The cult of Kikomachine
Extremely shy and low-key, casual and sporting a goatee, Manix Abrera is the last person you’d imagine leading a cult. But he is—in a sense. The 30-year-old cartoonist is the creator of the “Kikomachine” comic strip, whose books are among the country’s best-sellers.
This unprepossessing publishing superstar has nine best-selling books as well as a popular and original cartoon strip that’s been a success for over a decade now.
Yet he dismisses any talk of his success with a determined head shake, saying “Nakakahiya nga, sobra. Hindi ko siya iniisip [It’s really embarrassing so I don’t think about it].” It heartens him through because he pours himself into those strips and finds it gratifying that people appreciate them.
But the success is not totally surprising: Manix did have a pretty good role model. He is the eldest of three children born to history professor Bernadette Lorenzo and award-winning cartoonist Jess Abrera Jr., the man behind the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s distinctive editorial cartoons and the ubiquitous Guyito, the paper’s version of Everyman.
Manix took after his dad and grew up drawing his own comics. In the sixth grade, he got into music after listening to the Cranberries’ hit “Zombie.”
These twin interests led to an interesting intersection involving art and music. Kiko Machine began as a band when Abrera was a freshman taking up Fine Arts majoring in Visual Communication at the University of the Philippines Diliman. The band derived its named from the puppet Kiko Matsing on the defunct popular children’s show “Batibot.”
“All the members of the band were [Batibot] fans so we just used word play,” Manix says in Filipino. He played rhythm for the band that came to be known for pop rock sounds and that eventually came out with an album.
At the same time, Manix made it to the staff of the Philippine Collegian, the school organ of UP, where he illustrated articles and drew editorial cartoons and a comic strip called “Iskolokoy.”
After seeing the strips, his father suggested that they submit these to the Inquirer. The result was a strip called “Garapata Blood,” where Manix and his fellow band mates John Paul Cuison and Bheng Densing took turns writing about college life at UP.
In 2000, taking advantage of extra space on the comics page, Manix began another comic strip series and called it “Kikomachine,” one word, to differentiate it from the two-word Kiko Machine, the band.
“Kikomachine” had a broader view than “Garapata Blood,” and talked about everyday Pinoy life six times a week. Recalls the cartoonist: “I had a hard time writing the strip everyday, so the other komikeros and my dad told me to choose just one topic and stick to it for the whole week.”
He adds: “For example, the topic of commuting. For the whole week, the strips would be about that. My father suggested I write about things close to my heart, so I wrote about stuff that happened to me and my friends.”
Today, “Kikomachine” is on its 12th year and covers a wide range of Pinoy experiences, occasionally returning to UP for a strip or two. After graduating from UP in 2003, Manix says he felt he has finally found a handle for “Kiko Machine” in 2005. In a sense, the strip graduated with him and now tackles the travails of the Pinoy Everyman through a fine selection of oddball characters.
Budjette Tan, writer of the award-winning “Trese” series, explains the cartoon strip’s tug: “I think Manix was able to find and point out certain Filipino quirks in his cartoons. He puts the spotlight on these Pinoy qualities and exaggerates them, making them fun to read. They are typical situations we’ve all encountered during our college days or in the workforce and he presents them in an absurd way.
“As an artist, he creates these quirky looking characters. They might have a trademark hairstyle that makes them memorable, or they could be drawn in a simple way. And that’s why it feels so easy to identify with them.”
At the beginning, Manix says the characters were somewhat random, but developed personalities as he went along. Today, he identifies eight regular characters, though they all do not have names. There’s the guy with the spiky hair, the female with the shaved head, the guy who looks like Manix and so on. A large part of “Kikomachine” echoes what happens to Manix in real life, but he also borrows from friends to ensure the strip doesn’t become just a diary. As for the distinctive expressions in the strips, the cartoonist admits some are personal (“RakEnRol!”) while others are from his friends (“Asteeeg!”).
The strip gained a new level of popularity when Manix began compiling them into collections published by Visual Print Enterprises, more popularly known as Visprint, the same company behind the wildly successful books of humorist Bob Ong and Carlo Vergara’s “Zsazsa Zaturnnah.” Out of five publishing companies that he contacted for his “Kikomachine” compilation, only Visprint replied.
Visprint Publishing Manager Nida Gatus-Ramirez, who famously discovered Bob Ong, knew she had something good when she surveyed Manix’s submissions. “I became an instant fan after reading his first compilation. I am not a comics aficionado, but from a ‘masa’ standpoint, I know that his drawing styles, characters and stories are uniquely his,” she says. “The way I see it then, it was a young version of Pugad Baboy, set in the university.”
A few months after that, the first “Kikomachine” compilation, “Kikomachine Komix Blg. 1: Mga Tagpong Mukhang Ewan at Kung Anu-ano Pang Kababalaghan” came to bookshelves. Ramirez remembers that the sales of the book started slowly, but began to pick up after a couple of months as readers warmed up to Manix’s creation. In a year’s time, when Manix submitted what would become “Kikomachine Komix Blg. 2: Mga Tagpong Tila Nagpapaka-weird, Kunyari Pa-deep, Sarap Sapakin,” the first volume was already on its third printing.
