Monday, February 15, 2010

Darna: The Filipino Superheroine

For six decades Darna, the Philippines’ foremost fictional female superhero, has captured the imagination of people, young and old alike. Aside from being a cultural symbol, it has been a part of Philippine literary and cinematic history.
Indeed there’s more to Darna than the crimson bikini and stiletto outfit or the enigma of a mighty Amazon-like superhero. It is now an icon that has its own followers not only locally but also in the international scene.

The concept of a female superhero started in the mind of a young pioneering illustrator from Tanza, Cavite, named Mars Ravelo (1916-1988) in the late 1939. Ravelo was a great fan of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, which first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938 and debut as a newspaper comic strip in January 16, 1939. Ravelo thought of creating a female counterpart for Superman because he believed in the concept that America is “male” and the Philippines is “female.”
Back then, Ravelo’s original superheroine was named Varga, the “Wonderwoman from Marte (the planet Mars in Tagalog?),” which like Superman is super strong, can fly at great speed, impervious to any man-made weapons and originated from another planet. He didn’t want to use the term “Superwoman” so as not to plagiarize the Siegel and Shuster creation. Instead he used the term “Wonderwoman.”
Ravelo, who at 23 was a struggling cartoonist, started showing his creation, clad in more or less a Philippine flag-like costume, to his American friends as the Philippines’ answer to Superman. He tried approaching several publication company both here in the Philippines and in the United States. According to Ravelo whom I interviewed in 1985 and 1986, he offered his creation first to Liwayway and then to other publications but was rejected several times. The common response was “a female superhero will not sell.” Had Liwayway published "Varga" in 1939, it would have been the first Filipino superhero, and released ahead of its perceived copycat, DC's "Wonder Woman."
Ravelo was quite dismayed by the reactions, especially when All Star Comics released the very similar superhero character, "Wonder Woman," in December 8, 1941, said to be created by William (Charles) Moulton Marston (the inventor of the polygraph or lie detector).
It was not until after World War II that luck smiled on Mars Ravelo’s behalf. His superheroine Varga made her debut in Bulaklak Magazine Volume 4, Number 17 on July 23, 1947 and became quite popular with readers everywhere. Varga was, in all things but name, the woman we now know as Darna. She stood up for the weak and the oppressed, battling common criminals as well as evil in supernatural form. Varga was both written and illustrated by Ravelo whose artistic style resembled the cartoons of Max Fleischer, the creator of the doll-like cartoon character Betty Boop.
By some twist of circumstance, the name Varga became the ownership of Bulaklak Magazine and when Ravelo left Bulaklak in 1949 after a falling out with its editor, Varga stayed behind. Ravelo took her image, flowing sash and all, to Pilipino Komics.
On May 13, 1950, Mars Ravelo re-launched his beloved comic superheroine now called Darna, the “Mighty Warrior from Planet Marte.” Darna’s first breath-taking adventures were first serialized in the pages of Pilipino Komiks #77, where she fought the sultry snake-haired woman Valentina.
Although the concept remained the same, Ravelo assigned another artist to illustrate his creation – the soon to be legendary Nestor Redondo. Unlike Ravelo, Redondo’s style of drawing was more realistically proportioned. Darna now dons the costume of crimson two-piece bikini with a star in each brassiere cap, transparent white front sash, almost knee-high stiletto and golden wings on the forehead. Soon she became a household name spanning six decades.
A year after, on May 31, 1951 Filipinos witnessed the first marvelous flight of Darna (courtesy of Royal films), in a Fernando Poe Sr (Yes, you got it right – FPJ’s father) directorial Darna starring Manila’s golden age movie queen Rosa Del Rosario as Darna and Cristina Aragon as the supervillain Valentina, while Mila Nimpa portrayed the young Narda and Manuel Ubaldo played the role of Ding, Narda’s little brother. The movie was a huge box office success. From then on there was no stopping Darna. Numerous box office films and endless serialized stories in different comic books followed.

