It is always an uncanny challenge to create superheroes who represent their countries in an original or authentic fashion. It is easy enough to slap a flag on a hero’s costume and literally call him “Captain (insert name of country here).” But how do you flesh out heroes who are both fresh and also representative of that country’s strengths and weaknesses?
This was the challenge facing Paolo Fabregas when he was putting together a comic book of his own. “My one concern, looking at all the Filipino superheroes at the time, was where they got their costumes, how they got their money for it and where all these things came from,” he said, back at the beginning, kind of the Filipino Heroes League (FHL) origin story. “We’re a poor country. This doesn’t work. So I tried to find a way to make it work. Where would the Filipino superhero stand? In the end, he’d still be a third-world superhero. He would be treated in a third-world manner. Suddenly the world fell into place and I could write a story about Filipino superheroes in that context.”
This was the mighty conceit at the heart of “The Filipino Heroes League Book One: Sticks and Stones,” written and illustrated by Fabregas, published by Visprint, Inc., in 2009. Occurring in a Philippines that is virtually the same as ours (thus poverty and politics are still rampant) save for the emergence of superpowered beings, the FHL is a badly funded team of protectors which include the speedster Kid Kidlat (who uses a pedicab), the rotund Invisiboy, the telepathic Teacher and the rude kid inventor genius Bhoy. Fabregas sets a trap for readers who assume they they’re getting just another ersatz patriotic superhero adventure in Pinoy colors, but by the time “The Filipino Heroes League Book Two: The Sword” came out in 2013, everything was different. Betrayed and hoodwinked, the FHL had been framed and disgraced in the public eye as an old enemy, the powerful villain called The Touch, had taken control of the country, forcing the team to go underground. In fact, the end of “The Sword” painted a pretty bleak, perhaps hopeless, outcome. What would happen to our fearless heroes?
Readers finally found out six years later, when “The Filipino Heroes League Book Three: Supreme Power” came out in 2019. Fabregas, mild-mannered advertising guy by day and comic book creator at night, as well as the youngest child of actor Jaime Fabregas and marketing executive Bing Caballero, owns up to the delay.
“The primary reason for the delay in producing Book Three was the art,” he said. “I made an effort to improve the visual storytelling of the piece as well as make a marked improvement on anatomy and composition. Somewhere in the middle of Chapter 2, I started taking some serious art lessons online and tried to apply those lessons immediately to the book. Unfortunately, things really only started clicking, art-wise, once I reached Chapter 3. I then took a long hard look at the previous chapters and decided that it need a massive redraw. I was going to be even more delayed than I already was but Visprint, my publisher, was going to close down on me so I decided to just pick my spots in the previous chapters, fix only the most egregious art sins and live with the result.”
It had taken a full decade to tell the complete story of the FHL, but Fabregas, a lifelong comic book fan (he was first inspired by Todd McFarlane’s “Spider-Man”), had planned it that way. “I always knew that it was going to take a decade to write it,” he said. “I don’t know why but the moment I started it I said to myself that I’ll be done in about 10 years. There were really no major changes to the story I set out to tell.”
The resulting story is full of surprises. Book Three is full of full-on action scenes and quite violent. This is not a kid’s book. There are sequences (such as the airport one) which will make your jaw drop. There is a legion of superheroes and supervillains on parade, each one clearly the product of serious thought no matter how much or little time they spend in a panel. In fact, it reminds one of one of DC Comics’ magnums opus, the Elseworlds story “Kingdom Come” from Mark Wait and Alex Ross, another tale of superpowers gone wild. Though there are humorous moments, it is a dark story and the X-factor has always been Fabregas’ razor-sharp observations on Pinoy society. “I always felt that it was a dark book from the beginning,” he readily admits. “One of the themes I wrestle with in the series is corruption and its effect on our society. While it is in many respects a silly superhero comic book, this theme starts playing a greater and darker role as the story goes on.” All this makes “Book Three: Supreme Power” one of the best exemplars of Pinoy superheroes in a Philippine setting thus far.
Fabregas has begun his fantastic FHL journey as a mission to depict third-world superheroism. At the end, does he feel that he has succeeded? “I hope I’ve succeeded. I’ve been excited for years about reaching the end. I hope that it impacts people the way I imagined it in my head. I haven’t had a lot of reviews but a few have written me personally to say how emotional they got. That makes it worth it.”
So what does a writer-illustrator do after completing his amazing mission, aside from his day job, and spending time with his wife Miren Alvarez-Fabregas and his two sons, Gonzalo and Alvaro? He will take up a new mission, of course. “There are a couple of stories that I am toying around with in my brain,” he said. “Perhaps something historical. But the art lessons have awakened an interest in painting and the figure. Perhaps an exhibition in the future? I’m not altogether sure. I am currently obsessed with improving my art. I’ll see where this leads me.”
Not every comic book creator gets to finish the story they started. The world is littered with first issues that never got a second issue, much less a third. At the end, Fabregas is surprised to actually have been able to do all of it. “I am incredulous that I even got it done,” he said. “But also there’s a sense that I could’ve done more. Or is it a feeling of ‘There is still more to do?’ I am not sure. I guess a person will never really be fully satisfied in this life. But that’s another topic.”
While Paolo Fabregas intends to continue his own comic book flight to whatever universe it takes him to, he has definitively decided that it is time to hang up the capes and tights (or what passes for them) of the FHL characters. He will not be revisiting this world: “The ‘being done with story’ aspect of it is the most surprising. It’s been an obsession. Early mornings, late nights. And now it’s done. I can’t believe it. It’s bittersweet, really. I will miss these characters but at the same time, it’s time to move on.”
“The Filipino Heroes League Book Three: Supreme Power” is available at leading bookstores.