“Golly jeepers” is Robert Magnuson’s favorite expression. It’s an endearingly anachronistic utterance straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. But though the award-winning writer/illustrator grew up with a steady dose of those cartoons, he is no two-dimensional figure.
Throughout his career, Robert has dedicated himself to writing and drawing books for readers of all ages, even if his stories and art give the impression that he writes mainly for children.
At 40, the writer still displays the exuberance and distinctive energy in his stories that make them attractive to fickle and hard-to-please younger audience.
These are clearly seen in his recent work from Hiyas, the children’s book arm of OFM Literature Inc. In “Bullysaurus Rex,” a young Tyrannosaurus Rex needs to learn a lesson about scaring his dino friends. In “The Great Duck and Crocodile Race,” the titular animals engage in an escalating contest of ingenuity and silliness.
Robert’s recently-released book, “Porcupirate Plans the Day,” features a young porcupine dealing with unexpected developments. His characters are cute and his tales bright and light, but surprisingly, some of the stories come from a much darker place.
Robert Gunnar dela Cruz Magnuson was born on June 25, 1972 in Quezon City. His father, Gunnar Gustav Magnuson, was a Brooklyn-born American of Swedish descent who served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II as a Seabee, or an engineer with the Construction Battalion.
After the war, Gunnar came to Philippines and with a Filipino friend named Bert Rivera, started a pioneering garment screen-printing business in the Philippines called Screen Fashions Inc. It was at the Marikina company that Gunnar met Normita dela Cruz. Normita would go on to take accounting and do Screen Fashion’s books, eventually marrying Gunnar and siring three sons, of whom Robert is the youngest.
Robert says he has no idea where his artistic skills came from, considering that his father came from a mechanical background and his mother an accounting one. “I remember very vividly that as a child, I would go to my parents’ room and show them drawings. And they would go, ’Look at that drawing. Wow.’ By the third drawing, they’d say to each other, ‘Do you have any artists in your family?’”
It was his older brother John whom Robert describes as the artist in the family and who gave him art lessons.
At the same time, the young artist also devoured anything he could read—from children’s books to comic books. At the age of 6, he was leafing through National Book Store reprints of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, both of which fueled his desire to make similar works. He would take old notebooks and sketchbooks and tried his hand at making his own comics.
“We had some Dr. Seuss beginners’ books full of our scribbles,” he recalled.
Contrary to common notion, growing up with decidedly Caucasian looks proved to be a liability.
“[People] kept telling me that I was lucky, but it was very difficult,” he said. “I have memories of sitting in the car with my brothers and all the neighborhood kids (in Marikina) would swarm and stare at us like we were animals in a zoo. Because of that, I felt insecure about my color. Up to now, I still have that sense of insecurity.”
But drawing and writing brought him to his happy place and he continued doing this through high school at Marist School. In college, while taking up Communication Arts at Miriam, he continued writing stories.
Working for a major advertising company after college proved to be a depressing experience. “That environment just burned me out,” he said. “My father took me aside and said, ’You look very depressed. This thing is not working out for you. You used to write these stories and your teacher in college said you were very good at it. How would you like to get away from advertising and take some courses in writing?’”
It was a pivotal conversation that ended with Robert taking creative writing courses at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where he met people “who would prove significant” in his publishing career.
Among these folk was prize-winning writer Augie Rivera, who introduced him to children’s publisher Lampara Books. It was at Lampara that Robert wrote and drew his first children’s book, 2001’s “The Spectacular Tree.”
Unfortunately, he said, “It looked like a piece of turd.”
Robert had gone into his first solo book project without any experience, with the resulting product being too dark and confusing. “When it came out in print, I was embarrassed,” he recalled. Luckily, Lampara’s publisher, Segundo “Jun” Matias, Jr., let him do the book over. The second version of “The Spectacular Tree” was more to people’s taste.
In the meantime, Robert married his college sweetheart Shirley Narvaez, a serious animal lover who had stray cats that regularly visited her place. In his mind, Robert made up this story of how the cats had considered him a possible new pet and, to make sure he stuck around, came up with plans to get him married to Shirley.
Those smart cats made their way to the Magnusons’ wedding invitation that the groom himself illustrated. Among their wedding guests was then-Junior Inquirer editor Natasha Vizcarra, herself a prize-winning writer for children. “At the reception, she walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to make this a weekly strip for Junior Inquirer,” Robert says. The strip, now called “Shirley’s Pets,” ran for seven years till 2007. “That was a major thing and I’m very, very grateful.”
He was now writing and drawing his own stories, funny tales that came from fearful places: “I don’t know if that was too conscious an effort or if it’s just the voice that came out naturally. Until now, the latest story I wrote came from a dark experience. Yet what came out has no shred of angst or anything. So I think maybe it’s just my voice.”
His latest book, “Porcupirate Plans the Day,” came to Robert at a strange time. “‘Porcupirate’ is my most personal story,” he said, adding that he thought of it during the weeks his father spent in the hospital before he passed away.
“The story is about a child who would rather be somewhere else. That was what I was going through.”
