Penman No. 299: Books with Back Stories (2)

 

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Penman for Monday, April 23, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about Philippine-related books I’ve come across online with stories to tell beyond what their pages contained. There was that facsimile of the Doctrina Christiana, for example, signed by Lessing J. Rosenwald, the man who donated the world’s only known copy of the 1593 volume to the Library of Congress.

I also said that quite often, I don’t end up buying the book for one reason or another (usually and predictably financial), but I take note anyway of that particular book’s special appeal. I might leave it on my eBay “watch” list for a week while I mull over whether or not to spend any serious money on it, and then I’ll likely decide that the curiosity value just isn’t worth the cash out or the shelf space, which could go to a worthier recipient.

One of those almost-bought books was William D. Boyce’s The Philippine Islands, published in 1914 by Rand McNally. There was a swell of these books at the turn of the century following the American invasion and annexation of the Philippines, which their writers proudly touted as one of the US’ “new possessions.” Part travelogue, part political tract, these reports from the exotic East not only satisfied the curiosity of Americans who had never ventured out of their home states but also advanced the imperialist agenda. In his introduction (you can read the whole text for free online), Boyce—the millionaire-founder of the Boy Scouts of America—huffed that “It is my belief that if readers will carefully weigh and consider what follows in these pages, they will be aided to a larger view of the value of the Philippines, and realize how unjust and unjust it would be to cut adrift these half-civilized children of nature, trusting alone to luck that they may swim rather than sink in the sea of difficulties that surround the most hazardous of human tasks—self-government.” He was, he declared, squarely against those like Mark Twain seeking “to force these valuable Islands out of the hands of their real owners—the American people.”

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It helps sell books to give your chapters titles like “The Dog-Eating Igorots” and “Blood-Soaked Jolo,” but what drew me to this particular copy was the seller’s note that the book was inscribed to one Rev. Joseph Casey, and signed “Truly W. D. Boyce, S. S. Lusitania Feb 3rd1915.” That was just three months before a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the Lusitania in the Atlantic, helping push America into another war. I was intrigued, but in the end, I passed—I already had too many of these triumphal tributes to American imperialism on my shelves, and my $60 could go to better and less aggravating fare.

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More amusing—but also troubling in its own way—was a book I didn’t even know existed: the paperback edition of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn (Little Brown, 1947), reissued in 1952 by Popular Library and retitled the The Lost Ones. As if the subtitle “A Surging Novel of Passion and Hate” wasn’t suggestive enough, this paperback sported a racy cover with a seduction scene straight out of a femme-fatale noir film of the period. Blithely (but wisely, market-wise) disregarding the complexity of the relationship between Carding and his wife Lucia, the back-cover blurb goes straight to and quotes the book’s purplest portion:

“’It’s a LARGE bed…’ Rosita smiled wickedly at Carding from the pillow. She wore nothing but a sheer slip, and that was hiked above her rounded white thighs. ‘But I’m married,’ Carding told her, clenching his big hands, trying to tear his eyes away from her. Rosita shrugged. ‘You should have thought of that last night,’ she drawled. ‘Now it’s too late. I could never let you go now, Carding.’ She put a cigarette in her mouth. ‘Bend down,’ she said, ‘and give me a light.’ He got the matches in his trembling hands and leaned far over the bed. Her arms circled his neck like two bands of steel, tumbling her toward him. He was married—but he was a man!”

I also passed on the book, preferring the canonical high seriousness of my first edition, but it was a good reminder that, long before they joined the canon, many books were sold—had to be sold—as popular entertainment. There’s probably no better example of this than a two-volume, paperback edition of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, published in Barcelona in 1911 by Maucci, with covers that one would be hard put to associate with Crisostomo Ibarra (the blonde looks particularly unnerving). I don’t know how many copies were printed and sold, but this was just one of many popular editions of the Noli and Fili that came out in Spain within a decade or so of Rizal’s execution—his revenge from the grave, when you come to think of it. This colorful Fili, I happily got.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).

To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.

I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.

That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.

This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.

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There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.

A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”

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On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”

And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)

These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.

Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

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The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

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That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

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Penman No. 263: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 7, 2017

 

LET’S START with some stats: last month, Beng and I were two of the 35 million visitors who would have trooped to San Diego, California by the end of the year. We go there regularly for our daughter Demi, but most others would probably mention the beaches, the ships, the Mexican food, the whale-watching—and, for 130,000 people in late July, that long weekend of masked madness called Comic-Con International. Those fun-seeking fans will book all of San Diego’s 40,000 hotel rooms—many a year in advance, at room rates easily triple the normal—and on the average spend over $600 per person, injecting some $80 million in direct spending and another $70 million in multiplier effects.

