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Comics review: Have a disquieting Halloween with Manix Abrera’s ‘14’

One look at the cover of Manix Abrera's “14” and you can already tell what the dominant moods of this “silent” (read: wordless) graphic novel are going to be: a little sad, a little spooky, and a wholly mysterious. The cover alone is already a testament to how good the artist is at conveying so many things even before you flip the pages.

“14” is Abrera's second graphic novel in which he is telling a long story and not just collecting his more popular strips like "Kikomachine". Actually, he isn't just telling one long story; think of “14”'s structure like a necklace with beads dangling at every interval, in which the string is the main story and the beads are all the little stories coming out of the mouths of the storytellers at a valley under a red, unfamiliar sky.

Thrust into—no, willingly wandering into—this valley is the nameless protagonist, who, after entering his apartment building after getting caught in the rain, finds himself in an elevator full of spooks.

The storytellers themselves are sights to behold. We have a manananggal (sans her lower half), a diwata, a shapeshifter, a tikbalang, a white lady, a kapre, a duwende, a tiyanak—all the typical beings that populate Philippine folklore.

But don't think that Abrera is telling you the typical Pinoy horror story, of the kind you see in movies. The spooks' stories are mostly of their dealings with humans; and whether the protagonists are human or otherwise, each story is infused with a touch humanity and compassion. They will take you through at times funny, at times perturbing rides through mountain journeys in the rain, a post-apocalyptic forest of broken buildings, the life and times of a tiyanak, and much more.

My absolute favorite story is the one told by the diwata, about the love story between two humans and how a third, magical party throws it into disarray. While trying not to spoil it, I would say that tied at Most Disturbing are the ones told by the duwende and the tikbalang—the former for its concept and the latter for its increasingly surreal backgrounds.

The story that did not quite match up in quality was the one told by the human in the end. However, and once again trying not to spoil it, let's just say that I think that was a deliberate decision on Abrera's part.

Something that remains mysterious to me as of this writing is the graphic novel's title. At first I thought it was something simplistic (and maybe it really is)—“12” was released in 2012, while “14” was released in 2014.

Manix Abrera speaking at the launch of '14' at the Philippine Literary Festival. Vida Cruz
But then you see that the protagonist in the frame story presses the elevator button for the his apartment on the 14th floor while all the spooks are going to get off at the 13th, though the 14th floor in many buildings in the Philippines is technically the 13th floor. My interpretation is that there is a very thin line between the 13th and 14th floors in our lives, just like in all the tales of this graphic novel.

The nice thing about Abrera's simple art style is how it is flexible enough to convey a wide range of emotions without being too distracting on the page. This is great for “14,” as he experiments from time to time with variations in panel size, extravagant backgrounds, color, and even orientation (there's a certain story of which half the pictures are upside down for something like a distortion effect).

I think I was just hoping for a little more wildness in the experimentation, especially with the panels—in fact, I was led to believe that it would be just so after the two-page spread depicting the overwhelming valley, but it turns out that it would be just the one spread. Many of the stories are laid out in the way you would expect of Abrera's "Kikomachine" or his series on GMA News Online, News Hardcore, which is great for when he wants to convey the slow passage of time, but a lot of the stories actually distort time and some jump from place to place. I firmly believe that more than a handful of the visuals deserve more breathing room (or maybe more creatively-shaped breathing room) than just the four cleanly-defined lines they are so often boxed into.

Other than that, I really enjoyed “14.” I think it's a great entry point into Abrera's work for newcomers and a good entry to the collections of long-time fans. It's also a great Halloween read—I get scared easily, but none of the tales in “14” were particularly frightening to me. They are unsettling, and I think that that's a more subtle, more masterful effect to achieve. — BM, GMA News

“14” was launched on October 23 at the Philippine Literary Festival. It will be available at all National Bookstores for P500 at October's end.