Like many word-loving members of my generation, I learned to love reading, thanks to Filbar’s. Back in grade school, a generous and enabling schoolmate would list the titles of the comic books we wanted and then, once a week, swing by the Filbar’s store on New York Street in Cubao to score them.
That access led to Filbar’s gaining an almost mythical status for us, a virtual cornucopia overflowing with those highly-coveted glossy, full-color American comic books. (That generous schoolmate, by the way, is now children’s book and comic book genius Robert Magnuson). I would later sign up for my first comic book subscription at Filbar’s Katipunan.
It was through Filbar’s that I began reading beyond the classroom requirements and Hardy Boys mysteries. I learned the meaning of words like “uncanny” and “infinite.”
For Filipinos growing up in the 1980s and beyond, “Filbar’s” was synonymous with comic books, powerful plots, dramatic twists and star-spanning visuals. Whether you’re a member of DC Nation or a Marvel zombie, you knew Filbar’s very well.
It began, like all good stories do, with a flash of inspiration. In 1979, Filemon Barbasa, a prolific salesman for a magazine subscription company, opened a tiny store in Greenhills’ Manila Bank Arcade selling back issues of comic books. For the store’s name, he simply compressed his first and last names (FILemon and BARbasa).
He found a ready audience and soon began selling current monthly comic book subscriptions to Filipinos, gaining a loyal and vocal following in the process. While comic book titles are nominally released monthly, the comic book companies actually publish new issues every week. Thanks to Filbar’s, Filipinos were now getting the same weekly treats as their American counterparts.
Comic book creator and historian Gerry Alanguilan (“Wasted” and “Elmer”) was among those who rejoiced in the change. “It was the first shop that made new US comics available in the Philippines at the same time they came out in the US. The store did this on a regular basis. It was pretty mind blowing when I found that out because up until then, we’ve only had reprints. If they were original prints, they appeared in our stores months, even years, late,” Alanguilan says. “Because of this, Filipinos became attuned to the current comics buzz worldwide.”
Comic book writer Budjette Tan (“Trese” and “The Dark Colony”) visited the Filbar’s shop under the escalator in Greenhills’ Virra Mall with his late father. “Visiting Filbar’s was part of our Sunday ritual. My dad would take us to Virra Mall to borrow laser discs and afterwards, we’d go down the escalator and head straight for FIlbar’s. Since it was the first comic book specialty store to start bringing in new comics every week, it was the main reason I became a collector. It nurtured my love and addiction for comics! There was also something new to get every week!”
Having found its sales sweet spot, Filbar’s expanded rapidly and started selling franchises until it became ubiquitous. It was a full-blown Filbar’s invasion, with storefronts and newsstands appearing everywhere.
But competition became stiff when new comic book shops emerged, shops which also provided the monthly subscriptions that Filbar’s had been famous for. Soon, Filbar’s became known primarily for back issue magazines and began to get lost in the shuffle. In late 2012, it ceased servicing customers’ monthly subscriptions. As Tan tweeted, it was the “end of an era.”
That’s when a group of friends decided they wanted to keep the Filbar’s brand alive. They came together and formed their own super-group.
Ronald Abigan, Jacob Cabochan, Ivan Guerrero and Kenneth Gaisano are all 32 and were classmates at Xavier School who frequented the same Virra Mall branch that Tan knew so well.
Abigan handles information technology for his family’s financial firm United Paramount; Cabochan handles operations for his family company Pandayan Bookshop, while Guerrero is a cutting-edge filmmaker. Gaisano works for his family business as well.
Together with Cabochan’s younger brother Dr. Eric Cabochan, a resident at Capitol Medical Center, the four friends decided to pool their money to form a new company called Collecticons, Inc.
“It says collectibles plus we like Transformers,” says Abigan. Their company bought the Filbar’s trademark and the right to operate the stores. “It’s our dream. We used to talk about it. It’s so cool to own our own comic book store.”