Since 1951, fourteen Darna movies have already been made. Each decade has its own version of this versatile superhero. Rosa Del Rosario made two successive films in 1951-1952. The 1960s saw Liza Moreno, Eva Montes and Gina Pareño portraying the role in the big screen.
On its earlier version, the role of Darna and its mortal host, a young barrio lass named Narda, were portrayed by separate actresses. Among the noted actresses who played the role of Narda are Coney Angeles (1964) and Gina Alajar (1969). Francine Prieto (under her real name Anna Marie Falcon) played the young Narda in the Joel Lamangan 1991 remake of Darna with Nanette Medved in the starring role.
The inter-galactic pebble-like amulet found its way to Vilma Santos’ throat in 1973 via the Emmanuel Borlaza, Joey Gosiengfiao and Elwood Perez trilogy Lipad, Darna, Lipad! She made a total of four movies in a span of seven years playing both Narda and Darna. Rio Locsin squeezed in a portrayal in 1979 with Bira, Darna, Bira! But Vilma Santos made a comeback, with then child wonder Niño Muhlach as Ding, in 1980’s Darna and Ding.
Aside from Manuel Ubaldo and Niño Muhlach, other notable child actors that played the role of Ding, were Boy Alajar (1969), Angelito (1973), Dondon Nakar (1973), Bentot Jr (1975), Romnick Sarmenta (1979) and Lester Llansang (1994), and Buboy Villar in the Marian Rivera’s TV remake of Darna (2009-2010).

Contrary to popular belief, Darna was not named after the Adarna bird of Philippine myth. Since the name “Narda” was already established as Varga’s mortal identity in Bulaklak Magazine, Ravelo decided to rename his reincarnated superheroine from the anagram of Narda. So, the name “Darna” sprung from “Narda” and not the mythical Adarna bird.
Revisions were made on how Narda got her powers. Darna’s origin is varied in numerous Darna comics and movie scripts. Since scriptwriters, directors and producers try to make their movies palatable to their different tastes and genres.
In the original komiks version, Narda did not have to remove the magic stone every time she transformed from Darna back to Narda, when she first swallowed the amulet, it has remained within her and all she needs to do is to say the magic words to transform. Later revisions show Narda carrying the stone in a pouch and swallowing it each time she needs to become Darna.
Originally, Darna was not Narda. In the strictest sense, the young Narda is just the medium, the vessel for the alien superwarrior Darna to take over. Just think if Ding took the stone, instead of Narda, he would surely still look like the female Darna, because by doing so (swallowing the magical stone and shouting Darna’s name), he is making a magical invocation for Darna to appear in his behalf. So, Chiquito and Dolphy’s portrayals of a male (homosexual) Darna in Terebol Dobol (1974) and Darna Kuno (1979) are grossly incorrect. Niño Muhlach also briefly did the same in Darna and Ding (1980).
The concept of Narda and Darna being of different entity was later revised. Today, we know Darna and Narda as one person of dual identity.
The three best Darna films are Poe Sr’s 1951 pioneer Darna, Eva Montes’ Darna at Ang Babaeng Tuod, and Vilma Santos’s Lipad, Darna, Lipad! In Darna: Ang Pagbabalik directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, the special effects used is modestly good, but it is said to be the worst Darna film ever made because of several dubious error in the portrayal of the character, her powers, costume and appearance. They made her look like a cross between Superman, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, which shouldn’t be the case. Darna is an original Pinay superhero unique from any other.

In 2003, an award-winning Darna miniseries was published by Mango Comics, with major input from Ravelo's family. This version showed Narda as a college student who first found the pebble 10 years earlier. The details of Darna's origin, however, were changed again – Her supposedly ancestral race of Adarna warriors originally came from Planet Tiamat, as did the serpent queen Valentina. Their respective people had warred against one another for many years. On Tiamat, Darna’s race used artificial wings (In this version’s rendering, Darna’s race is similar to the D.C. Comics’ Hawkman’s race in Thanagar, while Valentina’s ancestry is reminiscent of the Nagas and Gorgons). Due to the fierce war that destroyed Tiamat, the Adarnas fled to the planet Nibiru, also known as Marte. Here, Darna (both the name and the character) was explicitly linked to the Adarna bird (Ibong Adarna in Philippine literature).

