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What makes a gay comic book a smash hit in the Philippines?

The writer of the Philippines’ most successful gay comic book speaks to Gay Star News
Visconde Carlo Vergara, creator of Zsazsa Zaturnnah

It’s said that creativity happens when two worlds collide: jazz was born from African and European music; the chicken tikka sandwich from Indian and British cuisine.

When Visconte Carlo Vergara collided the world of comic books with gay Filipino culture he unwittingly created a huge hit the force of which he is still recovering from.

In the mid-2000s Vergara’s comic book, The Spectacular Adventures of Zsazsa Zaturrnah, which was drawn for fun and self-published, won a National Book award, sold thousands of copies and was adapted into a successful stage musical and not-so-successful film.

The ‘whirlwind of positive response’ that the book received ‘was exciting and overwhelming at the same time,’ Vergara explains when we meet for an interview in Manila.

‘For a number of years I’ve been trying to dissect this material and find out what exactly made it successful,’ says Vergara. He cites the humor, the non-stereoyped portrayal of a gay man, super-hero action, giant frog, aliens, zombies, love story, friendship and family issues as all contributing to the book’s popularity, but he admits he doesn’t know why it was such a smash hit.

‘I have just recently accepted the fact that the first book can never be replicated,’ Vergara says. ‘It’s a once in a lifetime thing, which of course is the death-knell of everyone’s career you know. You’re on your way down.’

The sequel to The Spectacular Adventure of Zsazsa Zaturnnah was finally published this year, the first of a three-part series, but the response has been more muted than the flurry of of appreciation for the first Zsazsa Zaturnnah book. ‘There’s always the sequel syndrome,’ Vergara says. ‘That thing of the sequel not being as good as the first.’

Vergara approached writing the sequel in a more formal way. He says the first book was written ‘from the seat of my pants’ but for the second he studied story craft and structure. ‘I wanted to formalize my knowledge because when aspiring comic book artists approach me and ask for tips, I hardly know what to say,’ he says.

The artist, who has also made a living as art director for Good Housekeeping magazine in the Philippines, has now accepted that he can’t make comics full-time by himself. ‘Since I’m 41, I’m undergoing that evil midlife crisis,’ he says. ‘I know I want to do comic books for the rest of my life, but it’s the situation common wherever in the world where very few people have cracked the code of making comics full-time by themselves.’ So he’s planning a portfolio career of journalism, illustration and designing training courses.

But Vergara’s not giving up on comic books. He’s continuing with the Zsazsa Zaturnnah series and is thinking about going back to writing in English and non-super-hero stories. His first comic book, One Night in Purgatory, about two men meeting after years apart to dissect the pain of their friendship that turned into a relationship and then ended, was written in English.

He doesn’t want to go back to the ‘slice-of-life drama’ however, but is thinking about using Filipino myths in a comic book story. ‘One story I’m thinking about at the moment is a love story involving a creature of Filipino myth,’ he says.’ It’s one of those kinds of stories where on the outside you’re different but when it all comes down to the core you’re essentially the same.’

It’s unfortunate for the English-speaking world the they can only enjoying the expressive and vibrant drawings in The Spectacular Adventures of Zsazsa Zaturnnah, because it’s written in local Filipino language Tagalog. Vergara says he did try to translate it but felt it lost too much of the local flavor.

But the legend of Zsazsa Zaturrnah has gained some international recognition. She had the dubious honor of being number one in humor website Cracked.com’s list of the world’s weirdest super heroes and the film won the Best Super-Awesome-Uber-Whack-Mega-Gaylord-Magic-Surprise Film at a gay and lesbian film festival in Calgary in 2008.

Unlike the stage musical, which was on for over 90 performances - a long run by Philippine standards, the locally made film was not such a hit in its native land.

But bootleg copies have got out internationally and gathered appreciative reviews. The Asian film review site FilmSmash.com called it a film that Pedro Almadovar might do if he had a crack at Wonder Woman. ‘One reviewer said “I don’t know what Filipino movie makers are smoking”,’ says Vergara. ‘They love it; it ranges from love to “it’s so bad you can’t help but love it”.’ The film has all the kitsch elements to make it a cult hit - clumsy special effects, shiny skimpy outfits, super heroes and aliens.

Vergara has one ambition for Zsazsa that hasn’t been fulfilled. ‘It would be really, really, cool if a theatre company abroad would take interest in the character and the story, and produce an adaptation,’ he says. ‘That’s one dream I wish would come true. It would be interesting to see how another culture would interpret the story but still keeping the spirit intact.’

Watch a trailer of the film of Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Moveeh here:

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