Geekdom, in other words, is serious business, and there’s no stronger pitch that the spinners and purveyors of fantasy can make to their market than Comic-Con, which began in San Diego itself in the dim and dingy basement of the rundown US Grant Hotel one day in March 1970. Since then, the US Grant—where Demi works—has been refurbished into the city’s swanky grande dame, and Comic-Con, like the superheroes it glorifies, has morphed from a pimply kid to a sleek and powerful machine.

I’m sure the fans aren’t thinking much about the history when they stream through the doors of the SDCC on opening day and emerge with bags and boxes of new Funko Pop Justice League figurines, Deadpool Wooden Push Puppets, and one of this year’s exclusives, a Twin Peaks Agent Cooper Bobble Head, all yours for $14.99. The comic-book collectors could dwell on decades past, but most of Comic-Con is decidedly future-oriented, always looking around the corner for the next TV season’s plot spoilers and the next sequel’s new villain.

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There’s even been an urban-dictionary term coined for the phenomenon: “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” the hidden impulse behind the surge of the pop-culture hysteria best exemplified by Comic-Con. It’s all fun, of course, on the level of cosplay and souvenir shopping. For others, it’s also a profession and the work of a lifetime.

There were two such professionals and icons I sought out in this year’s Comic-Con: the Filipino-American artists Whilce Portacio and Alex Niño. I’d already met and interviewed Whilce in last year’s event, and subsequently at the Asia Pop Comic-Con in Manila, but it was good seeing him again in top form, signing autographs and artworks for fans in his booth in the Artists’ Alley.

Whilce actually wasn’t there yet when we arrived, as he was being interviewed by Syfy about his work, so Beng and I wandered off to observe a long queue forming for the autograph of another artist whom we frankly had never heard of before—the very young Patrick Ballesteros, another Fil-Am and San Diego native.

“We’re everywhere!” Whilce would remind me later. “Marvel, DC, Pixar, you name it, we’re there.” Whilce himself would co-found Image Comics and create Bishop for the X-Men, and he has been going back and forth to the Philippines to mentor young graphic talents such as Leinil Yu and to set up a studio that can meet the growing global demand for illustrators and animators.

I missed Alex Niño last year—at 77, he now attends only the last couple of days of Comic-Con, leaving it to his son Jules to mind the booth—but I caught him this time at Comic-Con’s closing hour for a quick chat about his struggle to rise to the top of his profession in the US. Tony de Zuñiga blazed the trail for all of them, but Alex, Nestor Redondo, Larry Alcala, and later Whilce and his peers followed shortly after in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alex recalled a crucial moment at the beginning when, still in the Philippines, he was approached by DC to draw a comic, he came up with a carefully drawn work, only for DC to balk at his price. “I tore the pages up,” Alex said. “I preferred to do that than get short-changed.” Unknown to him, his wife Norma had painstakingly pieced and pasted the drawings together overnight, and had sent it to DC—which, understanding what had happened, paid Alex’s price. This sense of self-worth would serve Alex and his compatriots well.

He moved to the US in 1974, and I’ll leave you to check out Wikipedia for his voluminous credits since then. Time may have slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped him from working, albeit more traditionally than others. He has just finished illustrating a book on wines for Jay Ignacio. “I don’t mind technology, but I never got used to a tablet. With digital art, you can’t tell what or where the original artwork is. I still use a pen and ink, and markers. I had to evolve my own style to be different from the others. None of my five children have taken after me, but my grandson in the Philippines works in animation. I can’t retire, because I’ve yet to be satisfied by what I’ve done. I feel that my best work, my masterpiece, is still out there.”

Way to go, Alex—spoken like a true Pinoy superhero! Until next year—if we get those badges.

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Penman No. 262: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (1)

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Penman for Monday, July 31, 2017

 

I MUST’VE been a really good kid to deserve this fortune, because much to my surprise—and possibly the chagrin of my 20-something students for whom this would be the closest they could get to heaven without dying—I got to attend Comic-Con International in San Diego with my sidekicks Beng and Demi (and Demi’s husband Jerry) for the second year in a row. I’d given up on returning to the show after failing to score tickets (“badges,” in CC parlance) twice online, but again our San Diego-based daughter pulled off a miracle at the last minute and got badges for us for the opening and closing days of the four-day convention, smack in the middle of what’s become our annual US vacation.

