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The UGH life according to Hulyen

If you mishear it quickly enough—or fatefully purposefully enough, the name “Hulyen” sounds a lot like “henyo,” the Filipino word for genius. It’s not a stretch because comic book creator Julienne Dadivas, 28, who goes by “Hulyen,” is the most unique, unusual and significant cartoonist today.

When others look at Hulyen’s drawings, many react: “I can draw that.” No, they can’t: the Keith Haring-meets-Cesar Asar aesthetic, the wriggly arms that don’t seem humanly possible. With her predilection for replicating St. Scholastica’s uniforms, the faces of the girls who seem happy even though they just very slightly resemble Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

But of all of Hulyen’s visual creations, nothing beats her own face. Hulyen’s distinctive deadpan cartoon visage is her signature creation, appearing on a multitude of stickers in different moods, on T-shirts, tote bags (they’re called “BUGHS”) and are everywhere. “Sobrang benta nung mga stickers ko for some reason,” she said. “I’m glad that people like my drawings, that I was able to illustrate characters that make people say ‘same’ or ‘it me.’” She’s the Millennial Killroy for Pinoys. Hulyen’s magnus opus, the comic “UGH” is not some bizarre bad trip. Instead, it’s really a largely autobiographical chronicle of Hulyen’s life and past, as a high school student in an all-girls’ school and an aspiring indie comic book artist—and while it can get weird, it has touched a nerve because it never comes across as unauthentic.

All this makes Hulyen that singular breakout talent, the graphic artist who may be the next Manix Abrera. Just ask Abrera: “Relatable, kakaiba, na para sa akin ay napaka-importante at weird. At matapang siya sa paggawa ng mga kwento niya. Akala mo simple lang, pero malalim ang mga nadi-discuss niya. Hindi ko pa alam ang mga next na pwede niyang gawing mga obra, at iyun ang nakaka-excite! Ang sigurado ako ay malayo ang mararating niya; nakikita kasi sa mga obra niya na nae-enjoy niya at mahal niya ang art niya.”

With her taciturn demeanor, she may not seem like it, but she has a bit of a rock star in her. People notice her surname and ask how she’s related to 1970s Pinoy rock icon Pabs Dadivas. “Yes! Tito Pabs is my uncle,” she said.

It can be surmised where her nom de komiks came from. “I guess Hulyen is a Tagalog version of ‘Julienne,’ my real name. I started using it as my username online. When I started making comics, I decided to use it as my pen name since my real name is kinda complicated and often misspelled. I was also conscious of signing my real name in my comics. The topics of my comics are sometimes embarrassing or I use foul language. So, I thought I’ll just use ‘Hulyen’ so I can keep it somewhat anonymous and people won’t know right away that it’s me.”

“Tabi Po” creator Mervin Malonzo, who helps publish “UGH” through his Haliya Publishing, has this to say about her: “Those who do not know her personally find it hard to approach her. She almost always comes across as masungit. And she is! But once you get to know her, you will immediately know that she is not the blank, wide-eyed, expressionless Hulyen character that you see in her komiks. She’s full of life and has a passion for food.” Abrera said Hulyen can offer up an unexpected burn: “Tahimik pero pag humirit ay hardcore. Alam mong may creative mind talaga! Super mabait pero weird ang humor in a good way.” Yes, Hulyen the person is not Hulyen the icon.

And her “UGH” comics have become a kind of mandatory reading for self-aware young Pinoys. “I always felt like an outsider back when I was in school so it’s kind of surprising now that people find my comics relatable. I did not expect that the weirdo comics characters that were based on my childhood memories in a Catholic all-girls school will resonate with readers,” she said. “Siguro yung unifying theme ng comics ko ay based siya sa experiences that were actually sad or embarrassing. Basta hindi sila moments na necessarily nakakatawa when it happened. Dun nanggagaling yung humor ko. Tipong when they were actually happening to me, iniyakan ko siya. Tapos I transform that moment into a drawing na pwedeng nakakatawa at relatable. Almost every comic I made was based on my life pero fictionalized na rin siya e, so I can’t say na it’s autobiographical talaga.”

Hulyen went to St. Scholastica’s College Manila up to high school (did the uniforms give it away?) and the University of the Philippines for college. “I’m not really a fan of my high school years pero I just really like drawing my old school uniform,” she said. “Para siyang stock image sa utak ko, something na kabisado ko ano itsura, tipong pati ilan yung buttons sa jumper so might as well use it na lang. Several people recognized nga yung Kulasa uniform. Sorry St. Scho!”

In fact, it was in St. Scho that she had her famous “Michael Jordan moment.” “I tried joining an art club in first year high school but I did not pass the membership exam,” Hulyen admitted. “We were supposed to make a still art and I wasn’t able to draw the fruits properly. I didn’t even know how to use craypas back then. I think after that incident, I gave up on the idea that I can do art.”