The four would start by reinventing the logo. The new owners observed that the green-and-white Filbar’s signage actually resembled that of a bargain bookstore chain. “That’s part of the reason we redesigned the logo,” says Guerrero, who is chief creative officer. “We wanted to create one unified image. We wanted to take the logo and capture that comic book essence that we grew up with. If you look at the logo, it has a lot of that. It just barks, ‘comic book.’ Second, we created our own distinct mark.”
Then came reinventing the store. On July 28, the new owners unveiled the new Filbar’s at Festival Supermall, Alabang. Bursting with color and unusual shapes, the new Filbar’s shop features the beloved comic books—in particular, a bunch of trade paperback and collections that the owners deemed “essential” reading—and the lifeblood back issue magazines.
It’s a headquarters for comic book fans—and pop culture addicts. Because what captures the eye was the colorful and diverse merchandise populating the shop. Of course, there were a lot of items with a super-hero theme. But there were also unusual items from George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” and the iconic British sci-fi serial “Doctor Who,” among many others.
Store patrons could dress up as Captain Kirk, buy a pin and become the Hand of the King, or buy another pin and lead the rebellion in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” There are also limited-edition pop culture-themed T-shirts from Chicago cult brand Threadless.
Cabochan explains that they went out of their way to gain the proper licences to sell the merchandise, no knockoffs here. For example, he spoke directly to Dark Horse Comics to convince the American company to let them sell the “Games of Throne” items. Additionally, Filbar’s is the official Philippine reseller of Funko’s adorable Pop! Vinyl figurines.
“We wanted to capture the feeling of going to a comic convention on an everyday scale,” Guerrero says. “If you look around you, there are various niches, various licenses, but we make it like a nexus point for everybody.”
Filbar’s will transform its stores one by one instead of all at once. Cabochan, who handles operations for the new Filbar’s, explains that they will be closing certain shops because of location and security concerns. And they’re not just renovating their current stores: “The SM North Edsa store will move into a larger space. As for the ones we’re closing, we’re opening new stores nearby.”
Each store will also be a little different, effectively becoming individual characters in the Filbar’s story. Instead of aiming for the high-end collectibles like statues, Filbar’s wants to capture the fancy of the extraordinary fan with ordinary funds. “The type of collectibles we carry are the kind you can use on a day-to-day basis rather than just display pieces,” Cabochan explains. “Collectively we’re fans of what we’re selling. Basically we’re the biggest customers.”
Among themselves, the friends joke that if other people don’t buy their inventory, they—the new owners—would buy the stuff for themselves.
But amid the euphoria of the Filbar’s reboot is the caution that comes with knowing that this, after all, is a business, and they have to choose the items they stock carefully to make money in what is obviously a market with margins as tiny as Ant-Man. “I think it’s slowly sinking in that it’s not just a hobby,” Cabochan admits.
So the owners keep track of trends to make sure that they carry the hot stuff. “We monitor certain shows to make sure we’re up to date,” says Guerrero, pointing out that Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” is currently very popular, and that they will also be bringing in items representing BBC’s critically-acclaimed “Sherlock” (hello, fans of Benedict Cumberbatch).
To be able to keep up, you have to have the passion for it,” Abigan says. “Because if you’re just in it for the money or the business, you won’t have to time to watch all these shows. We actually try to get to know what people like.”
The back-issue magazine racks are still there, but are now limited to one side of the store instead of dominating the entire space. Cabochan says these are not going to vanish but, because of limited supply and the new store direction, will be a much smaller part of their business. They are keeping these because they speak to a larger and more varied audience for Filbar’s.
“You see people come in, husband and wife, and you see them separate, go to different parts of the store and by the time they’re finished, they’ve each bought something for themselves,” Abigan says. “So it works out.”
