With everyone staying in, we’re all looking for breaks from our work-from-home setups, and a mental stretch between bouts of existential dread. Webtoons are the next go-to sources of entertainment for many who have successfully dried out their K-drama wells. But what if you’re looking for freshly made, locally sourced komiks presented in the same smooth online reading format?
Last Sep. 5, creative group Kalabaw Kolektib launched Penlab.ink, a website exclusively for Filipino creators and writers of the medium. The new website features Filipino komiks of different styles and narratives — all currently free to read. Think of it as Komiket, but online.
The group hopes to open up accessible avenues for both creators and readers alike when exploring and expanding the world of komiks. Functioning as a komiks distribution platform, Penlab currently only accepts finished works. Interested creators who are looking for a digital home for their works can submit their proposals through the Penlab website and will be asked to provide a short creator’s bio, links to their social media creator pages, and a preview of their work.
Underdog talks with Penlab’s Bernie Mercado and their webmaster, Nissie Arcega about the site and team, and the future of Philippine komiks and their creators in the digital space.
Editor’s Note: Answers have been shortened for clarity and space.
Could you tell us more about the team behind Penlab?
Nissie: Kalabaw Kolektib is actually a group of old orgmates from when we were in college together, and funnily enough that org was completely unrelated to komiks. We started the independent publishing house when we found ourselves getting into the komiks community in our own individual ways, and figured that we wanted to create our own comics together. We started out pretty small, we only had one artist on board but when we started getting more traction we were lucky to have met our artists today. These people—Sampay, Carlo Carpena, Chemical Comics, David Sysing, Dan Salita, Gail Ramirez—were people we just met at cons or whose work we followed ourselves on the internet, and now they’ve helped us bring life to the concepts and stories that we had on our drawing board (Well, writing board I guess, since none of our writers can really draw, hahaha). Now we’ve been able to publish a number of works like Katipunera Warrior, Labor Day, and Hero Watch, and we’ve got a lot more to come.
How long has this initiative been incubating?
Bernie: We launched our first title as Kalabaw in November 2019. Since we were developing a lot of collaboration projects, we were looking for the right platform where we could put out our work.
But with any of the existing platforms for comics, they basically just host your work, and all of the legwork with marketing is yours. Sometimes, creators get a lot of readers; but most times, the comics get buried in a big library.
So we instead thought of building our own personal website, but our team pushed that if we were gonna invest in a website anyway, why not just make it our own platform where not only can you read our work, you can also read and discover everyone else’s? The initial idea then was to make a “YouTube/Netflix for komiks.”
Nissie: The idea really crystallized when the lockdown happened. A lot of komikeros were giving away their comics for free. Someone even made a tracker of all the Filipino comics that you could read while we were all stuck at home. Talk of our own website was always in the works. We wanted to be able to seamlessly move into digital since we wanted to expand our own stuff beyond Metro Manila. We even wanted to tap collectives and studios from Singapore, Hong Kong, and Indonesia so that we could share all our comics with each other.
I spent a good few weeks slumped over my laptop figuring out how to build a high-quality comics reader. Originally, we just wanted to create a simple website that just displayed comics pages in the same way Tumblr did. But when the project grew bigger, we didn’t want to compromise the reading experience. There are about 20 versions of Penlab.ink before we locked on the clean candy-colored interface we use on the site now. We got a lot of help from our web designer, Kristoff Mendoza, for the awesome design.
But because it transferred to web, it had to take on its own UI/UX because of it, with a focus on mobile optimization. In the same way that we founded Kalabaw, we wanted Penlab to be creator-centric. We wanted it to be the best place to read and discover Pinoy komiks, especially since the typical art market the cons had won’t be a real thing until it’s safe to go outside.
What is the landscape of the local comics now under the pandemic? Have readers been eager to pick up digital copies from their favorite creators?
Nissie: The print vs digital discussion is always polarizing. Artists can feel hesitant about putting their stuff online since it puts their work at risk of getting pirated. I’m not here to preach any stance on piracy, but I think it’s an inevitable facet of distributing any sort of work. I’m always on the side of accessibility, and that includes affordability. While the con experience is definitely key to the community and its economy, there aren’t a lot of people who can attend or even purchase a bunch of the releases that are there.
Webkomiks have even taken on its own following and circulation, with zines and comics poetry coming in with it as emerging forms. The reading experience I think comes down to preference, which is why we’re looking to expand into integrating physical copies onto our website as well.
We’re hoping to encourage more people to read more komiks, and a platform that’s free, curated, accessible anywhere, and has an ergonomic interface will definitely be an incentive to do so
Bernie: Since the pandemic started, we’ve been really active in marketing our work, and now with Penlab, we’re sharing with everyone the things we learned when selling online.
Something we’re very passionate about is managing content the right way. So when we made Penlab, we made sure we weren’t gonna be just another hosting platform for komiks. There’s already a lot of that for comics in general.
What’s special about all this is everything is packaged as one collection, presented as a unified brand, as if to tell the world that, “This is Filipino komiks.”
Do you have any reading recommendations or personal favorites from the roster of komiks currently up on the site?
Bernie: We have a really varied collection, so I encourage readers to try everything. Each title has something new to offer. But my personal favorites are Dapit Hapon, Darahug, Elesi, and Grumpy.
Dapit Hapon is a light and really inspiring read. Warehouse6 really understands how to tell a story about nostalgia. It’s not pandering and the emotions are genuine. And the art is just crazy good.
Elesi is what I wish Pinoy mythology komiks would be more like. When we talk myth komiks, we always bring up the mainstream greats, but I think Zoe’s work really has great potential and should be more discussed and followed by readers. I hope it continues to be great.
I really like Grumpy. It’s one of the series on Penlab that I’m closely following. I think it deserves its own TV drama one day.
I’m biased about Darahug. It’s like a really good black-and-white arthouse movie, but in komiks form. Kolo is a master in visual story-telling.
There are more titles to expect on Penlab as well. Chemical Comics is launching a new title called The Last Days of Juan Dela Cruz and horror komiks Walang Laman sa Kahon by Chocnut-san is coming soon to Penlab.
Nissie: As of the moment, my must-reads on Penlab would be The Nowhere Tree, Growing Pains, The Graveyard Shift, and of course, Crime-Fighting Call Center Agents.
The Nowhere Tree is Mitzi Bajet’s work, and the art and story is just gripping. I have a bias for anything speculative but subtle in execution. I also love that the setting is a mystical tree, and that the magic around it pushes the characters’ limits and development. The story is simple but really effective.
Growing Pains by Dany is a refreshing take on the typical realist comic. The topic isn’t anything new, but it’s tackled in such an endearing and relatable way. It’s not cathartic in the same way woe-is-me confessional comics are; there’s a certain maturity in the handling of the late bloomer coming-of-age story, and I appreciate stories like that.
Crime-Fighting Call Center Agents by Kowtow Komiks is one of the first comics I really got obsessed with. I think it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s hilarious, the art is amazing, and it’s just always entertaining to mix snark and sarcasm with adventure and suspense.
The Graveyard Shift by Chelsea Oleta on the other hand, I have no other reason to like but my love for mangkukulams. Plus, they’re modern mangkukulams trying to live out in the urban landscape of Filipino diaspora in America. It’s just a lot of fun to read and it’s got its own cast of interesting characters.
Read and support Penlab and their collaborators at Penlab.ink.
Images via Penlab.ink
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