(SPOILER ALERT: This feature contains spoilers for the final installment of the Filipino Heroes League.)
Most say that science fiction should be escapist. More so with comic books where “humdrum” issues allegedly have no place in our whimsies of costumed vigilantes.
Politics, supposedly, does not belong in a world that’s out of this world! They say that doing so ruins the comic!
Apparently, this was what critics of Paolo Fabregas’s Filipino Heroes League (FHL) series had to say when slapped with several pages of hard-hitting social criticism.
It’s not like social criticism is unique to science fiction since it is largely present in other genres. Look at crime and historical fiction. However, it is definitely more nuanced when found in superhero comic books.
Why is that so?
It is because for the longest time, comic books have been used as a vehicle to discuss societal issues in a manner that is easily understood and well loved by the public.
One cannot claim to be Filipino and only describe the good things. That is not true to who we are.
One could even argue that its relevance is felt more today, given that we get information through more visual means. After all, comic books are an engaging way to learn and be more aware of societal ills. That is why comic books and graphic novels are not just fantastical visual treats. Rather, they are very useful tools for the exchange of ideas.
With comic books, information is structured in a holistic, enjoyable manner that moves us without making us feel too drained or afraid of the dire reality that we face every day.
It is just as Fabregas explained in a 2012 interview with the Comics Cube: "Science fiction is not about another world. It's about the world we live in." Because that is precisely the point of the series — to describe a world where a Filipino hero deals with Filipino issues in a Filipino society.
In FHL, Fabregas particularly explores how Filipino heroes survive and thrive amidst class politics and corruption in an alternate reality — one where superheroes exist in a third-world country such as the Philippines. Simply put, Filipino heroes and third-world dilemmas cannot be mutually exclusive!
Removing the problems Filipinos face even in an alternate reality such as that would make the series feel contrived, deprived of what makes it Filipino. To take the issues out of a certain culture would just make it a half-baked existence.
One cannot claim to be Filipino and only describe the good things. That is not true to who we are. And that is what gives life to the FHL reality — one that is as lively and diverse, as ugly and chaotic as the origin of its inspiration.
Given this, it is only right to extrapolate on some of the biggest issues that the author emphasized in FHL: class politics and corruption.
Throughout the series, Fabregas made it a point to show how poverty and government underfunding for the superhero program has been an issue for local heroes.
Dilapidated headquarters at the Manila Film Center, jeepneys with faulty starters, non-existent budget for costumes, and little to no coverage in the media among others! It is so dire that it has completely driven Filipino heroes to seek greener pastures abroad — not unlike the society we still find ourselves in today.
Just as we have overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who we call the modern bayani, we now have overseas Filipino heroes (OFHs) in the world that Fabregas created.
There are two levels with which Fabregas emphasized class politics in his story — the material and social insecurities of heroes.
While we shall discuss them independently for clarity, it must be assumed that in the FHL world, such ideas conflate in the dilemmas that Filipino heroes face in the story.
Social insecurity pertains to the imbalanced dynamics of relations with other members of society
A good example for this is how Bomb Boy, a Filipino hero who migrated to the states became the sidekick of The Great American in Book One of the FHL series.
While Bomb Boy obviously factored largely in the defeat of the villain, the Blade of the Desert, he was still sidelined by The Great American when the battle was over.
More importantly, his life was put on the line. And while death has been part of a hero's "job description," it cannot be denied that despite Bomb Boy's heroics, he was treated like an expendable super compared to The Great American.
Let us suppose, then, that The Great American has stronger powers than Bomb Boy (as implied), then why did the Patriot Strike have to hurl Bomb Boy into dangerous situations first? Why didn't the duo strategize a better plan with minimal costs to both? It's not like there's only a win-or-die scenario in a strength-weakness-opportunities-threats (SWOT) matrix. See, the answer is noble at best and delirious at worst. It's all done in the rhyme of having a name: Fame(™).
Another plausible reason, however, is bordering on headcanon territory given the context and what we can infer from details in the story: Perhaps the reason for such a strategy to exist was due to the status of his citizenship? Could it be that immigrant heroes are limited to being sidekicks and have fewer opportunities for solo acts? Did Bomb Boy agree to such an arrangement in order to gain access to a better deal overseas? A better home or a larger salary, perhaps?
After all, it's a very striking parallel to the onus that falls on the capable, but overworked backs of OFWs. Too close to reality, yeah? But then again, that is the point.
It's a very upfront illustration of the hypocrisy that is manifested in how we Filipinos tend to celebrate anything with a foreign touch without considering the responsibility that comes with it.
Basically, it's the colonial mentality speaking, and while it's a sad, mellower cousin of another bad habit of Filipinos (read: crab mentality), it's typically met with a shrug and your relatives saying, "There's no hope for us here in this country. Hope lies elsewhere."
While it is easy to be a hypocrite and despise such thinking, it cannot be helped given the status of living in this country. However, that is the question that FHL is posing to us: Will that be all we can do?
We all know that's not true.