Along with his children’s stories, Robert was also drawing and writing comic book stories. Aside from “Shirley’s Pets,” he wrote and illustrated a six-part series for K-Zone Magazine called “The Heroic Wildlife Society.” Though there was a pervasive comic-book convention to do “the grim and gritty,” he moved away from it. “I got tired of the grim and gritty. I didn’t want to be depressed anymore. Things happening in my personal life gave me enough depression so I wanted to transform that into something positive.”
For his friends at Polyhedron Comics, Robert has provided valuable art. His art animates Emil Flores’ espionage series “Cadre.” He also wrote and drew the marvelous story “Poso Maximo,” a wordless tale about a retired “monster tamer” who advertises his services on telephone poles and is called into action when a kid finds a scary thing rising from a toilet. “Poso Maximo” first ran in Polyhedron’s “Triple Punch Komiks!” anthology and later appeared in Summit Media’s “Kwentillon” anthology.
Robert is a regular at Polyhedron’s tables at various comic cons. “I enjoy it because it’s a venue for material that publishers usually aren’t interested in.”
The writer/illustrator makes no distinction between his comics work and children’s books: “They’re the same, only marketed differently.”
Blogging about “Poso Maximo,” eminent Filipino comic book historian and creator Gerry Alanguilan noted: “Everyone I show the story to come away with a smile on their face. This is a story that a lot of people will love. This is the kind of comics that could bring children back to reading comics.”
Alanguilan added: “Robert has been doing something very sneaky with his storybooks. He has begun to tell his stories with panels and word balloons, virtually creating comic books specifically for children to read.”
Best known for both writing and illustrating his own books, Robert says the double skills “come from being impatient.”
“When I create stories, they start out as written stories and I can’t wait to see them visually. In fact, sometimes, they’re written as thumbnails, not as longhand, so the pictures are already there.”
He has survived failed projects and emerged more determined than ever. He now employs a different working style for each of his books. Sometimes the story comes first, such as in “The Great Duck and Crocodile Race,” created initially with just words on an iPad while stuck in traffic. “Bullysaurus” already had illustrations in the form of thumbnails. “Each one is different because each story reveals itself to me differently,” he said.
Each story commands its own style, he added. “It’s like ’The Great Duck and Crocodile Race,’ which told me, ’Robert, I want to look like this. I want to look like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon,’” he recalled. He wound up watching old episodes of the beloved “Wacky Races” cartoon and pausing it frame by frame to examine the backgrounds and how the action came about.
“Shirley’s Pets,” he said gave him the chance to find his voice. “I’m half-Western and half-Filipino. I was raised in a household where the father was dominant so the voice is Western. And yet I was also drawing from Philippine experience and I went through the rigors of answering the question, ’What is my voice?’”
After trying and failing several times to land a project at Adarna House, Robert found success in 2004. “I submitted ’Mr. Beetle’s Many Rooms’ and Ani (Almario) of Adarna House graciously accepted it.”
The book’s comic-book-like appearance prompted some questions from teachers on how to present it to students, but Almario was undaunted and took the risk. Today, it is the work that most students remember as being his, said Robert.
The writer has since gone on to do books for Hiyas where he has gotten his biggest recognition and affirmation. “The Great Duck and Crocodile Race” was one of six winners at the 2nd National Book Awards Best Reads 2012.
Of the book, judge and artist Robert Alejandro said: “The story is delightful and the illustrations are wonderful. It is everything that will make a child want to fall in love with reading.”
Joanna Nicolas-Na, a book editor at OMF Lit who handled several of Robert’s titles said that Robert stands out as a talent because “he thinks of the children who will read his books and not of the critics who will review them.”
The writer’s works draw from various sources, including a few surprising ones, among them the old “Pancit Westerns,” cowboy stories featuring Filipino gunslingers like Lito Lapid. “They were Western and yet you knew these were so Filipino,” he explained.
Robert also loves Filipino folklore stories and Juan Tamad tales, as well as the seminal Funny Komiks weekly comic book. In fact, he has an upcoming project in the Summer Komikon of 2013 that he cannily described as “a love letter to one of the Funny Komiks characters.”
In his spare time, the Creative Communications Head for OMF Lit loves hanging out with his 2-year-old son Timothy and wife Shirley who followed her passion for animals and, in her mid-thirties, became a veterinarian.
But the good things happening to him now only gave him enough cause to reflect on darker times.
“Looking at what my father went through… grounds (me). We may think we have everything under control and we can plan our lives, but you will reach a point where you won’t be able to do what you want. Your memory will fail. Your hands will fail. That’s sobering. So I’m just thankful for the projects I’m working on now. If this is as far as it goes, that’s as far as it goes.”
As for his sense of identity, he has found some definitive answers. “The more I see the things (happening) in the States, (the more) I think that the only thing I feel American about is the pop culture. In terms of values and stuff, I’m definitely Filipino,” he stated.
He now understands what drives him and his art, Robert added.
“Five years ago, when I became Christian, I got more focused because I saw the world in a different way from my father’s instructions to ’toot [my]own horn’ in college. That never worked.
“Now it’s different. I view each story as a gift and I am its steward in that it’s a task assigned to me and I better do it as well as I can.”
It’s an immensely beautiful feeling, like the brightness found in the wake of a departing shadow and the elusive, turning corner of a wonderfully illustrated storybook that’s open for everyone and anyone hungry for a tale fantastic and fun. •