.
Besides the aesthetics, Kasama is both a love letter to Filipino culture and an exercise in educating readers about it, as signalled by the inclusion of Filipino folklore. The book joins a growing corpus of Filipino Canadian comics — like Lola by J. Torres and Duran Duran and Imelda Marcos and Me by Lorina Mapa — that are unfortunately under-appreciated, despite the Filipino community in Canada almost cresting to one million people in total.
A note from the author in Kasama’s backmatter details Matudio’s journey to strengthening his connection with Filipino culture, in spite of limited recognition of the Filipino community in the West. As a “Montreal-born Filipino,” Matudio’s exposure to Filipino culture prior to his research was limited to select contexts, like family and community gatherings. Yet Matudio describes later absorbing a wide array of Filipino cultural products from the traditional to the modern. His research spanned reading up on Filipino basketry, shamanism, mythology, and comics to travelling all the way to the Philippines.
In Canada, Matudio writes that Filipinos are often made to “feel foreign.” Kasama feels like a compendium of the author’s knowledge of the Philippines and Filipino culture, a way of reconnecting and a way of educating non-Filipinos on a vibrant culture.
Matudio’s intense engagement with Filipino culture and history is evident in the small details in Kasama. The precolonial Filipino script Baybayin is sprinkled throughout the book from cover to cover. Baybayin was especially used by speakers of Tagalog — the most widely spoken language in the Philippines — before being replaced with the Latin alphabet in the 1600s. Advocates have recently begun to revive the script in an effort to recover pieces of culture that were erased by colonialism.
There are winks and nudges celebrating modern Filipino culture too. One cute scene has Kia in line at a restaurant called Burgerbee — a reference to the widely popular Filipino fast food chain Jollybee — as she struggles to figure out what the fuss is about and why the company has a reputation as a Filipino staple.
On top of these easter eggs, one of Kasama’s layers is its bilingualism. While all the dialogue is written in English, Tagalog bubbles up in characters’ speech at various points in the narrative. While speaking to Jay’s lola, Kia uses the respectful “po” at the conclusion of her sentences.
Kasama is both a love letter to Filipino culture and an exercise in educating readers about it
This vocabulary is paired with explanatory notes and a glossary of terms at the end of the book. Matudio explains in the backmatter that Kasama is meant to push readers to think about their position, and the inclusion of Tagalog especially throws into question the English reader’s position.
Multilingualism in an English comic challenges the linguistic dominance that many English speakers take for granted. Many of us have been subject to the brutal second-hand embarrassment of watching English-speaking tourists travelling abroad bellowing questions in English at store workers and bus drivers as if English fluency is an innate ability in humankind.
Most readers of Kasama, an almost entirely English comic published in Canada, will likely not have a fluent grasp on Filipino languages. Including Tagalog is a move that forces English readers into the position of language learners. Withholding a perfectly smooth passage through the narrative from monolingual English readers shows how English-speakers are rarely required to learn about people and places outside of their bubble. Readers must learn a little about Filipino languages and cultures to really understand the comic. For that reason Kasama really ought to be read multiple times over.
Kasama’s way of challenging English dominance is paralleled by the uphill battle independent comics artists are faced with in an industry dominated by DC Comics and Marvel Comics’ superhero brands. Success on the market is all the more difficult when artists take the plunge into political and cultural commentary.
Marvel comics’ characters, of course, have long histories of resisting oppression, yet this critique has been dulled with the passage of time and the jump from books to screens. Probably the most prominent anti-oppressive example was the metaphor the mutants of the X-Men franchise offered for the real-world persecution of racial and sexual minorities. In the comics, “normal” humans react violently to mutants or superhumans — not for anything they have done, but because of inborn traits that make them stick out in a crowd. Mutants who do pass as normal are sometimes “outed” if they have abilities or traits that are not visible at a glance, like telekinesis or healing.
But many of the comics’ industry’s front runners shed any semblance of critical commentary decades ago and slowly metamorphosed into alter-egos that comfortably chameleon with the status quo. Heroes like Spider-man, who has been brutalised and harassed by police since his conception, now has one web-slinging persona from an alternate reality proudly donning a holster and a fake moustache as “spider cop.”
This is a discombobulating development for a character that has historically been used to highlight problems with policing — especially paired with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s transformation of Spidey from a bullied outsider teen into a paramilitarized cadet mentored by the arms-dealing billionaire Tony Stark. Meanwhile, the persecuted minority X-Men gave way to the military police-like Avengers as Marvel’s most prominent team.
That said, independent and alternative comics have always revitalised tired scenes, with dissenting voices providing fresh takes on overdone genres. In the ’80s Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta featured anarchist figures undermining a fascist regime, while Watchmen deconstructed the tropes and ideals of superhero narratives — helping to pave the way for the indie comics explosion of the ’90s. The indie comics scene that evolved out of this explosion provides the main context for a book like Kasama. Yet even the darlings of indie comics are predominantly white artists, and compelling work by racialized artists that explores new perspectives has not found widespread, mainstream readership.
Kasama does not pull punches, subverting some of the archetypes in superhero, action, and mainstream comic series in multiple ways. When action inevitably unfolds as Allison and Kia finally face their aswang foe, their fight is not presented as one that is lined up with any violent institutions. Theirs is a fight that is tied to the community’s interests.
What is more, Kasama offers a glimpse into an underexplored realm of action-fantasy comics that are not centred on the United States. Even as so many superhero, action and fantasy franchises have become more diverse and expanded to include casts of characters from around the world, those comics often either depict North American characters abroad or interlink a global narrative within the United States. Kasama criticizes this kind of attitude bluntly, right in the narrative. From Kia’s first appearance in chapter 1, she is bombarded with the exhausting chirping of wide-eyed tourists incapable of seeing the Philippines as anything more than an exotic playground for their personal pleasure.
After hitching a ride with a tour bus crammed full of hokey new-age spiritualists and loud-mouthed Americans who talk to and about Kia like an object, the driver, Kiko, enthuses about the ways tourists are good for the economy, “creating jobs.” Kia is much more skeptical, and sagaciously connects the need for jobs with the exploitation and theft by colonizing powers. Her mind, Kia says, is a “decolonized” one.
One of those tourists reappears when Kia and Allison go to confront the aswang. Initially, the pair suspect the tourist of being the aswang in disguise, but she quickly reveals her only intent was to brag about her knowledge of and generosity towards Filipinos. Ultimately, then, Americans are not given a significant place in the story. Instead, Kasama focuses on Filipino people and culture, acknowledging the influence of colonialism while also pushing back at US-centrism.
Matudio writes that Kasama is the product of viewing the Philippines and Filipino culture in all of its texture, not as pure, smooth, and flawless. Matudio bore in mind “what is loved, what is complicated, and what is flat out deplorable” in the making of Kasama, and that shows. Kasama is an exciting threshold to the Filipino Canadian comics scene and a rewarding venture into rich cultural landscapes that rarely get the attention they deserve.