Nasaan Ka Na, Mara-bini?

Mga Kuwento ng Kalayaan at Kasarinlan na Kinakatawan ng Mga Rebeldeng Anak ni Francisco V. Coching / Tracing a History of Liberation and Empowerment in the Stories of F.V. Coching’s Rebel Daughters

29 January – 7 April 2019

Pasilio Vicente Manansala

Cultural Center of the Philippines

Pasay, Metro Manila

In 1935, the comic book novelist and illustrator Francisco V. Coching created Mara-bini, what Professor John Lent referred to as “an Amazon-like warrior” whose adventures pre-date those of Darna and Wonder Woman. Shortened from “Marahas na Binibini,” (which directly translates to “fierce maiden”) the name does not only evoke images of a woman as a warrior, but draws attention to perceived contradictions of being both brash and graceful, intimidating, yet lovely. 

In the komiks, Mara-bini lifts a lost stranger from the muck, her serene face a portrait of both compassion and strength. That Coching could conceive of this character is radical and ahead of its time. The series in which she appeared, first published in 1941 in Bahaghari, was discontinued due to the Second World War. It is this abrupt ending that raises bigger questions about what could have been had Coching’s readers grown up with more heroes just like Mara-bini.

Women in Violent Times

But Mara-bini did not entirely disappear. In the 1953 series, Dumagit, she appears once again, defending her space before the appearance of the titular character, with whom she will eventually fall in love. This, unfortunately, is the role readers have become more accustomed to seeing, both in and out of Coching’s work. 

In the ongoing grand narrative unfolding under the capitalist patriarchy, we see women constantly cast as victims, if not merely love interests. Other instances would go as far to cast them as both. 

The oppression women experience each day is often magnified in the universe of the comic book–a medium known to target boys and men, wherein women are often silenced or sexualized. “Komiks in the Philippines is virtually a man’s world, from the publishing managers, writers, and illustrators to the workers in the publishing house,” wrote Glady E. Gimena in The First One Hundred Years of Philippine Komiks and Cartoons. In Liwayway Magazine, where Coching often published his work, we will see women as mere objects in the advertisements that surround the features and serialized novels. Titles like David Martel: Pleyboy Ditektib and …naku, ang BABAE! abound, casting women in often reductive, if not oppressive, roles.

Installation view, CCP Pasilyo Vicente Manansala. Photo: Poklong Anading.

Women on the Battlefield

Foremost a storyteller, Francisco V. Coching’s elaborate and occasionally unlikely plots found ways to represent women with their own identities and complexities.

In Espada (1952), one of Coching’s best-loved characters, La Sombra, makes an early appearance. But instead of a Carlo or an Angelo behind the mask, our hero is actually Leonida, daughter of Don Teofilo, who later becomes the town’s mayor.

Women cross-dressing in order to cross enemy lines repeats itself in Duwag ang Sumuko (1964), a serialized drama set in World War II. Here Isabel crops her hair and prioritizes function over form by wearing pants. With this costume, she attempts to convince guerillas that she is Abel, a soldier who can fight alongside the best of them.

In Pambihirang Tatlo (1968), Coching continues the World War II narrative, this time with Victoria as a competent leader of a guerilla contingent. Unlike Isabel, Victoria is accepted as she is and does not have to play dress-up to be trusted with her job.

Considered a golden age of film production in the 1950s, studios like Sampaguita Pictures and LVN Pictures drew heavily from serialized komiks like those of Coching’s Kontra-bida (1955). Images based on original illustrations made use of Coching’s (and Federico Javinal’s) well-known cinematic framing, producing a fascinating addition to the stereotypical roles that actresses were often cast in.

Coching’s Bella Bandida (1970) follows Anabel through an elaborate tale of revenge, from being a girl next-door to the comic strip’s bandit queen. Refusing to be a mere love interest or second in command, Bella displaces Tigro, the head of the Dambuhalas, by seducing him in exchange for power and recognition. She gets revenge not through violence, but through reforming the powers that had failed her. This epic saga of a woman in control of both her destiny and her sexuality shows how Coching did not shy away from weaving a more complex tale of female agency. 

While Mara-bini and Bella Bandida showed women going off the grid, Waldas (1954) and Talipandas (1958) portrayed women working within the confines of the capitalist patriarchy. Both komiks featured themes that triangulated between sexuality, agency, and capitalist gains within an otherwise unforgiving system. Rather than trivializing the ordeals women must face in order to get what they want, Coching casts an eye that may not always be sympathetic, but is definitely engaged in their plight. 

Women Continuing the Fight

A rich variety of characters and stories runs through Coching’s work, granting the reader a look into his ideas about where women belonged when it came to the everyday struggles he portrayed in his komiks.

While often possessing stereotypically feminine traits–softness, compassion, empathy–Coching’s female characters are also allowed agency and even militancy in choosing their battles. Depth and meaning are added to the phrase “Rebel Daughters,” once considered in light of the komiks medium. These works circulated en masse, often contradicting the constraints and expectations typically placed upon Filipina women. Targeting the middle to lower classes, one can imagine the ideas that stirred and sizzled upon their consumption.

Installation view, CCP Pasilyo Vicente Manansala. Photo: Poklong Anading.

By asking “Nasaan ka na, Mara-bini?” in light not only of Coching’s women, but of the rebel daughters of today, can we possibly trace an arc from Mara-bini’s first appearance to the leaders of contemporary feminist movements? 

Declarations of “The future is female!” as well as hashtags like #BabaeAko and #IamEveryWoman can find a safe space within the frames Coching drew, in which women lifted men up with little effort, commanded armies, and most importantly, led movements. 2019.