But the itch to sketch came back. “I started drawing again sometime during college. I read this comic book called ‘Ang Alamat ng Panget’ by Apol Sta. Maria and was really inspired by it. It has this really simple doodle-like art style that made me realize that I can make comics even if I can’t draw really well. I was also a fan of ‘Kikomachine Komix’ by Manix Abrera. So I just tried making my own comics and posted them online. I was not really expecting anything with those comics I made back then. My early works were really bad and looked like rip-offs but I just continued making them until I developed my own voice and style.”

Hulyen started posting her work on Tumblr before going the self-publishing route. “I guess my followers back then were also sad teens on Tumblr. When I started joining comic conventions, that’s when I first met my readers. “I also felt that my comics might be too weird for mainstream publishers so it did not cross my mind to submit it to anyone. I was not even that confident that people in general will get it. I’m really thankful to the first few people who bought “UGH #1” back when it was just a P50 Xeroxed zine.”

It is at this point that her title, the ultimate expression of disgust needs to be discussed. “I really found it difficult to think of a title. ‘UGH’ is an expression I usually see in comics. I just thought it perfectly captures the vibe of my comics. Just that feeling of being exhausted or embarrassed at something that happened. I just needed a title that I can use for my comics collection and thought ‘UGH’ was perfect.” This then, is the art of UGH according to Hulyen.

Malonzo said that Hulyen is actually very upfront in her stories: “’Masama akong tao,’ this is how she introduced herself in the very first page of ‘UGH Vol. 1.’ This kind of upfront honesty and/or sarcasm is what makes her unique. There’s a bad person in each and every one of us and she shows that in her komiks and it is very, very relatable. Sometimes, you will encounter a page where there’s no dialogue. It’s just a girl in a fetal position in bed, alone with her phone beside her, her legs unshaven. The room has Christmas decorations. Her familiar blank stare is now flowing with tears. Yet, the style of the drawing still keeps it funny. We’ve all been there and she’s saying that we can all laugh about it afterward. This ‘hugot’ aspect is also a big part of her work’s popularity. Again, it’s because people could easily relate.”

In fact, compared to the wordiness of Abrera’s strips, Hulyen’s are so sparse to be wordless. There’s also more of an everyday heartbreak rather than an existential dread—like when your mother throws out your “distressed” shoes because she thinks they’re ratty.

Then there is Hipster Hulyen, who is essentially a pretentious doppelganger of Hulyen. “Nung una kong ginawa yung Hipster Hulyen, balak ko parang yun yung ‘diary comics’ ko. Dapat yun yung autobio part pero exaggerated version of myself. May time kasi na uso pa yung term na ‘hipster.’ People made fun of hipsters pero I realized I’m one of them. Yung personality na mahilig sa artsy stuff or sa obscure music. Sila yung ayaw sa anything na uso at mainstream na. It was fun to play around yung idea na akala ng mga hipsters ‘cool’ sila when actually hindi pala. It was fun not taking myself seriously.”

“It’s incredible how she built her social media following almost overnight,” Malonzo said. “Her FB page’s number of followers instantly and easily surpassed ‘Tabi Po’s’ and to tell you the truth, I was a bit jealous of the attention that she got. She’s still Haliya’s internet viral queen.”

She’s also a print queen. “UGH # 1” first came out in 2014, and “UGH # 5” last year. She has what she describes a lax deadline for herself of one book a year. She’s working on a series with Adam David titled “April & May Forever!!” She’s working on “UGH # 6” and hopes the comic conventions where she sells her wares come back soon. Her comics are already on their third printing—but that’s not a ticket to an independently artistic life. “It’s still impossible to make a living just making comics.”

Who is this face that now exemplifies indie komiks? She’s been called feminist. “Madami din pala akong nagawang strips na about ‘ka-womenan.’ I think I’m also trying to show an accurate portrayal of women in comics. Or something na based sa actual experiences ko. Gusto ko i-drawing yung mga babaeng weirdo, yung mga siraulo, mga di nagshe-shave ng body hair, mga nagmumura at naba-bad trip din sa mundo. Nung nag-start ako nung 2014, hindi pa ganun kadami yung female cartoonists sa local comics scene so I thought may mako-contribute akong bago. I just wanted to make comics that I myself want to read.”

She’s been called political. She said that’s only natural: “Hindi naman maiiwasan na lumabas sa gawa ng mga comic creators yung mga political views nila. As a cartoonist dapat aware ka sa mga nangyayari sa current issues. I try my best din na if ever I publish any art or comic online, meron siyang silbi sa public. Whether it’s to entertain, inform, or make people feel better. Ibang medium kasi yung comics, e. Parang sa surface kala mo cute drawings lang siya na nakakatawa pero pwede mo siya lagyan ng message na useful tapos pwede siya mag-resonate sa madaming tao.” No, you can’t draw what Hulyen draws, and you can’t make it up, either.

Hulyen can be followed online at facebook.com/hulyencomics/ and @hulyen on Twiter and Instagram. Her comics are available at Haliya Publishing’s mervstore.com.