GMA Network and Hugo Yonzon, current license holder of Darna and head of Mango Comics, signed a licensing agreement for a new Darna television series in 2005. It premiered in Filipino homes on April 11, 2005 and garnered a 47.1% rating according to AGB-Nielsen, making it one of the highest rated pilot episodes in Philippine television. During the fourth episode, it garnered 52.1% overnight ratings from AGB, the highest rating ever for any Philippine TV show. This was the episode that Narda transforms into Darna for the first time. Filipino actress Angel Locsin starred as Darna. The television series ended on November 25, 2005.

In this TV version, most of the Mango Comics storyline were carried over. Darna’s origin was portrayed to be from the lineage of Queen Adran (another anagram of Darna) of the Adranikan race in the Planet Marte. Her arch-enemy, Valentina (played by Alessandra de Rossi), on the other hand, was the product of hybrid impregnation of an Earth woman by an Anomalkan creature sent by Braguda, arch-enemy of Queen Adran.

Four actresses who previously played Darna were involved in this TV series: Gina Pareño (Darna and the Planetman, 1969) appeared as Darna’s grandmother, Rio Locsin (Bira, Darna, Bira, 1979) appeared as the wife of Dr. Zombie, one of the villains, Lorna Tolentino (Darna in 1977 TV series) portrayed Queen Adran of Marte, Regine Velasquez (plays Darna in the Bong Revilla’s 2003 starrer Captain Barbell) sang the theme song of the series. Velasquez also provided a voice clip of shouting “Darna!” for use in the TV series.

In the final episode of this series, Narda threw the magical pebble into the sea, and later got in trouble and was unable to transform. She was saved by Captain Barbell (the portrayer of which was never revealed), which became the precursor for the 2006 TV series Captain Barbell starring Richard Gutierrez.

Later after the end of the Captain Barbell series, GMA 7 aired a teaser hinting the coming of a joint series, Captain Barbell Meets Darna. Angel Locsin, however, already transferred to the rival network ABS-CBN and Richard Gutierrez was busy with other roles. The Internet Movie Database website ( posted the same title – "Captain Barbell Meets Darna" – which would supposedly led by Dingdong Dantes and Karylle sometime in late 2007, but did not materialize. In 2008, news again spread about the series which will now be starred by Richard Gutierrez as Captain Barbell and either Rhian Ramos, Jackie Rice or Marian Rivera as Darna. It also didn’t materialize.

Instead, in late 2009, GMA 7 made a remake of Darna starring Marian Rivera showcasing a more acceptable storyline that the mahiwagang bato (magical pebble) is transferred from one rightful keeper or Tagapangalaga to another every generation or so (similar to the Green Lantern’s ring in D.C. Comics). Here, the Darna portrayed by Rivera would battle the resurrected most powerful supervillains (Armida, ang Babaeng Lawin played by Ehra Madrigal, Ang Babaeng Impakta jointly played by Nadine Samonte and Mura, Lucila, Ang Babaeng Tuod played by Francine Prieto, and Garda, ang Babaeng Linta played by Margaret Wilson) that the earlier Darna (Angel Aquino) imprisoned in ice, and a re-scripted Valentina and Kobra portrayed by Iwa Moto and Paolo Contis, respectively. In this series, Ruffa Mae Quinto also wore, albeit, a fake Darna costume.

Note: The author have written scripts on Darna, Captain Barbell and Lastikman for several Atlas komiks under the penname Uriel Arkangel, and was able to talk to and interview the characters’ creator, the late Mars Ravelo and his wife Lucy, through Ms. Ernie Evora-Sioco and Mr. Tony Tenorio, former MOD Filipina Magazine editor and Atlas Komiks editor-in-chief respectively, more than 20 years ago.


Rosa Del Rosario – Darna (1951), Darna at Ang Babaeng Lawin (1952). Here’s where the saying, “The original is best” aptly holds true. This Fil-Am actress is by most choices, the best Darna.