Manix says that when he finally saw the printed book, he was so overwhelmed that when he got home, he couldn’t breathe. “It was so exciting,” he said. He also didn’t expect the book to do so well. “I didn’t think it would be something that people would actually read. It was such a big deal for me that it got published at all.” People who had enjoyed his book would come up to Manix and tell him how much they enjoyed his stuff. “Until now, I still feel embarrassed when they do that—it’s like I’m not worthy.”
“Kikomachine” has simply taken off since then. At this year’s Summer Komikon, Visprint launched “Kikomachine Komix Blg. 8.” Yes, that’s the golden ratio infinite series, and yes, that is the actual title of the book. Since the series began in 2005, Visprint has printed over 153,000 “Kikomachine” books and sold over 110,000 copies. That dizzying figure makes “Kikomachine” Visprint’s second-best selling title after Bob Ong’s books and the best-selling comic book. She estimates some of the “Kikomachine” volumes sell about 500 books a month individually.
Manix is a crowd-drawer and his appearances at the comic conventions both in Metro Manila and out of town draw long lines. He claims those lining up are just his friends, but that’s a lot of friends buying those “Kikomachine” books. Tan observes that “during the Komikon, Manix has one of the longest lines of fans wanting his autograph. Manix not only signs their comic books, but also makes a little doodle on each one.”
Ramirez adds: “The queue for Manix’s table stretched out of the venue from the start of the event, until closing time. Sadly, a number of those who came late no longer got to meet him because the event extended beyond closing time.”
It’s no surprise then that “Kikomachine” won the readers’ choice awards at the conventions. Manix is determined not to let his fans down, so he works hard on the six days a week, usually taking three or four days to finish the six required strips for one week.
This discipline is what makes Manix so good, says comic book creator and historian Gerry Alanguilan: “It’s no joke to create strips every single day and to do them as professionally as he does, maintaining so much humor as he does, I think it’s amazing.
But what also impresses Alanguilan is Manix’s demeanor: “What further fascinates me about Manix is how humble, unassuming and self-deprecating he is as a person. He’s one of our greatest storytellers, but he’s not one to flaunt it or seek any special treatment because of it.”
As for the continued appeal of “Kiko Machine,” Ramirez says “comedy is always a big hit. Add the fact that Manix’s primary market is composed of students. Also, the strips are not the typical jokes, hirit, or punchlines that you hear. It’s a mixture of the relevant, the philosophical, and even the surreal.” It’s literally “rakenroll” cartooning.
Believe it or not, there is something else that Manix wants that doesn’t involve comic strips. “I’ve always wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. I really want to do it.” He does have quite a lot of comic projects on his plate, including another try at silent comics, something he did with his critically acclaimed 2009 graphic novel “12,” which was wordless and fluid.
Last year, Manix got married to Carmela Lapeña, 26, a writer for GMA (they met when she interviewed him for the GMA website and shared college friends). In his spare time, he likes biking in the mornings so he can think. He likes taking public transportation, because this affords him the chance to get ideas. He actually has a car but rarely drives: “You can observe a lot of things on a jeepney.
That’s why he writes about what happens on a daily basis, such as being stuck on a jeepney with strange people. “That’s how I think, but I don’t say it out loud.”
He’s also conscious of copyrights, lessons he learned from his father. He is proud to call himself a full-time cartoonist who’s able to make a living doing the comics he loves. “It’s scary especially at the start when I didn’t have much work,” he recalls. “I had to get a lot of sideline. That’s when I realized how much I loved it, because I would always find a way to make a living doing it.”
All this is why Alanguilan predicts Manix will be one of our top ten comic book artists of all time: “I think his best work is yet to come.”
Aside from “Kikomachine,” he also writes two other comic strips, both about the journalist’s life, “News Hardcore” on GMANETWORK.COM, and “Pressed Freedom” in the Philippine Journalism Review. Meanwhile, the “Kikomachine” books come out once a year, so they’ve become a yearly publishing event, much like Visprint’s yearly Bob Ong releases.
“I’m so into so many different things: science, math—sometimes I’m interested in stuff I don’t understand so I look it up,” he says, explaining what lies behind “Kikomachine’s” smarts, a diverse and eclectic body of knowledge plus an easygoing but occasionally annoyed view of the world. He makes sure that the strips tackle Pinoy culture and that there’s always something deep hidden in the small details.
It’s something he has kept up for more than 3,500 comic strips. “Habang tumatagal, parang mas napapamahal sa akin [The longer it goes, the more important it becomes to me],” Manix says of the strip today. “Parang lumalalim din yung samahan namin. Parang mas nakilala ko sila [It’s like our relationship has become deeper and I got to know the characters better].”
It’s something Manix Abrera notices, and shares with us—the unique perspective of the crazy crew of “Kikomachine,” the funniest, smartest cult you can be part of today.