As all of my undergrads and junior colleagues know, San Diego’s Comic-Con is the world’s largest and most-awaited extravaganza of popular culture, running now for 47 years and attracting 150,000 attendees from all over the world. This is geekdom galore—a global gathering of fans of comic books, superheroes, fantasy, toys, animation, TV, and basically anything that levitates, teleports, or transmutates.

If you’re my age (63) and can’t relate to anything I’ve said, I can’t blame you. The average age of the Comic-Con attendee is 25; until recently, about 60 percent were male, but that’s been changing with the emergence of strong female superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Supergirl and intriguing characters like Stranger Things Eleven.

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But while seniors (yes, we got a discount on the tickets) may seem out of place at Comic-Con, the fact is, we were the original comic-book fans who grew up not just on DC and Marvel at a time when Adam West still played Batman on TV and George Reeves, not Christopher Reeve, played Superman; we were also followers of Lastikman, Palos, Gagamba, Darna, and other Pinoy heroes in the local komiks. For older folks like me, Comic-Con is rejuvenation, if not resurrection.

Here, everyone who was ever made to feel weird or was left out because of, say, a desire to wear blue hair, green skin, or an extra eye will feel at home, because Comic-Con is just like that Star Wars bar scene, with patrons from a dozen galaxies, multiplied a hundred times over. Fans come to the show dressed as their favorite superhero or cartoon character, and you don’t even need the body (or, for that matter, the gender) of Gal Gadot to be Wonder Woman. I’d give this year’s Most Astounding Cosplayer Award to the Princess Leia who had all the right buns—and a beard. Before I could snap a picture, she/he was off to Alderaan (aka home).

Also ubiquitous this year were various iterations of Harley Quinn (the girl from Suicide Squad), Spider-Man, and Deadpool, and even a knotty Groot or two. Beng was swept off her feet by a Jack Sparrow lookalike who had the accent and the bow down pat. I swallowed my shyness and agreed to Beng’s prodding to have my picture taken with Wonder Woman (one of them, anyway). We were unabashed fans for the weekend, and enjoying ourselves, although we had to squat on the floor and eat our lunch sandwiches, like hundreds of others, for lack of seats at the San Diego Convention Center.

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That’s because almost all the seats were in the meetings rooms and halls upstairs. The SDCC is a lot like the Mall of Asia’s SMX, only larger, with a huge exhibition hall downstairs and meeting spaces of various sizes for the convention itself upstairs. While the ground floor had hundreds of booths exhibiting everything from collector comics (I saw one, All-Star Comics No. 8 from December 1941which introduces Wonder Woman, selling for $75,000) to what happens in a Hollywood make-up studio, on the second floor were endless queues of fans who had come for the four days of panels. If downstairs was merchandise, upstairs was talk—and lots of it.

It’s at these one-hour panels, running in parallel sessions all over, that fans can actually meet the stars, who just might let some spoiler slip about a show’s forthcoming season (the Game of Thrones panel, hosted by Hodor, ended with a snippet about Melisandre) or give a definitive answer to some lingering mystery (was Bladerunner’s Deckard a replicant? Harrison Ford remained evasive). Most other panels are smaller and more practical, with titles like “Career Paths into Game Development,” How to Color Comic Art,” “Basic Star Wars Robotics,” and “Villains: Creating the Perfect Antagonist.” I wish I could say I attended even one of these, but the long lines quickly drove us back downstairs.

The biggest panels take place at Hall H, which can accommodate 6,500 people. A Comic-Con badge is far from a guarantee of entry into this cavernous space, for which the queue spills out to the yard and street outside—beginning days before; Demi’s brother-in-law Ray had planned on standing in line for his daughter Mia for the Stranger Things panel on Saturday, but had to give up when he learned that the line had begun forming on Thursday.

Madness, indeed—but of a happy kind, especially for host San Diego, which stood to gain $150 million in revenues from the July 20-23 convention. More on Comic-Con next week, including the highlights of my interview with Pinoy comics icon Alex Niño.

For more of my Comic-Con 2017 pics, click here.

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Penman No. 260: Meeting Major Kennon

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Penman for Monday, July 17, 2017

 

MY RECENT visit to the University of the Philippines Baguio and its new Museo Kordilerya, on which I reported last week, reminded me of another Baguio-related question which I’d been asking for some time now—in fact, every time I rode up or down Kennon Road, as I did last month. My question was, “Who was Kennon?”