Liza Moreno – Si Darna at Ang Babaeng Impakta (1963), Isputnik vs. Darna (1963)
Eva Montes – Darna at Ang Babaeng Tuod (1964)
Gina Pareño – Si Darna at Ang Planetman (1969)
Vilma Santos – Lipad, Darna, Lipad! (1973), Darna and the Giants (1973), Darna vs. Planetwomen (1975), Darna at Ding (1980)
Lorna Tolentino – KBS 9 TV series Darna (1977)
Lotis Key – Darna Kuno (1979), in this film spoof Brenda Del Rio and Dolphy portrayed a pregnant and a male Darna respectively. The first to play the role of a male Darna is Chiquito in the 1974 comedy Terebol Dobol.
Rio Locsin – Bira, Darna, Bira! (1979)
Sharon Cuneta – Guest appearance in Captain Barbell (1986)
Nanette Medved – Darna (1991)
Anjanette Abayari – Darna: Ang Pagbabalik (1994). Cameo appearance in Ang Pagbabalik ni Pedro Penduko (1994). Abayari, together with Binibining Pilipinas titlists Daisy Reyes, Maria Sovietskaya Bacud and Alma Concepcion also played various versions of Darna in Toyota FX commercials.
Liza Macuja – Ballet Manila’s stage production Komiks the Ballet in celebration of Darna’s golden anniversary (1997)
Kristine Crame and Kris Belle Paclibar – Played the role of Darna in the stage production Darna the Ballet (2003)
Regine Velasquez – Guest appearance in Captain Barbell (2003). She also dons the Darna outfit on her The Singer and the Songwriter concert tour (2004)Angel Locsin – GMA 7 TV series Darna (2005). In this tele-fantasy series, Lorna Tolentino reprised her Darna costume as Adran (another anagram and deviation from the original story), which supposed to pass the enchanted pebble to Narda portrayed by Angel Locsin. There were a lot of twists and deviations from the original story in this series. In this series Katrina Halili played the role of Black Darna. By most choices, Angel Locsin is said to be the sexiest Darna.
Marian Rivera – GMA 7 TV series Darna (2009-2010). This is probably by far the best production of any Darna (both ilm and TV series). Except for the Electra (and the Planetwomen) episodes, which is terribly corny and out of place, and some few glitches and limitations in the scripts, the overall storyline and portrayal is quite good.

Valentina – Played on-screen by Cristina Aragon (1951), Celia Rodriguez (1973), Pilar Pilapil (1991), Pilita Corales (1994)
Armida, ang Babaeng Lawin (Hawkwoman) – Elvira Reyes (1952), Liza Lorena (1973), Veronica Jones (1980)
Impakta – Gina Alonzo (and Paquito Salcedo as her evil conjoined twin, 1963), Gloria Romero (1973), Bing Loyzaga (1991)
Isputnik (not a villain but a rival superheroine) – Nida Blanca (1963)
Lucila, ang Babaeng Tuod – Gina Alonzo (1964)
Planetman – Vic Vargas (1969)
X3X , alien warrior queen – Helen Gamboa (1973)
Humans made into giants – Divina Valencia, Max Alvarado, Ike Lozada, Zandro Zamora (1973)
Electra – Rosanna Ortiz (1975)
Kara (one of the Planetwomen) – Lita Vasquez (1975), the other planetwomen are Diana Villa and Lieza Zobel
Lei Ming, the Evil Witch – Celia Rodriguez (1980)
Dr. Vontesberg – Marissa Delgado (1980)
Dominico Lipolico – Edu Manzano (1991, 1994)
Ms. Valentine Adan, daughter of Valentina – Cherie Gil (1994)
Magnum – Bong Alvarez (1994)

