Super Storycraft: Pinoy Superhero Edition

All this thinking about superheroes made me consider the popular local superheroes here in the Philippines–specifically, Darna and Captain Barbell, creations of Mars Ravelo.

Darna and Barbell
This, by the way, is the best rendition of the two that I’ve seen. (Image drawn by the great Francis Manapul)

On Captain Barbell

Captain Barbell was originally created to spoof Captain Marvel – whereas Marvel’s secret identity was the arguably dreamy Billy Batson, Barbell’s everyman persona is skinny asthmatic guy Tenteng. Later on, different people started to take on the mantle of this hero: Dario, a sweepstakes vendor who suffers from polio; Gomer, a breadwinner fisherman who has been crippled; and Enteng, who is very much like Tenteng. They are different people, but they all seem to have the same sort of quality–they are oppressed people who have been chosen to wield great power (in this case, super-strength and flight) because they, more than anyone else, understand the meaning of justice.

If I remember it correctly, they either cannot use power for selfish ends or lose the power completely when they feel that they have fully served justice as they see fit.

On Darna

Darna was originally conceived as a female Superman–not a Wonder Woman analog, as one would expect–mashed up with the creator’s idol, his mother (who heroically raised him on her own in the early 20th century). Narda, a kind-hearted girl who lives with her grandmother and younger brother, comes across a stone from outer space that, when swallowed, allows her to channel the super-strong, super-speedy, and high-flying alien superheroine Darna. (Incidentally, the Captain Marvel influence is seen here too; Narda needs to shout “Darna” to turn into the hero and “Narda” to turn normal again)

If I remember correctly, there are ALSO incarnations of this story in which it is discovered that one cannot channel Darna if you are less than selfless–if you cannot devote your whole self to fighting for the innocent, then the stone will not work.

The point of heroism

So it basically occurred to me that the principles of superheroics in my country are slightly different from the Western conventions (even if we DO borrow the aesthetic). In particular, I’ve noticed that while American superheroes seem to be all about taking responsibility (manning up), the heroes that became locally popular seem to require some sort of innate sense of goodness–especially in a social or communal context. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of the major differences between the way Westerners and Easterners think; whereas heroism in America seems to grow from a sense of self, heroism here seems to stem from a very strong sense of empathy with a group of people.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I often get the feeling that iconic American superheroes protect other people because they can. Iconic Filipino superheroes fight for other people because they have to. While the same is not always true for Western supers, Pinoy superheroes are almost always at their best when their origins are incredibly humble. This very humility, I think, is why it’s so easy for many to think of them as good. They are not apart; they are a part. Captain Barbell is one of us because deep down inside he is a weak, sick man who wants to fight for what’s right–not just for him, but for other people too. Darna is one of us because she somewhere in her heart she is a simple, hopeful girl who earnestly wants things to be better for everyone.

My god. Ravelo really was a genius.


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