I recall having found the answer to that in pre-Internet days—that he was an officer with the US Army Corps of Engineers who brought hundreds of Japanese laborers over to work on the road—but I didn’t know the details until I actively sought them out online.

 What happened to rekindle my interest was one of those early-morning trawls through eBay, where I typically look for Philippine-related material like old books, maps, and postcards, especially UP memorabilia. Prize finds have included a December 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian, and the first English edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, published in London in 1853.

I buy them when I can afford them, seeing it as my mission of sorts to repatriate these artifacts from the great indifferent and unknowing void out there, but most of the time I enjoy myself just going over the images on eBay and saving them to my hard drive—postcards of Escolta ca. 1910 and 1950, portraits of Carnival Queens from the 1930s, and press photographs of fleeting personalities like the Huk guerrillas William and Celia Pomeroy upon their arrest.

A postcard of Kennon Road—that 33.5-km stretch of zigzag road from Rosario, La Union to Baguio City—prompted me to ask again, “Who was Kennon?” Some Googling and a quick visit to Wikipedia yielded the information that Lyman Walter Vere Kennon (1858-1918) was a decorated US Army officer, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who was a major when he moved to the Philippines in 1899 after postings in Central America and Cuba. He served as the military governor of Ilocos Norte before going down to Mindanao, where he built the road linking Iligan to Lake Lanao. Then he went up north again to work on what would be called, in its early years, the Benguet Road. He finished it in two years, one year ahead of schedule, but not without much toil and sacrifice.

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The real gem of that Google chase turned out to be an article by Kennon himself—a report he submitted to his superiors in August 1905 and reprinted by the Baguio Midland Courier in September 1957, the full copy of which you can read online here: http://www.baguiomidlandcourier.com.ph/centennial_article.asp?mode=centennial/supplements/kennon.txt.

In that report, Maj. Kennon lays out the scope of the task ahead of him: “The plateau (was) most difficult to access. The first explorers reached it only by following the steep, slippery, dangerous, and obscure trails of the native Igorrote. To make the highlands of Benguet accessible to the white man, the Spaniards, towards the end of the last century, built a horse trail from Naguilian to Trinidad and Baguio and planned an extensive sanitarium and other buildings in Baguio. Insurrection and war prevented the carrying out of the project.

“Soon after the American occupation the manifest need of some such institution was recognized and the Government decided to carry on into effect as soon as practical the plans of its predecessors. Baguio could practically be reached only from San Fernando and Naguilian, necessitating a sea trip of twenty-four hours from Manila and two or three days of horseback travel over a steep trail built by the Spaniards in 1892. In the stormy season, steamers were frequently a week in going from Manila to San Fernando. Evidently, such a trip was quite impossible for invalids and convalescents.”

Less than 18 months after they surveyed the terrain, Kennon could report that “This work had been done between the dates of Aug. 16, 1903 and Jan. 29, 1905—that is to say, in seventeen and one half-months. At the former date, the most optimistic prediction allowed three years for the opening of the road, ‘if it could be done at all.’ Others said it would take 20 years of work, some of the foremen on the road considered that they had ‘a life job.’”

Of course, Kennon’s triumphal report wasn’t the only side to that story. Kennon had imported large numbers of Japanese and Chinese workers to speed things up, and some of those workers stayed on, becoming part of Baguio’s rich cultural heritage. (As the late historian Lydia Yu-Jose would note, however, the real influx of Japanese immigrants would follow later.) Some of those encounters would prove almost unbearably bittersweet. Sinai Hamada’s classic love story “Tanabata’s Wife” draws on that experience, as does this story, recounted here: http://www.filipiknow.net/tragic-story-kato-brothers-benguet/.

Kennon died a brigadier general in 1918, a week after his 60th birthday, unable to join the war in Europe because of poor health, and likely a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic that decimated the global population that year. While a postcolonial view of Kennon Road would have the 4,000 anonymous workers who built the road as its real hero, it can’t hurt to remember or at least know the man who once looked up that mountainside and saw a ribbon of a road in his mind’s eye.

