Fil-Am comic book artists promote PH culture amid success with Marvel, Hollywood

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 29 2019 12:00 AM | Updated as of Oct 29 2019 07:19 AM

MANILA—Illustrator and martial arts master Rafael Kayanan developed an interest in comic books at an early age.

Growing up in the Philippines in the 1960s, he read a mix of Filipino and American comic books—from the works of Filipino “King of Komiks” Francisco Coching to the popular Captain America series.

“To me it was weird. Captain America has a mask and he takes it off and he’s Steve Rogers. He’s a white guy. To me, knowing no white people, I thought he had 2 masks. Under the Steve Rogers mask he’s got to be Filipino or a brown guy,” Kayanan recalled during an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News.

Kayanan eventually found himself in America as his family escaped the political turmoil in Metro Manila at the onset of the martial law era in the early 1970s.

His mother, who was a structural engineer, and his father, who was an architect, brought them to Florida, settling in a community where they were the only Asian immigrants.

He found solace in drawing and martial arts, which became his way of befriending other kids in school. And despite leaving the Philippines at such a young age, Kayanan’s uncle, who was a guerilla fighter, helped shaped his identity as a Filipino.

“My uncle introduced us to his best friend who was [Gabriel] Flash Elorde,” Kayanan said, explaining that being around his uncle and their friends made him see Filipinos as a race of heroes and fighters.

Filipino-American comic book artists Whilce Portacio (left) and Rafael Kayanan (right) at the SuperManila Pop Culture Convention in Pasig City. Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News


More than 2,000 miles away, on the West Coast of America was another Filipino-American boy. Whilce Portacio was also born in the Philippines in the 1960s but unlike Kayanan, he arrived in the United States as a toddler after his father joined the US Navy.

He calls himself a navy brat who was sheltered from the political unrest in the Philippines.

Because his family didn’t speak Tagalog in their household, his first real Filipino experience was when his family resettled in the Philippines after his father retired. He had to study high school in a military base in Olongapo City, north of Manila.

“He [my father] wanted us to grow up Filipino. He wanted us to realize who we were as Filipinos,” he said.

As he dealt with “culture shock,” Portacio spent a lot of time drawing, to the point of being called to the principal’s office for vandalizing.

Like Kayanan, drawing became his way of attracting friends. “I got the attention of my classmate who was a quarterback,” he said. “Nobody would mess with me anymore.”

Both Kayanan and Portacio pursued fine arts in college—Kayanan in Florida and Portacio in the Philippines.

But Portacio’s parents were disappointed that he wasn’t getting the mentoring he should have since he seemed to know more than his professors. Soon, Portacio was sent back to the United States to live with his aunt in San Diego, California.


A post shared by Rafael Kayanan (@rafael_kayanan) on


It was his aunt who encouraged him to bring his portfolio to the famed San Diego Comic Convention. At that time, Portacio said, “Every single Marvel editor was looking for talent.” He ended up meeting Marvel senior editor Carl Potts who became his mentor.

Kayanan also got his first break through a comics convention in Florida. He brought his photocopied sample works and by chance met a comics artist who wanted to bring his work to New York.

Kayanan, who was still a student at art school, eventually got a call from DC Comics head Dick Giordano.

“I’m like, ‘What?’ So I ran to the phone booth, thinking it was a prank. So I answer it and he says, ‘Hey Rafael, do you want to join the DC family? If you want to, we have a ticket for you and you can go to New York,’” Kayanan recalled.

With their talent and discipline, the young Portacio and Kayanan, who will only meet decades later, made a name for themselves, working for Marvel and DC Comics titles.


Kayanan’s most notable works for comics were his illustrations and inks for Firestorm, Conan and the Eisner-nominated series Chiaroscuro. For Firestorm, he co-created the character Felicity Smoak, who eventually became part of the Arrow and Arrowverse series.

But Kayanan said he decided to leave Firestorm to work on titles that he’d been reading as a kid—series such as Conan and Spiderman.

Kayanan gained popularity for his dynamic and detailed illustrations that incorporated martial arts poses.

He considers his illustrations of Conan as his best comics work. “I took a Conan character that was a big white, blue-eyed guy and I changed him into a brown Conan,” Kayanan said, adding that it was his version that influenced the film Conan the Barbarian, starring Jason Momoa.


A post shared by Rafael Kayanan (@rafael_kayanan) on

While pursuing his career in comics, Kayanan trained in the martial art of Sayoc Kali, which was developed by a Filipino family that immigrated to the US.

“We were probably the only system in the East Coast that was propagating Filipino martial arts,” Kayanan said.

Kayanan considers his work for “The Hunted” as his most important film “because I introduced Filipino martial arts on a Hollywood level and now you have John Wick (which incorporates Sayoc Kali).”

Actor Benicio del Toro learned of the Sayoc Kali knife system while training for the film “The Hunted.” He eventually got Kayanan to choreograph the fight scenes for the film.

“People got to know us. We ended up training other stuntmen who worked on the [Jason] Bourne movie,” he said.

At the same time, his talent for drawing allowed him to easily make storyboards that helped film directors understand his vision for his fight scenes.

