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Book review: 'Kubori Kikiam': Reprieve in irreverence

In a land where too many things are held sacred and censorship kills free thought, where more and more people/ideologies/institutions come to demand—nay, feel entitled to—respect, it can only be easy to fall silent. Or at least wait for the world to tell us what to think, versus oh, I don’t know, having an opinion. This ain’t so much about me, as it is about this: in a land of sacred cows, we do tend to bite our tongues about the cows in our midst. We might celebrate the fact that we can smile through anything, but we sure have a difficult time laughing at ourselves: the joke’s never on us after all. 
Which is really what works for the set of four comic books that currently make up the narrative of nation—of living here—that is “Kubori Kikiam” by Michael David. A strange enough premise of three pieces (count that!) of street food, all anti-superheroes even as they are each others’ counterpoints, even as they collectively seem to be nothing but three boys trying to understand the world of girls and dating and sex. It’s obviously fodder for comedy, kikiam as Dodon, Benjo and Manny are, ogling human breasts and thighs and everything in between as they do. But they are the perfect threesome to succeed at transgression, and with the rest of the human—and fairy—characters here, to succeed at irreverence.
A strip from 'The Melancholy of Edward Cordero,' part of the Kubori Kikiam comics series. Kubori Kikiam
But first there is laughter, one that’s premised on the comic’s sense of nation as context, where conservatism reigns and we censor ourselves without thinking. The first book “Kubori Strips for the Soul” (2008) begins with Dodon, the more aggressive of the kikiams, repeating all the bad words he can think of. “Bad” is used loosely here, if only because where we are words that have to do with sex —body parts included—are deemed more crass and less acceptable when said in Filipino. Half the time these fall under the list of cuss words, all of which we are taught to call bastos, all of which we silence even as we use their English versions anyway. 
It’s easy to see that when it says “recommended for mature readers” on its cover, “Kubori Kikiam” is actually saying: if you can’t handle it, f*** off. 
I say, if you can’t handle it, then what a shame. Because there is much here that’s about the things we cannot, are not allowed, to talk about. And that cuts across all four kikiam books, and across many conversations we don’t have because we’ve lost all sense of humor in the midst of political correctness.
From wanting to be God, i.e., choosing the face of Jesus when allowed that kind of wishing by gay fairy Fely, or looking like a version of Jesus in the aftermath of a breakup and refusing to shave, to taking on the tragedy of easy-money talent(less) show contests. From poking fun at the notions of changing the world via online memes to taking a jab at the idea of productivity in the consumption of coffee shops. From highlighting the contemporary cultural dependence on the Internet for downloading (free) porn and (free) American TV shows, to taking on the task of rap and easily coming up with the most inane of rhymes. From living within global and local popular cultural production, to surviving the travails of daily living where girls make the men’s world go round, even as it’s a world that patriarchy has birthed into fruition.
The latter of course is reason for much of the laughter and kabastusan in “Kubori Kikiam,” where patriarchy is at its extreme, as it is at its most real. To imagine this as merely anti-woman would be to fail at getting it. The kikiams and humans here live in a space where broken hearts mean alcohol and women, where getting off on porn is what’s normal, where the beerhouse exists for real, prostitutes included. Here the objectification of the woman’s body is taken to a level that isn’t uncomfortable, because it’s on a level that lets it speak: the women here might be dancing but they are speaking too, laughing at the manner in which they’ve got the Pinoy macho—men and kikiam, both—in the palm of their hands. That they’ve got the upper hand, as many of the other girls—and gays—in the world of the kikiams do (for knowing how to drive, for demanding some macho dancer action, for well, being gay and making the men uncomfortable), is also what allows for the bigger project of irreverence that is here. 
That word isn’t being used lightly, nor is it easy to come by in these shores. Irreverence can only be premised on intelligence after all, and it’s what differentiates toilet humor from good comedy. It’s the difference between Willie Revillame and Joey de Leon, the difference between every upstart and Leo Martinez. Irreverence is Nonoy Marcelo, the one and only (comics) writer who could take the contradictions and absurdities of this society’s institutions and everyday living and force its most logical and critical conclusions on us via laughter in the world of Ikabod. Bastos is intelligent and critical and grounded in nation. No one is spared.
This is the kind of sophistication that’s in Kubori Kikiam too, as here is a world that might have Catholicism and religiosity, conservatism and morality as context by default (as we all do in this country), yet it refuses to take the easy route of penis-on-the-wall-criticism. Instead, here is the patriarchy—religion included—laughing at itself, taking the narrative of alcohol and women and sex, of what’s taboo and disallowed, and running with it. Here is a world that is familiar to us, but which we’d rather not talk about; a world from which much can be learned—even and especially by the women among us—when it comes to getting some balls and speaking our mind, about relationships and sex, and everything in between.
More importantly the world of the kikiams reminds us that what’s ultimately wrong is not so much that patriarchy exists, but that we are only seeing it from a perspective that’s limited in itself, blinded by conservatism and religion on the one hand, feminist discourse on the other. To say that the men can be victims too, was the task that Tunay Na Lalake project took on, but without irreverence could only grow stale soon enough. Meanwhile any woman who thinks herself creative (and) intellectual must know to value the things that make her uncomfortable; the kikiams remind us that our discomforts are constructs, ones that keep us at the mercy of ideologies that we begin to hold sacred without knowing it. 
Where lies the sacred? Nowhere in the bastos, as Ikabod taught us before, and as Kubori Kikiam teaches us now. 
In fact the latter does Ikabod one over by refusing to see itself as sacred, consistently and consciously turning upon itself as form, transgressing the notion of creativity as singular and romantic activity of “artists.” And so the kikiams can point a finger at its own creator’s struggle with craft, highlight the limits of the comic panel as space, point out when images are repeated, panels are empty, guest illustrators and comic characters make things easy. 
In the fourth book “The Melancholy of Edward Cordero” (2011) the kikiams also take on the narrative of love, with nary a tongue-in-cheek, but by laughing at the stereotypical trajectories that the heartbroken take. Here is where we’re told that in a world where nothing is sacred, in this extreme world of patriarchy that we can only laugh at, what is still at its core is the search for some real loving, libog always required, for man and woman both, and kikiam, too! We should all be so liberated by the thought. 
It might be easy to think this is nothing but kabastusan, but that would be to fail at seeing it as a critical stance on nation and the silences we are forced to keep here. It’s even easier to dismiss it as blasphemous and profane, but that would be to miss out on the bigger narrative it’s giving the finger to, which is really all of us, the non-reader included. There is no refusing to read this book that isn’t a criticism of us as readers, as Pinoys, as intellectuals. Here is why Kubori Kikiam can claim irreverence, which can only be about sophistication and intelligence and craft that we haven’t seen in a long time. 
Nonoy Marcelo would be happy. –KG, GMA News
The four Kubori Kikiam books are “Kubori Strips for the Soul” (2008), “The Best Things In Life” (2009), “We Heart Short Shorts” (2010) and “The Melancholy of Edward Cordero” (2011), all independently written, illustrated and published by Michael David. English translations of the strips from the first book are available as ebooks through
Katrina Stuart Santiago writes the essay in its various permutations, from pop culture criticism to art reviews, scholarly papers to creative non-fiction, all always and necessarily bound by Third World Philippines, its tragedies and successes, even more so its silences. She blogs at The views expressed in this article are solely her own.