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(Photos courtesy of Erwin Tiongson, Project Gutenberg, and imagesphilippines.com)

 

Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

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Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

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My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 222: An Education for the Well-Rounded Filipino

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Penman for Monday, October 24, 2016

 

IN A few weeks’ time, several hundred professors at the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus will gather together for an important vote on UP Diliman’s General Education program—long seen to be the hallmark of a UP education. It’s important because what happens there will determine, to a great extent, what “tatak UP” will mean for the next generation or two, and what being “the national university,” as its charter defines it, entails as far as the quality and the breadth of its offerings are concerned.

The raging battle seems to be over how many units (or class-hours a week) to allot to General Education subjects, which have traditionally covered basic and compulsory courses in such areas as language (English and Filipino), history, math, science, and philosophy.

There’s a menu of options on the table, ranging from a formidable 45 units to a scant 21, and an emerging compromise of 30-36 units in between; the mix of courses in these totals is also under negotiation. Those who want more want to ensure that every UP undergraduate—whether he or she plans to become a lawyer, an engineer, a surgeon, or a painter—can talk intelligently as a well-rounded citizen about the Katipunan and mitosis and perspective and Sophocles and interstellar travel. Those who prefer less want students to graduate from their programs sooner, for UP to remain competitive with other schools, and suggest that students can imbibe some GE skills both from their K-12 add-ons and from their higher-level classes.

I don’t mind saying that I put myself squarely on the 30+ side. We can’t keep complaining that young Filipinos can’t write or speak in proper sentences or don’t know who Apolinario Mabini was—without doing enough to fix the problem, given the chance. Sure, some of these learning points can be addressed in senior high; but subjects like History, English, and Philosophy will still be different when taught in UP’s staunchly secular context and pitched as adult concerns.

But never mind me—let’s give a listen to one of our most accomplished writers, the Leyte-born but now New York-based Gina Apostol, whose novels have won the 2013 PEN America/Open Book Award and National Book Awards in the Philippines. Some time ago, Gina wrote UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan to plead for the strengthening of UP’s GE program, and I got her permission to quote from that letter here:

I am writing as a graduate of the UP English department, 1980-1984, a former teacher at the department, and as a novelist whose work has been indelibly shaped by my education at UP—in particular, by its General Education program, to which I look back daily in my own work as a teacher and a writer.

My three published novels owe their genesis to that program. My current novel, William McKinley’s World, about the Philippine American War, began in a PI 101 class in a classroom at Palma Hall Annex, where my professor taught me about a war I never knew about.

In those first two years at UP, I learned to think. The General Education program made me into a writer. I went to a private high school in Leyte that certainly taught me well (arguably just as rounded as the current K-12 program); but I needed the General Education program at UP to make me whole—a critical consumer, a nationalist thinker, a global reader, and finally, it gave me ground to think honestly and seriously about what education means, it gave breadth of thought to allow me to become who I am—a novelist whose work is absolutely grounded in the questions that UP had asked of me in my first two years at the school.

It is my misfortune (though some call it luck) that I have ended up teaching in the States, living among an extremely lucky group of students: the wealthy enclave of Manhattan’s private schools. But every day, teaching my very privileged, very wealthy students who can enroll in any school they want, I can compare what they have to my education at Diliman, and I am daily impressed by the foundational, long view of knowledge grounded in the breadth of UP’s General Education curriculum.

My experience as an educator and an artist here in America is that the education I gained at the University of the Philippines is equal to and (given the state of America) too often exceeds the quality of education abroad. This is true of my fellow alumni who come to America: we understand how well we were prepared.

I cannot underline this enough: I know that UP provided me with an incalculable, a priceless education. I am writing to state emphatically that the General Education program at UP should be enriched, not reduced.

Even today, having been to and taught at several schools considered the best of their kind in America—so acculturated and mired in the world of the privileged as I am here in America—every day, in my classroom, I still marvel at the amazing comprehensive education I got at the University of the Philippines.

Here in Manhattan, these kids are killing themselves to get into colleges with the kind of education I got at UP. My own daughter went to the University of Chicago, and I will say that I was proud (and fascinated) to know my education as a freshman and sophomore was equal to her own rigorous coursework in the General Education program of the University of Chicago, where highly able freshmen have to go through the GE program. As you know, Chicago’s program still stands as a beacon of higher education in America today.

At UP, as my daughter was at Chicago, I was required to take philosophy, maths, history, sciences, and four rigorous courses in English that made me read across cultures (the stories of Akutagawa and D.H. Lawrence, Marquez and Achebe)—to read across time (Machiavelli and Madariaga, Rizal and Homer)—and to read across disciplines. I noted that just as at the UP in my time, the University of Chicago does not stint its students—my daughter was required to do the full two years of humanities reading before she did her majors, reading Hegel and Homer as a freshman and sophomore, as I was asked to do in Diliman. In my case, much of the knowledge that has stayed with me came in one packet (Dadufalza’s primer). The way UP taught its students to think then remains an incalculable benefit, equal to the best in America.

