Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Full Circle

1954 thru 1956 were magic years for me. My father, a career Navy man, was transferred to the Philippines. I was five, the perfect age for visiting a “foreign land.” I had a ball. It was during that period that I developed my passion for comic art. Dad would buy the Sunday Manila Times, an English-language newspaper in the American style, complete with a color comics section. I loved the adventure strips. Every weekend I'd thrill to Buck Rogers (the later Murphy Anderson years), Brick Bradford (Paul Norris), and Flash Gordon (Mac Raboy). I was so crazy for comics that I'd read anything presented in comics form, no matter what it was. This included advertising strips--notably the adventures of Nurse Cafi and Captain Cortal in the Times magazine supplement.

Cortal was an aspirin- based pain reliever. Cafiaspirina, apparently produced by the same company, combined aspirin with caffeine for an extra “lift.” Each product had its own weekly mini-comic, presenting scenes from the lives of everyday Filipinos whose happiness was threatened by pain. Whether they were sightseeing, planning a party, or attending an important business meeting, the hero/heroine would almost lose everything to a headache. Just in the nick of time Nurse Cafi or Captain Cortal would swoop in, deliver a quick sales pitch, and administer their pill of choice. By the final panel the day had been saved. The beaming protagonists, pain-free once more, would bless the product and its spokesperson.

Even at age five I didn't buy this cornball stuff. Still I devoured every adventure. Being packrats, my family saved many of the old Times magazines. Thus it was that some forty years later I still had them. I was living in L.A., designing storyboards and backgrounds for DiC Animation. TV animation was booming and a cadre of Filipino artists could be found in every studio. Most were former comics artists who'd moved the US to work for DC comics. They were lured to Hollywood by the abundant work and much higher pay of the animation industry. At DiC I made the acquaintance of a wonderful artist named Fred Carillo.

Fred was some twenty years older than me. Back home he'd had a distinguished career in comics. In fact he was considered one of the founding fathers of Philippine comics. His conservative style lacked the flash of Alcala or Nino, so he wasn't very popular with American readers. It didn't matter. Fred was a highly talented, thoroughly professional artist who could draw anything except really scary monsters. He always had plenty of work, which he produced with deceptive ease and remarkable speed.

Fred and I became friends. Often while we worked we'd discuss history, politics, and comics. Fred loved to tell stories of his early days in the industry. One day I brought my Times magazines to show him. Smiling, he pointed out the movie actresses he'd had crushes on as a young man. Then he came to a Nurse Cafi ad. Imagine my astonishment when he laughed and said, “I worked on that!”

It turned out that one of Fred's first paying comics jobs was with a Manila advertising agency. Along with several other beginners he drew the Cafi and Cortal strips, switching off penciling and inking. The coincidence blew me away. There was young Filipino Fred Carillo drawing ad comics in Manila, while sitting across the Bay in Cavite City reading them was kindergartener American me--and now four decades later, halfway around the world, we meet!

Following the TV animation implosion Fred returned to the Philippines and I lost track of him. He died a couple of years ago of cancer. Thanks to another coincidence, I had found his daughter's email address and was able to get a greeting and a “thank you” through to Fred before he passed. I'm grateful I did. Fred was one of my favorite comics people. Someday I'll share some of his stories about Philippine comics in the 50s.

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