One of the most important legacies of the original Filbar’s is how it seeded and breathed life into the Philippine comic book industry. Alanguilamn recalls how he became aware of Filipino-American comic book talent Whilce Portacio. “Because Whilce was working on titles like ‘X-Factor’ and ‘X-Men,’ he became very popular and he became an inspiration to a lot of aspiring Filipino comic book creators, including me,” he says. “So when Filbar’s brought Whilce over from the US for a tour of Filbar’s stores in the early ’90s, it ignited a comic book drawing/creating craze that gave birth to the Independent Komiks Industry, as well as a whole new generation of artists who would eventually work in US comics.”
Recalls Tan: “Part of that event was a ‘mutant creation contest’ and the prize supposedly involved having your creation appear in ‘X-Men’ and getting the chance to work with Whilce at Marvel.
“The event was filled with all these aspiring artists. Years later, the founding members of Alamat Comics would realize that we were all in the same room but just didn’t get to meet.”
To carry on its legacy, the new Filbar’s has a section devoted solely to independently published Filipino comic books, a section that Guerrero says has proven quite popular. “It’s a good place to buy your indie comics when it’s not Komikon season,” he says. “You come here to get your fix.”
Tan loves this section. “This might be one of the biggest developments that could affect the local comic book scene. Other comic book shops like Comic Quest, Comic Odyssey and Druid’s Keep have always shown support for the indie creators. So, having more distribution points for Pinoy Indie Comics via the many branches of Filbar’s will help get more local works into the hands of new comic book readers.”
Guerrero adds that next will come a section devoted to supplies and books for aspiring comic book writers and artists. “It’s going to be a supply and reference area for those interested into going into comic books.”
One of the fresh ideas on display is the Filbar’s exclusive edition of “Trese” from Tan and artist Kajo Baldisimo. Available only in their stores is the first three volumes of the best-selling series with new dust jackets. “We kept in mind that Filbar’s would reach out to a mix of new and old comic book readers,” Tan says. “So we wanted to put together this Trese Starter Set, making it easy for new readers to enter the world of Trese.”
Cabochan says this is a direction they want to continue. “This is a good way to differentiate the store brand,” he explains. “We’re going to talk to other creators.”
The new Filbar’s guys have been spreading their gospel by attending comics conventions. In that same fan-friendly spirit, they have launched the Pop! Art Project, a contest where fans can buy Pop! Vinyl figures from the store and customize them to their heart’s content, and submit them for judgment by October 30. The entries will be displayed and the winners announced at the big Komikon on November 16. Creators of the triumphant customized Pop! Vinyl figures will receive P10,000 as first prize, P5,000 as second prize and P3,000 as third. It’s a great way to involve fans and celebrate creativity.
Meanwhile, the Filbar’s reinvention has stirred up excitement among its many fans and former patrons. “Filbar’s was where I met Whilce Portacio, and it was there I knew I wanted comics to be my career. I was sad when Filbar’s kind of faded away, because I realized its huge impact on who I am today,” Alanguilan says. “Now that Filbar’s is back, I’m extraordinarily happy!”
The new Filbar’s invasion has started. So get ready as that Filbar’s near you may soon be experiencing its own transformation. The owners are also opening a Marvel-exclusive store in Glorietta called KAPOW! Universe. There is a palpable energy to what they are trying to do. Significantly, Cabochan says Filbar’s hopes to soon provide comic book issues on a weekly basis as well. That would truly bring Filbar’s full circle and highlight the calling that is running this nostalgic and dynamic property like a caped crusade and a store for tomorrow all in one.
It is a calling that Guerrero and the new owners of Filbar’s have heeded with passion. “Filbar’s is a brand we grew up with. Collectors are very sentimental. When you collect something, you have very strong emotional ties to them. Being collectors ourselves, we had the same very strong feelings about Filbar’s,” says Guerero. “We want to try and capture that feeling we grew up with and share it with other people who may not have grown up with Filbar’s like we did.”
If the Filbar’s adventure were one of the comic books on sale, it would happily read, “To be continued.” •