That aside, material insecurity refers to the instability of one's economic affairs, such as income inequality, job insecurity, and the like.
While there were several examples in the series, one noteworthy incident that illustrates this point is the arc of FHL’s resident speedster, Kid Kidlat.
In the series, Kid Kidlat is the breadwinner of his family who owns a small pedicab business. Given that being a hero doesn't really pay that much, he still has to work as a pedicab driver. With his super speed, it's not that much of a problem as his endurance is beyond the human average.
However, as seen in the panel above, despite Kid Kidlat’s efforts, it’s still not enough as his own sister takes away his hard-earned income for her own leisure. It’s a difficult scene to take in at first because Anton could have fought for it given his power, but he didn’t. Time and time again, his priority for the needs and wants of his family eclipses his own. Even if his own life was nearly brought to peril because the same sister was selfish and inconsiderate enough to sell him to authorities for money in Book Three.
The thing is — shouldn't his affiliation to the FHL have at least given him more income security? After all, he continuously risks his life for others despite his complaints about the lack of appreciation by the public. Shouldn't there have been a life insurance policy for heroes given the danger to their lives?
Surely a government that can afford to fund its own Republic Heroes (RH) should also be able to finance the League that helped pave the way for the existence of their republic, yes? Apparently not, it appears.
Class politics in the series mattered because the welfare of the heroes were all too often compromised due to the lack of access to better opportunities and imbalanced relationships.
A reason for this could be given from what can be inferred from the series — suppose that the FHL is a not-for-profit organization, then such a group primarily thrives through sponsorships unlike the RH, which could be state-funded as a government-owned-and-controlled group.
As discussed in the series, we all know that the answer to this material insecurity was cruel, but expected. Even a military official in the story explained that the budget cuts for the league was due to there being “no more super villains”.
However, that statement lends itself to arrogance and incompetence. In an alternate world with superheroes, could that really be true? As we will discuss in the next issue that Fabregas explored in the story, it may have been that these super villains have evolved their strategy and found a different theater for their atrocities.
Hence, class politics in the FHL series mattered a lot because the welfare of the heroes in the story were all too often compromised due to the lack of access to better opportunities (material insecurity) and imbalanced relationships (social insecurity).
When the first league of Filipino heroes led by Supremo defeated the super villains headed by the Touch, people thought that the fight was finally over. However, as the series has shown, the villains merely changed tactics and concocted maleficent plans in a more dangerous stage: The government.
It's an interesting parallel to how our society transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy in the alternate history seen in FHL.
While ours was a civilian movement marked by nonviolence, the FHL's reality involved superhumans in an arduous battle between good and evil. Following this, both introduced leaders, who despite their faults, were fierce in their dedication to usher the country to stability.
In the series, Fabregas discussed how adversely affected the country was by corruption. He scrutinized how the Touch completely paralyzed Supremo’s powers, which were driven by empathy, by gradually propagating corruption in the government.
The Touch was able to do so by subjugating the legislature through the use of 101’s self-replicating ability in Book Two and controlling state forces, whose minds were manipulated by the Whisper, in Book Three.
As one of the Republic Heroes explained, once the Touch accomplished killing the “national spirit” through corruption, Supremo was easily incapacitated. From there, FHL operations were also compromised.
The side effect of the Touch’s machinations also drove citizens to fear, thereby causing them to doubt the remaining FHL’s efforts to restore peace and democracy in the country.
It’s not like the citizenry’s fears were unfounded following the previous assassinations of opposition parties in Book One, and the “hunt” for unregistered superhumans in Book Three. In their eyes, the threat was very explicit especially when the Republican Heroes were at the beck and call of the government.
Moreover, it didn’t help that the Touch was willing to declare those who helped the FHL as enemies-of-the-state. As such, it took an extraordinary amount of courage when civilians joined the remaining FHL members and helped revive Supremo for his last heroic act — finally vanquishing the Touch and inspiring the citizens to stand together against impunity and tyranny.
Hence, there were two themes with which the author delved into corruption in FHL — fear that breeds paralysis in the citizenry and greed that ushers chaos in the FHL's Philippines. Through this, Fabregas emphasized how selfishness and inaction in a country make fertile ground for corruption.
He further discussed how it’s not enough to simply rely on superheroes to save the country. Doing so simply puts “hope” at an extremely high pedestal, which leads us to tire all too easily at the responsibility that comes with it.
The series tackled how citizens and heroes alike can become antitheses to that now famous Spider-Man maxim, "With great power comes great responsibility." Basically, the FHL series criticized how we can be greatly irresponsible and ignorant of the great power we truly possess as citizens of our country.
For this reason, comic books and FHL remain relevant to society because it is not afraid to confront the harsh realities that people typically avoid; and it does so by speaking in a medium that is as entertaining as it is informative.
It is important that comics have issues because otherwise, they become meaningless — deprived of what makes stories matter to us. Because otherwise, it has no heart, and thus, it becomes something we will not be able to relate to, lacking soul and unable to move us.
Given this, comic books are meant to be ruined.