The Mythology Class, by Arnold Arre

The following entry may contain triggering material and spoilers for The Mythology Class.

First, I want to quote C.F. Cooper, erstwhile writer and editor for Marvel and author of Songs of the Metamythos (that I personally recommend a lot, a lot a lot): “The superhero genre is the last living bastion of mythmaking in … Western culture”.

To be sure, movies and television shows about gifted, costumed vigilante heroes have been doing phenomenally well. I’d still like to focus on the visual-and-text medium that this genre may have once been inextricable from: comic books. Evidently, they’re called Graphic Novels now, which makes sense considering that the stories told in this medium aren’t always comedies. They could be tragedies, epics, romances, mysteries, fantasies, horrors, slice-of-life memoirs, and/or…new myths.

Or old myths revived.

And, as it turns out, not just in Western culture.

This was my reaction to finding an occult drama (in the line of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or any mahou shojou anime that includes a few magical boys too) graphic novel based on Philippine folklore:

MythologyClass_Arre_pg50

The above panels are from Arnold Arre’s The Mythology Class. They show a folkloric being known as a tikbalang (that’s the man with the neck and head of a horse) and the reaction of the main character—a university student who’d recently flunked a thesis defense concerning her paper on Philippine mythology. She’s standing in the same room as a tikbalang for the first time in her life. The team, standing behind her, in charge of saving the world from the bad folkloric beings do also make some genre-appropriate effort to keep otherworldly shenanigans on the down low.

Incidentally, this is me all the time, except without the ability to drive:

caption

Panel 1. Driver in a car, alone, face beaded with nervous sweat. Speech bubbles: “Yeah!! that’s it!! It was an illusion!! Just a damn illusion! I didn’t see a ghost! What I saw was just a representation of cerebral impulses activated by the imbalance of fluids in the cortex caused by the lack of sodium chloride in the body…reinforced by my psychological construct of repressing inherent analytical attitudes regarding paranormal incoherencies developed in my phlegmatic and impassive childhood! Yeah! That’s it! Hehe.”

Panel 2. Tala the Ghost flies into the windshield. Driver’s speech bubble: “HOLY @%#*!!!”

Panel 3. Close up of the car’s wheels screeching to a halt.

Panel 4. Kubin, with the eyes like pools of black ink, rushes the passenger-side window. Kubin’s speech bubble: “Dear Lady, I ask for your kind help!! It is of utmost importance that I reach this certain place!!!” Tala the Ghost floats beside Kubin, with a worried expression.

Panel 5. The driver stares at them. Panel 6. The driver gives an apprehensive smile. Driver’s speech bubble: “Uh…sure. Hop in.” Kubin’s speech bubble: “Thank you…”

Panel 7. Lone car on the highway, framed in middle distance. Kubin’s speech bubble: “…and may the gods give you a thousand blessings!!!” Driver’s speech bubble: “G-Gods? Uh…yeah! That’s. Nice.”

I enjoyed the read, and I do recommend this a lot—a lot a lot. For the rare aesthetic, it incorporates a lot of familiar tropes. It might not be without its problems: too many expository conversations for a visual medium, way too many main characters to save a few from being extraneous, this vastly massive cast includes a token ethnic comic relief character who is the only one without a real backstory, and almost everyone couples up by the end like it’s Noah’s Ark. Still, it’s tightly-plotted, action-packed, at times genuinely funny and heartfelt. One of my favorite parts was when Rey (or was it Gio? Edward? Sam? These dudes all wear sunglasses all the time,) confesses his romantic feelings for Nicole the Probably Main-est Main Character, who reminds him that she already has a romantic subplot with Kubin the Occasionally Shirtless. Not-Kubin takes it amiably, they remain friends and comrades, and it never comes up again.

The target audience for this might have an already-existing knowledge of local folklore. When the team rescue a sleeping child from some fancy stained-glass patterned bird, fans of occult dramas could easily figure out that the latter posed some danger to the former. It might be a different resonance if one’s been forced to study the ballad of the Ibong Adarna in grade school, and knows that the singing of this fabled magical bird causes a sleep from which it’s impossible to awaken. Well, unless you can find a wizard who would hand you a bucket of cold water…but as wizards don’t exist, I maintain that it is impossible to awaken from her magic song.

On the other hand, this being an occult adventure-drama, this does meet the required definition of the rules of the world specific to this work. Arre took artistic license with doing away with the tikbalang’s traditional ungulate legs, and adding tribal tattoos and piercings. I appreciated the innovative design of the shokoy, too, and the environmentalist, monster-of-the-week subversive end to that plot point.

Analysis of the artistic license taken with the aswang in this book will be a little more involved. Outside of the work, I’ve read what I’ve considered to be a possible mythological origin in Asuang the Volcano God from the region of Bikol. (Eugenio, 1993). Fenella Canell’s Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines described aswang as a more animistic, disembodied phenomena such as misfortune or a generally malevolent and formless presence, but then again Canell translated “asuete” as “mercury” when I know asuete as a foodstuff? (An edible food coloring. It makes food red. I’m guessing Canell’s informant wanted to describe what it does, pointed to a red alcohol thermometer, said “it does that” meaning ‘colors stuff red’ and Canell misunderstood and wrote mercury because it’s the stuff inside thermometers. Or maybe the cuisine really is more hazardous in Bicol.) The folklore I’d picked up by osmosis concerning aswang described them more as cannibals disguised as humans, usually as elderly women who live alone in the woods, rarely as men or younger people who live as families or even in town communities, but not entirely human (so…technically not cannibalism, but the important part is that they eat people while passing as people.)

Given that much possible variety, I can’t really pick on Arre’s aswang design, or the part the aswang play in the story, as different enough that they may as well have been called something else.

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