I repeat: I learned to think at UP, and the General Education curriculum made me into a novelist. It made me into a writer who can hold her own anywhere. It distresses me to think that the university will fail even one child, one student from the provinces, like me, who arrives at the university not knowing exactly who she could be—but now without the bulwark of its tough and extended humanities curriculum to point her to the myriad possibilities that creates not only engineers but also artists, not only scientists but also philosophers. The rigorous General Education program of UP is a boon to the country.

UP should strengthen its GE curriculum, not reduce it.

Please let me know how we, alumni across the world, can help to strengthen our alma mater. We love UP, we love our education, we would love to help.

Gina Apostol, AB English 1984

 

 

Penman No. 211: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (2)

IMG_8346.jpgPenman for Monday, August 8, 2016

 

THE SAN Diego Convention Center’s ground-level exhibit hall covers more than half a million square feet—about the same acreage as the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—and Comic-Con occupied every inch of this territory and more, spilling over to more meeting rooms upstairs and to the adjacent hotels.

The throngs of attendees and kibitzers also fill up the streets and parks outside the venue, all the way to San Diego’s picturesque Gaslamp district, which turns into party town at night after the convention—a mammoth “Star Wars” bar scene, with throngs of costumed characters downing tequilas and exotic cocktails whipped up just for the occasion. You can have your pick of convention specials like the Katniss Kiss at Bang Bang (gin, honey, ginger, rose water), the Kryptonite Martini at Spike Africa’s (Svedka vodka, pepperoncini peppers, olive brine), or the Walking Dead at Searsucker (Hamilton’s Jamaican rum, Bacardi Light, pineapple juice, cinnamon simple syrup, Fee Brother’s bitters, fresh lime, Lemonhart 151, topped with ginger beer).

And you can choose to have that drink with Chewbacca or Captain Kirk, because Comic-Con’s strongest and most colorful attraction is, of course, cosplay, that not-too-subtle subterfuge by which anyone can be a superhero or super-villain for a day.

In this regard, Comic-Con 2016 more than met our expectations. There were Storm Troopers, Trekkies, Ghostbusters, and Batmen galore on the convention floor, even a Hulk, a Dumbledore, and a Silver Surfer or two. And as a couple of plus-size Supergirls demonstrated, you didn’t even need the prescribed physique to indulge your fantasy—just the costume, which the wearers had more than likely sewn up themselves, with a little help from suppliers like BuyCostumes.com (where you could be Spiderman for $44.99, or Queen Arwen for $59.99—Darth Vader will cost you more, with just the mask selling for $149.99). A day before Comic-Con opened, Demi’s nephew Matt was still busy preparing his costume and homemade weapon as the Soldier:76 character from “Overwatch,” with key components being shipped in by express courier from Hong Kong.

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If you didn’t care to dress up as a Sith Lord but had always wanted one to park behind your bar, you could take a life-sized Darth Vader home for about $7,000, for a tenth of which you could get a silicone mask of the Ice King from “Game of Thrones.”

Comic-Con, in other words, was merchandise mania, and it wasn’t uncommon to see hardcore fans staggering out of the venue with huge boxes and bags of souvenirs. Some may have addictions that will seem very peculiar to you and me—like the people who line up at midnight for special editions of the bobble-head Funko figurines—but beyond being a passion, it’s also a business that can see a Funko character that nominally sells for $15 be worth ten times that much on eBay the morning after (more on this later).

In a corner devoted to comic-book auctions, the cover art for an August 1977 issue of Conan the Barbarian had a pre-auction estimate of $12,000—a bargain compared to $20,000 for a Watchmen page. Being oldies and cheapskates, all Beng and I could sport were our black Star Wars T-shirts, which Demi had snapped at a sale (there wasn’t much demand, predictably, for T-shirts that invited you to “Join the Dark Side!”).

 

It’s all about fads and fashions, and those preferences are set on a screen somewhere—the movies, TV, the Internet, the mobile phone, the vast global domain of popular culture (which is to say, still largely Hollywood). The biggest draws this year included “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Wonder Woman,” “Teen Wolf,” “Snowden,” “Suicide Squad,” “Aliens” (marking its 30th anniversary), “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Star Trek Beyond,” but there’s never a lack of fans (and merchandise) for perennials like “Superman,” “Batman,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Ghostbusters.”

