MANILA -- Manix Abrera needs no introduction, but for the benefit of cave dwellers who’ve just left their stony enclaves and discovered the internet, newspapers and bookstores, he is the creator of the wildly popular Kikomachine comic strip—one of the country’s seminal chronicles of campus and early adult life.
The strip has been compiled into 12 bestselling anthologies by Visprint and runs as a comic strip six days a week in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He’s also won National Book Awards for his work, and has exhibited in galleries and conventions around the country.
For the interview, we meet at the back of the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman—it’s late morning and we catch the last of the good sun before it rises into noon. Manix wants to spend the rest of the day sketching and there’s no better place to do it than this lush, airy space surrounding one of the country’s most provocative museums. Beyond us, grassland, trees, gaps of sunlight between museum pillars.
We bump into an artist friend of his who’s just fled the museum in need of a smoke. He’s just seen the exhibition called “Beyond Myself”—a collection of artifacts and paintings by and about Filipino migrant workers in London and Hong Kong.
The friend tells him the show almost made him cry. “Ay, talaga?” Manix says. His eyes soften.
Manix wears a black Metallica shirt, his hair slicked back into a ponytail. There’s just the right scruff to his trademark goatee. In his mid-30s, his face is more chiseled bone than flesh; it’s a settled face with a young shine to it that won’t go away any time soon. He’s ready to talk, but not too much; he’s ready to confess, but just a little.
These days he splits his time between Baguio and Manila. He admits he does most of his drawing in Baguio, and that his jam is an album by Metallica or Epica.
“Super hilig ko sa mabibigat na music,” he says. “I don’t listen to metal when I’m sad, I’m happy when I listen to it—it’s like a surge in the blood.”
He only listens to music when he’s drawing and working on projects. When his ideas are still up in the air, he goes out and eavesdrops on other people’s conversations. Sometimes, the wind.
There’s a story to everything, even casual talk among strangers, and Manix loves hearing a good story as much as he likes to tell it. For him, his art isn’t just about composition and design—there’s a tale it wants to tell. You see this in his greyscale canvases where small characters dot an otherwise strange and surreal landscape.
There’s no story without a set of characters—everything else is just topography, locality, setting.
He credits his mother with teaching him this love of story. “Yung nanay ko kasi professor. She always told me that everything has a story. I got used to really looking at things [this way], na kahit inis na inis ka dyan, may kwento ‘yan.”
We talk more about stories as they relate to “Mandirigma ng Kalawakan,” his latest exhibit. A mix of grayscale watercolors, digital art, brush pens, and pen and ink, the work included in the exhibit makes use of surreal imagery that’s a cross between Moebius and Dr. Seuss—there’s strange vegetation cluttering the canvas in thick twists and drooping boughs; they come in his trademark tints of mauve, blue, translucent green, eggplant, and purple.
His signature character makes appearances in this new work, and as always, he remains nameless and generic—a figure anyone can project himself into. In some of the work, small astronauts float in space, feeling out a strange new world. Manix creates an alternative environment to show how some of the things we go through in life color our world strangely. The familiar seems fantastical, and life looks a lot like science fiction.
“I’m not sure I was successful in doing it, but I wanted the viewers to feel that [the artwork] was scary, but beautiful at the same time.”
What’s scary and beautiful is how one image recurs in the work like a hook in a song: a road leading into some strange unknown, or opening into multiple other roads. For Manix, this is an invitation to the viewer to leave his comfort zone and venture into what lies ahead.
He admits that the unknown—much like the Metallica he listens to while he’s working—makes him happy. “There are some things in life that I already know, but in art and in making comic books, I enjoy the feeling that I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Manix wants to try the new and untested—the wild jungle and not the fixed path. “I’ve already tried doing wordless comics,” he says, “and I want my next books to be totally different from what came before them.”
On a last note, I ask him about the titles of his latest work, and how they dwell on the notion of the mandirigma, or the warrior. I bring up my favorite titles: Mandirigma ng Luwal-hati and Mandirigmang Lihim. The Warrior of Praise. The Secret Warrior. He tells me that we’re all warriors of something.
“Siguro kasi, parang nakikita ko, lahat tayo mandirigma. Nakikidigma tayo sa lahat eh. Sa pag-ibig, sa trabaho.”
I ask him if we have to fight even for happiness and he gives me a look that tells me all I need to know.