Kayanan also trained Sam Rockwell for the George Clooney-directed film "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and choreographed fights for LL Cool J and the rest of the cast of television show "NCIS: Los Angeles."

Kayanan’s talent in illustrating and fight scenes went to good use as he became the set illustrator and storyboard artist for the Broadway show "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." He also did the concept illustration for the films "Immortals" and "Mirror, Mirror."


Back in California, Portacio started making a name for himself, inking the illustrations of Art Adams, who worked on X-Men’s major comic books.

“Longshot turned out to be the very first book of a now very famous artist Art Adams. So I was the first person to ink over Art Adams,” Portacio said. “I didn’t know at the time nobody wanted to ink Longshot because Art Adams is a really detailed artist. So everybody knew it was a lot of work.”

His editor Carl Potts trusted him, as well, to work on The Punisher, which got them a lot of publicity because of how they would incorporate timely or relevant stories.

Because of his work for Longshot, Portacio started being offered work by the X-Men office.

“That’s where I start to rise up. Because that’s the number 1 office. That was the place to be as an artist,” he said.

While doing work for X-Men, Portacio had the opportunity to create the character of Bishop, a mutant character who not only appeared in the comic series but also the animated series and the film X-Men: Days of Future Past.

“Bishop actually is my thesis paper on Filipino exceptionalism,” Portacio said, explaining how the character was inspired by Filipino icons like Efren “Bata” Reyes and Manny Pacquiao whose talent and skill seemed effortless.

Portacio said Bishop had to be exceptional to survive Days of Future Past, a time when mutants were being hunted down.

Portacio imagined a character who worked hard during the day and spent his nights hanging out at a party or being with the girl he liked.

“That’s what we do as Pinoys. We work really hard as professionals,” he said, adding that on the flip side, Filipinos also spend as much time on “pakikisama” or spending time with friends and loved ones.

Eventually, Portacio co-founded Image Comics, which allowed creators to publish their own material. It has since published titles like "The Walking Dead" and "Spawn."

Then in the 1990s, Portacio went back to the Philippines and ended up starting a studio at Balete 55 in New Manila to help young artists. Portacio’s stay in the Philippines helped launch the international careers of the likes of Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Roy Allan Martinez, Gilbert Monsanto, Edgar Tadeo, Jay Anacleto and Ryan Orosco.


While Kayanan and Portacio had heard of each other, they had never met because they were on opposite ends of the US.

They were finally introduced to each other at a comics convention in New York a decade or so ago.

“We talked for about 4 hours and realized we had a ton of things in common in terms of how we envisioned the future of Filipino creatives,” Kayanan said.

“Raf and I, from the second we met we’re like brothers,” Portacio added.

The pair immediately became friends and bonded over their shared love for the Philippines.

Rafael Kayanan shows his artwork inspired by the ancient Filipinos script of Baybayin. Courtesy of Ivan Guerrero.

Despite growing up in the US, both Kayanan and Portacio have developed a deep understanding of the Filipino culture. Portacio has taught himself how to speak Tagalog and has introduced Philippine folklore through his work. His comic series Stone features creatures like the tikbalang and the manananggal.

Meanwhile, Kayanan has discovered more about Philippine history while researching about the weapons of Filipino warriors. Portacio said Kayanan probably knows more about Filipino knives and swords than any other researcher after he and other Sayoc Kali experts made countless visits to the restricted sections of the Smithsonian Institution and other American museums.

Watch more in iWant or


Last week, the pair met up again in Manila—the first time Kayanan had gone back since leaving the Philippines as a child.

Together, Kayanan and Portacio attended the SuperManila Pop Culture Convention organized by local comic book stores Filbar’s and Comic Odyssey.

During their panel discussion at the event, they encouraged local artists to incorporate Philippine culture into their stories

Instead of relying on Marvel and DC, Portacio hopes Filipino artists can develop their own stories.

“We’re in a cycle where the whole world knows American superheroes,” he said. “What’s the next cycle? What about French, Japanese (or) Pinoy superheroes?”

Portacio said Filipino artists need to make sure that their characters are Pinoy instead of “Americanized” superheroes.

He said it would be quite interesting to see a hero that has to deal with his close-knit family, including the pressures and humorous situations it brings with it, as opposed to some American superheroes who seem to have no personal lives and no families.

Watch more in iWant or

The 2 artists said the next step is to find investors or people who can help artists bring Filipino heroes to the global stage.

“We’re here to put out the challenge and to say we’re gonna be there by your side,” Portacio said.

Portacio said Filipinos have shown that they are world-class. “We’ve proven na kaya natin (we can do it). Now the challenge is up to the business community to set up a system so our artists, our talents won’t have to leave.”

Currently, both artists are working on separate projects that explore Philippine mythology and heroes. While they can’t discuss their ongoing work, they said they are working on “something for the Filipino.”

Asked for their message to Filipino artists who also want to make it big internationally, Kayanan and Portacio said it was important for them to embrace the Filipino culture.

“Our identity is we write our own story, we write our own narrative. It’s our story. That’s our legacy,” Kayanan said.

Meanwhile, Portacio said, “Show who we are to the world. We have a rich history, we have many heroes from various parts of the Philippines. Stand up as a Filipino.”