But all these blockbusters begin with a writer and an artist—a “creator,” in industry parlance, along the lines of Marvel’s legendary Stan Lee—and as another main feature of Comic-Con, these creative geniuses were gathered at the far end of the hall in the Artists’ Alley. Tipped off by my younger friends at Philmug (who were attending Comic-Con vicariously through their former chairman), I made a beeline for the booth of Whilce Portacio, one of the most accomplished Filipino-Americans in the comic-book industry.

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Born a Navy brat in Sangley Point, Whilce had moved to the States as a baby and had grown up in Hawaii, where his artistic talent was nurtured by supportive teachers. He came home in 1978 and studied Fine Arts at Philippine Women’s University under Ibarra de la Rosa. Not speaking Tagalog and feeling very much alone, Whilce spent the time honing his craft, and by the time he flew back to the US a few years later, he was ready for his big break—where else but at Comic-Con, which was then a much smaller event but already the place to be if you were a gifted young artist with a portfolio to show.

A Marvel editor named Carl Potts (who also had some Filipino blood) took Whilce under his wing and from there on, there was no turning back. Whilce (a shortening of William Joyce) would go on to work on Punisher, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Wetworks, and Spawn, among many other major projects, moving up from basic inking and penciling to becoming a creator himself of such characters as Bishop in X-Men and the Pinoy superhero Grail in Wetworks.

Following in the footsteps of such Filipino comics pioneers in the US as Alex Niño (who also had a booth at Comic-Con, but hadn’t checked in yet when I was there), Whilce sees himself as part of a series of waves of Filipinos who’ve excelled in the global industry. In 1995, he returned to the Philippines to set up a studio on Balete Drive, where he discovered and trained the next wave, which now includes such standouts as Leinil Yu and Philip Tan.

Indeed, another booth at Comic-Con featured the works of Philip Tan, Jay Anacleto, Stephen Segovia, and Carlo Pagulayan. While it took lucky breaks and personal contacts for people like him to succeed, Whilce says that “Today, with the Internet, young artists can introduce themselves. The bridges are now connected. The process and pipeline are now set for everybody.” (I know I promised to report on my long and very interesting interview with Whilce, but it would be a pity to summarize, so I’ll save that for another time. Better yet, come and see him in person when he flies in to Manila to grace our version of Comic-Con—the AsiaPOP Comicon, which will happen on August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center, with tickets starting at just P550 for a one-day pass.)

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To cap my Comic-Con 2016 experience, and by another stroke of luck, our daughter Demi conjured a special pass to a live taping of Conan O’Brien’s show at the historic Spreckels Theater downtown (Conan has been a Comic-Con regular for some years now). Did I want to go? The featured guests were a surprise—the cast and crew of “Game of Thrones,” with Hodor, killed off in Season 6, getting the warmest applause. I’d have to admit that being a documentary and car-show freak, I’ve never been a fan of the series. But I had a great time watching Conan, the total pro, and every member of that audience left the theater with a Funko Conan Storm Trooper doll, which touts tried to buy at the door for a paltry $8.

Were they kidding? The dolls showed up on eBay the next day for as much as $300. I gave mine to Demi, which was the least her Tatay could do thank her for the treat of a lifetime.

 

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Penman No. 210: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (1)

 

IMG_8370.JPGPenman for Monday, August 1, 2016

 

 

IT WAS a millennial geek’s fantasy come true, except that it happened to a doddering senior with the good luck to be in the right place at the right time. As I reported last week, Beng and I were in the US last month to attend the launch of the foundation behind the prospective American Museum of Philippine Art (AMPA) in Los Angeles, and also to visit our unica hija Demi in nearby San Diego, where she’s been living and working with her husband Jerry for the past nine years.

We save up for these visits, which usually take place every year sometime in October during what used to be our semestral breaks. But with the shift in our academic calendar to the international (okay, the US) model, we timed this year’s trip for July in conjunction with the AMPA event, the sum of which was that we found ourselves in Southern California during the third week of July.

And what’s so special about that week—one marked by 90-degree-plus temperatures, water shortages, and brush fires in California’s sunbaked hinterlands? Well, as every pop-culture-savvy 30-year-old from Pandacan to Pasadena knows, it’s the time when Comics Convention International—better known as Comic-Con—takes place in San Diego, where it began 46 years ago.