Darna: In the original version, Darna was a superwarrior from the planet Marte who came to life when the young Filipino barrio lass Narda swallowed a magical pebble that fell from the sky and called out the name Darna, which is inscribed in the pebble. In the later version, Narda and Darna have been made into a single person with dual identity.
Wonder Woman: Princess Diana of Paradise Island (Themyscira) came to the United States under the guise of Yeoman First-class Diana Prince. She turned into Wonder Woman every time she swirls around.
Darna’s powers include flight, super strength, super speed and invincibility to all man-made weapons.
Wonder Woman in the original version had the “strength of Hercules” and the “speed of Mercury.” She did not have the power of flight; she had an invisible jet which she used to fly around. She was not impervious to bullets as she needed an indestructible wristband to deflect them. She had a magical lasso which can make anyone tell the truth. In much later versions, her strength and powers were increased – she is now as strong as Superman and has the power of flight.
Comics Debut:
Strictly speaking, the character with the name Darna debut in Pilipino Komiks #77(May 13, 1950) but the original concept was made in 1939.
Wonder Woman debut in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941).
Film Debut:
The first Darna movie was shown on May 13, 1951, starring Rosa Del Rosario as Darna. In 1977, a Darna TV series starring a 14-year-old Lorna Tolentino in a one-piece costume was shown in KBS 9.
No real big screen film on Wonder Woman was ever made as of this writing. The character first appeared on TV in 1974 in Wonder Woman: Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?, played by Ellie Wood Walker. In 1976, Miss World USA 1972, Lynda Carter, starred in the TV series Wonder Woman, which lasted three years.

DARNA: The Filipino’s Object of Fantasy
When the first Darna movie made it into the big screen on May 13, 1951, it became an instant box office hit. The very charming and beautiful Rosa Del Rosario, Manila’s golden age movie queen, portrayed the role of the superheroine, under the directorial of Fernando Poe Sr.
Darna became a household name, and was beloved by people of all ages for more than half a century. She has also inspired the adoration of perhaps every hot-blooded Filipino male starting from that era. Rosa Del Rosario donning a two-piece bikini in 1951 was quite eye-catching (even though the film is just in black and white). But there was no culture shock as she portrayed a flying, butt-kicking superheroine, even though Filipino women at that time wear ever-too-modest attires – elbow-covering blouses and ankle-low sayas. Come to think of it, she wore the revealing costume just barely four years after Michèle Bernadini, the Parisian dancer-model, first wore the bikini in French swimwear designer Louis Réard’s public fashion modeling (July 18, 1946). Although it can be said that Del Rosario’s lower costume was more like a short pants than a bikini panty, the scenes where she wore the costume were still quite erotic during those times.
It is also worthwhile to note that although Darna was not classified as a “bold” movie (the term and genre may not have existed at the time), it can be considered as one among the first to show a woman wearing a bikini. And not only wearing a bikini, but flying, fighting, and doing all sorts of stunts much like the Charlie’s Angels of very recent times.
Mars Ravelo’s Darna is truly the most famous Filipino fantasy character given life both on the boob-tube and the silver screen. According to film critics portraying Darna is actually considered a career-defining role, so is directing a Darna movie.
Since Del Rosario’s time, Darna, whether we accept it or not became an object of fantasy – sexual fantasy – of the Filipino male aficionados. True enough, all actresses who portrayed the role were labeled “strictly sexy.” The aura of the superheroine exudes sexiness beyond the heroic character. Ah yes, her antics bring the boyhood in every man and her allure, shall we say, brings the manhood up and awake in every manly pants.
Of course, who wouldn’t fantasize about a character like Darna? Maybe one like one of her evil foes – the Babaeng Tuod. Hey, but a dry wood is still stiff and hard (pun certainly intended)! Dennis Trillo (playing Darna’s love interest Efren) must have the thrill of his life when Angel Locsin – said to be the sexiest Darna ever – caught him in her arms and well-endowed bosoms after falling from a building in one of the episodes of GMA 7 2005 TV series Darna.
Imagine a scenario when you have Darna as your girlfriend; who tends to your needs and desires, and fights villainous characters on the side. She comes to your bedroom dressed only in red-hot bikinis, and with her sparkling eyes, bedimpled cheeks, long-flowing hair, and guitar-like body, very much oozing with sex appeal, she asks you: “Are we good?” Well, condom or no condom, you better have your cannon ready for action!