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Take a walk on the wild side: Tabi Po

MANILA, Philippines – Have you ever met anyone who would dispel the fear of ghosts or the supernatural by admonishing, “Beware of the living.”

True. All too true. Now what if those things that frighten us are not only alive but also looked just like you and me and lived among us?

That is the premise of Mervin Malonzo’s Tabi Po where he deconstructs the myth of the aswang by giving them human form instead of the frightening monsters told by our elders during our youth. Malonzo places them in the midst of everyday life in the province and makes them absolutely chilling.

During Studio Salimbal’s “Let’s Talk About Comics”, a free wheeling discussion about the trade and where the industry is headed last April 6 at Fullybooked Bonifacio High Street, there was buzz about the book.

I had also heard about the book from friends. “If there is one book that you buy from the Komikon,” said Norby Ela, “get Tabi Po. You won’t regret it.”

I had only learned of it recently and resisted taking an online peek not when the first printed version would be released during Komikon that was a few days away. I didn’t want my reading pleasure curtailed.

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And so that was my introduction to Malonzo’s work. And after spending part of the evening reading it, all I can say is, Tabi Po is the new 30 Days of Night (Steve Niles’ and Ben Templesmith’s excellent version of vampires in a story that is absolutely frightening).

The author with Mervin Malonzo

Tabi Po tells the story of the mysterious Elias who wakes up in the middle of a tree in a forest with no recollection of who he is or what he’s supposed to do. All he knows is that he is haunted by a vision of a woman and at the same time has this maddening and overriding craving for human flesh. Elias then meets Tasyo and Sabel who are like him but have been around much longer. As they help him come to grips with his life as an immortal, they move into a nearby town with faked identities and where they have access to a steady supply of victims.

Malonzo’s painted art is like what you’d see in galleries where idyllic scenes from provincial life -- buhay bukid if you will – or even a bygone era abound. And that is what makes it even more visually arresting – savage even – when monsters are placed in the midst of all this serenity. When it’s feeding time, the blood and gore rip apart all notions of peace and safety.

There are religious undertones and the way Tasyo and Sabel are illustrated, they look like nightmarish version of Jesus and Mother Mary/Maria Clara. When they take refuge in a rectory or even attend Holy Mass, that further shatters whatever illusions of safety and sanctity there is. Then your mind races to the first few pages when Elias finds work in a carnival; a place that is supposedly fun and where you can cast your cares away on thrilling and fun rides. So now you ask, is there nothing sacred left?

But that is exactly what Malonzo is trying tell with Tabi Po. It takes you out of your comfort zone and what we all supposedly know about aswangs and blows it all away. That it is written in the Filipino makes it all the more “biting” (pun intended).

The book is daring. It jars you, disturbs you a bit (well, that depends on your comfort zone), and leaves you thinking about the story and certain images. They stick to your mind. And that is what a darn good story is supposed to leave you.

Whether you believed in Filipino folklore or not, you said, “tabi tabi po” when you passed by a punso. You know, just to be on the safe side. After reading Tabi Po (that is easily a classic-in-the-making, a must-have in anyone’s collection, a winner, and a story that begs for cinematic treatment), you wonder if the aswang who in the days of our youth only came out at night is that man at the corner who eyes you as if you were prey.

Tabi tabi po.

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