So what exactly is Comic-Con, and what’s all the fuss about this annual pilgrimage attended by hordes of Earthlings, as well as presumptive superheroes and extraterrestials? It’s an exhibition, a convention, an academic conference, a parade, a pageant, a marketplace, and a film festival all at once—the world’s largest and best-known pop-cultural mecca.

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You might say that at 62, I had no right to be there at all, and I wouldn’t have argued, even if I’d been a staunch DC Comics fan in the ’60s who battled the Marvel masses in lunchtime chalk fights. I could easily think of half a dozen people just in my department in UP who would’ve given their right arms to be in my place, having followed every twist and turn of “Game of Thrones” and having memorized the names of every Jedi Master and Sith Lord in the Star Wars universes (the official and the expanded). These guys (and gals) take their fantasy seriously, and some of them go on from buying every issue of Batman to writing ponderous academic essays for such tomes as It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon, edited by Ben Bolling and Matthew J. Smith (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014).

In his foreword to that book, Matthew Pustz would recall that “When I got off the trolley in downtown San Diego, I knew just how to find it: follow the guy in the Green Lantern t-shirt. After a short walk, there it was—Comic-Con International, with the huge convention center sitting in the sun. Waiting to enter were tens of thousands of fans—all with their own strategies for making the most of what has become one of the largest popular culture events in the world. This was the summer of 2007, and I had traveled to San Diego all the way from Boston to attend something that I had dreamed about for a long time. I had attended comic book conventions before, in Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis. But San Diego was different, bigger, more important. This was San Diego—the Super Bowl of comic book conventions—and I was on the comic book fan’s holy pilgrimage, the trip that all fans must make at least once in their lives. This was the Gathering of the Nerd Tribes, Fanboy Woodstock.”

“Comic-Con is a fan event, but it is also a money-making extravaganza where all manner of creators, artists, and corporate owners of media products can sell and promote them to their exact target market. And this target market is one that can be virtually guaranteed to take the ‘buzz’ of Comic-Con back with them to to Iowa or Boston or Tokyo so they can ‘sell’ those products to their friends back home. Comic-Con is the ultimate merging of culture and commerce, and that makes it the perfect place to study how popular culture works in the twenty-first century.”

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While there are many other fantasy and pop-culture conventions—Dragon Con, for example, is a big cosplay event that takes place every year in Atlanta, Georgia on Labor Day weekend—Comic-Con is a San Diego original, run by “a nonprofit educational corporation dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.” WonderCon, a comic-book-focused event, is held in Los Angeles.

The first Comic-Con—then known as the Golden State Comic Book Convention—was held in August 1970 at the US Grant Hotel (the grande dame of San Diego hotels, where our daughter Demi works), but it’s since moved on to the sprawling San Diego Convention Center (where Hall H alone, reserved for the biggest events, fills up its 6,000 seats) and to nearby hotels.

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Over its four-day run, Comic-Con 2016 was projected to draw 130,000 attendees from all over the world (and the galaxy), each of whom was also likely to spend at least $1,000 in San Diego, making it the city’s top annual grosser. Movie stars fly in to promote their projects and some celebrities like Conan O’Brien have made Comic-Con a regular item on their calendar.

Getting into Comic-Con used to be a matter of flying into San Diego and walking in through the convention door, but not anymore. According to the organizers, “Although we strive to make attending our show as easy as possible, obtaining a Comic-Con badge can require the persistence of Superman, the patience of a Watcher, the ingenuity of Tony Stark, and the readiness of Batman.” It’s hard to think of any other conference where the rules include the following:

  • All costume props and weapons must conform to state and federal law.
  • Projectile costume props and weapons must be rendered inoperable. Functional (real) arrows must have their tips removed and be bundled and zip-tied to a quiver.

Tickets to Comic-Con were sold out months ago, as were all hotel rooms in San Diego, at peak prices (“Comic-Con attendees book their rooms for next year before they leave,” Demi told us.) You don’t really buy a Comic-Con ticket but a “badge,” and to get a badge you have to pre-register online for a membership ID, with which you can then apply for a badge using a code that entitles you to a slot—well, you get the idea.

So how exactly did we get in? All I’ll say is, it pays to have a daughter in a hotel in San Diego in July. It wasn’t really in our vacation plans, but Demi decided to give a pair of seniors a special treat one morning by announcing that she could get the three of us into Comic-Con. Were we interested? You bet we were!

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