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SEPTEMBER 15, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 36 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek.
Anacleto, a trained dentist, has opted for pencilling instead of fillings.

Comic Fairy Tale
An unlikely star among U.S. illustrators
By RUEL DE VERA Manila

For someone trained to pull teeth, Efren "Jay" Anacleto is one heck of an illustrator. Odd? Well, the Manila artist happily admits that what has happened to his life in the past few years is on a par with the amazing stories that appear in the comic books in which his work appears. "I'm already 31, and that's a bit late for starting out in this business," he says, "but then how I got into comics isn't typical either."

Also out of the ordinary is the kind of acclaim Anacleto has garnered as the artist for the best-selling comic book series Aria. Ever since the series' first issue hit the stands in January, 1999, the Filipino's photo-realistic style has earned him a devoted following. The American bible of the industry, Wizard: The Comic Magazine, has described his work as being "drop dead gorgeous," and "stunning." All that is even more impressive when one considers that the award-winning Anacleto was never formally trained in art — and is a dentist by profession. "Becoming a comic-book artist was not a feasible career in the 1980s," he says, "but I just kept drawing."

Anacleto got his first look at American comic books when his father, an engineer at the U.S. Navy's Subic Bay base, brought home issues of The Mighty Thor and Superman. The youngster drew a lot in his spare time, but comic books did not become a passion until he moved to Manila to study dentistry in 1985. The hustling, vibrant city life energized him. He began collecting comics and honing his own skills by copying what he saw. But the panels and lines that are now so clearly his own were not inspired by other illustrators.

"I used to buy a lot of fashion magazines like GQ and Vogue," he sheepishly admits. "I was 18, and interested in girls." What he was particularly drawn to were the glossy photos — and they set him to wondering if there was a way of combining their look with the sequential art used in comic books. Using an ordinary ballpoint pen, Anacleto began practicing in earnest, producing posters for friends. Gradually, his distinctive photo-realistic style took shape.

Anacleto did not work on Philippine comics, but eventually did some inking and cover work for the small U.S.-based Entity Comics as well as test pages for Harris Comics' sexy Vampirella series. But then he had to stop. "I was out of money," Anacleto admits, "so I had to go into part-time dentistry." But his was a talent just waiting to be discovered. That happened when top comic artist Whilce Portacio saw the Vampirella tests. Portacio and his colleagues at California-based Avalon Studios had a new project and Anacleto seemed just the man to realize their vision. Their moody, magical series focused on a 900-year-old fairy named Kildare, who was running a curio-filled bookshop in Greenwich Village during the day and partying all night. Taking its cue from the series' operatic scope, the project was called Aria.

Armed only with a one-page character profile, Anacleto fleshed out the beautiful, powerful Kildare. "She was actually a composite character," he explains — "this girl's eyes, that girl's hair." Whoever she was, Anacleto's Kildare won the Avalon folks over and the Filipino became the series' inaugural penciller. He slaved on Aria, working for three months to get the first issue just right. That issue became an instant collector's item, and the American comic industry braced itself for the arrival of a new talent. "Aria has probably already sold in the hundreds of thousands worldwide," estimates Mike Simbulan, proprietor of the Manila-based Comic Quest store chain. The people at Avalon were so impressed that, instead of having an inker fill in the details after Anacleto's soft pencils, his illustrations go straight to coloring — a rarity in the comic industry. To no one's surprise, Anacleto received the award for Most Promising Newcomer from the West Coast Comic Club at last year's San Diego Comic Convention.

Anacleto lives by himself in his Manila studio-cum-home, often drawing deep into the night. "The most difficult thing about working in a realistic style is when you're asked to draw something you've never seen," he says. To get the texture and detailing right, he has become a reference freak, checking books and magazines for the backdrops and accessories that make his panels perfect. "For the poses, I sometimes use a mirror," he explains. "Eventually, you can picture it in your head." Anacleto sends his work to Avalon's California studios via the Internet. That way, one of the comics industry's top emerging artists gets to stay in the town he loves and work in relative obscurity. "Nobody knows me here," he smiles. "I love being able to go to a store and buy comics anonymously. It also keeps you humble."


Aria comics by Jay Anacleto which featured a fairy name Kildare.

Anacleto is exhibit A in a growing list of Filipinos now making an impact in American comics while never moving to the U.S. Among the others are Gerry Alanguilan, Gilbert Monsanto, Roy Alan Martinez and Leinil Francis Yu, who is currently getting rave reviews for his dynamic pencils in the blockbuster Marvel comic X-Men. As for Anacleto, he is now leaving Aria to begin work on a new top-secret Avalon Studios title. "It is darker, somewhat of a departure from Aria," is all Anacleto would say about it.

But isn't drawing by hand in danger of being rubbed out by computer techniques? And aren't computer and video games likely to deliver a knock-out punch to comics? Anacleto accepts there is a challenge, but believes there is a place for quality. "The days are gone when comic book sales can run into the millions," he says, "but I prefer to think that, just as with printed books, there will always be an audience as long as we put out products with interesting stories and good artwork."

Anyway, the computer isn't necessarily the enemy. Anacleto says many comic-book artists are now using the technology to complement and even improve their artwork. "But you will still need basic drawing skills," he insists. In which case, Anacleto's future seems secure.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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