(More excerpts from the 1985 unpublished interviews with Mars Ravelo)
Darna is the most popular character in Philippine komiks. Its iconic popularity is so well-established that just like the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, the character that inspired her creation, it transcends racial and cultural borders. Darna is not only loved by millions of Filipinos, but her charm has attracted fans from all nationality, all over the world. Even in the manga and Marvel universes, you’ll find Darna fanatics. There’s even a fan club of Darna in, of all places, Russia.
WHY DARNA IS SO POPULAR?
What makes Mars Ravelo’s Darna unique from any other superhero characters has been the object of several write-ups. If you read her stories, saw her films and television series, you would probably say she’s a superhero like most others, can fly, endowed with superstrength, champions the cause of good and justice, etc. So, what makes her different?
If I remembered correctly, Mars Ravelo once said: “Si Darna, nakuha niya ang damdamin at panlasa ng mga sumusubaybay sa pakikipagsapalaran niya.” (Darna, she captured the emotion and taste of those who followed her adventures.) Who wouldn’t?
A young barrio lass, living a plain and simple life together with her grandmother and younger brother, is bestowed a power to fight injustice and all forms of evil. People saw themselves in her and in the hope, no matter how mystical, she brings. The simplicity and fluidity of Ravelo’s story combined with the uniqueness of his story-telling style are also factors inherent in Darna’s iconic popularity. Ravelo is no longer around to write or supervise the writing of Darna’s continuing stories, but the legacy of the superheroine he created lives on. For seven decades spanning four generations of fans, her name – Darna – still soars sky-high.
DARNA’S EVOLUTION: THE GOOD AND THE BAD
Darna’s character and image had gone through several changes and twists from the original simple story. While some fans like this evolution, majority don’t. Indeed, if you based it on the critical reaction of fans in every walk of life, every time there is a sudden alteration of her character, image or even her powers, you'll know they are against it. Majority would prefer the original Darna, unblemished, beautiful, sexy, alluring, but can kick the wits of any villain she encounters.
Recent writers had used the Marvel style of incorporating the so-called multiverse (either “multiple universe” or “multiple version”) in continuing her saga and adventures. In one film (Darna: Ang Pagbabalik, 1994), she was given powers like that of Superman. In another post-Ravelo story in Super Action Komiks, a scenario of three Darna was narrated. Still another story forcibly connected her with the Adarna bird, which is contrary to Ravelo’s concept. Some illustrators even showcased a change of image, giving her a different costume and outlook. Still others gave her an Amazonian physique, which many fans, both male and female, considered abhoring. For today’s writer and illustrators, for all intent and purposes, she should remain sexy and alluring.
WHO’S THE ORIGINAL AND WHO’S THE COPYCAT?
In all of Darna’s history, one controversy refused to give up: Was she a copycat of Wonder Woman? Or if I may boldly asked, could it be possible that it’s the other way around – Mars Ravelo’s concept was stolen from him? This is especially so when you look at and scrutinize the circumstances and coincidences behind the creation and publication of these two characters.
In my unpublished 1985 interviews with Ravelo, he admitted that when he was in his early youth, he was quite gregarious and talkative. He loves telling his stories to both his Filipino and American friends and acquaintances. When he first saw Superman from a newspaper comics strip brought by American soldiers, he so loved it that he boasted he would create a female counterpart in Philippine komiks. According to him, it took three weeks to one month of conceptualizing before he was able to form his story. “Ang dami kasing pumapasok sa isip kong ideya. Pinili ko ang pinaka-simple.” (There are a lot of ideas going inside my mind. I chose the simplest.)
“Alam mo naisip kong gawin yung Varga para itapat kay Superman. Lalake yung sa mga Amerikano, babae yung sa atin. Di ba ayos?” (You know I thought of creating Varga as a counterpart of Superman. Male on the part of the Americans, female on our part. Isn’t that okay?). Then he revealed something else: “Pero alam mo, hindi naman Varga ang unang pangalan ni Darna. Atin-atin lang ito ha.... Ang una kong itinawag sa kaniya ay Suprema.” (But you know, Varga was not the first name of Darna. This is just between the two us.... The first name I gave her is Suprema.)
SUPREMA, THE NAME BEFORE VARGA
Many in the komiks world know that before Darna, there was Varga. But did you know that Varga was actually the second name. When Ravelo was telling his “Superman female counterpart” story, the name he was calling her was “Suprema,” which is the female equivalent of a “Supremo” (highest rank leader), a nom de guerre of Andres Bonifacio. Ravelo intended Suprema to be an all-powerful and indestructible woman just like Superman. She would be a Filipina given supernatural power by a diwata (fairy). When asked, “why not just call her Superwoman?” Ravelo answered, “Ayaw ko kasi siyang parang ginaya lang. Naisip ko, para maging naiiba siya.” (I don’t want her to appear like a copycat. I thought, to make her different.) Ravelo didn’t want to bootleg the character he so admired. “Naisip ko ring gumamit ng pang-uring tatatak sa isip ng tao. Naisip ko ang salitang ‘kamangha-mangha.’ Kaya ang itinawag ko sa kaniya ay Suprema – ang kamangha-manghang dilag.” (I also thought of using an adjective that will be retained in the minds of people. I thought of the word ‘wonder.’ So I called her Suprema – the Wonder Woman.) This was in the middle of 1939. This should be the year of the birth origin of Darna.
Ravelo had a change of mind, however, and opted not to use the name Suprema. “May nagsabi kasi sa akin na baka may magalit at sabihin pang iniinsulto ko si Bonifacio. Taga-Cavite ako. Alam mo naman noon.” (Somebody told me that I may get the ire of some people who may think I’m insulting Bonifacio. I’m from Cavite. You know the situation during those times.). The controversy between Emilio Aguinaldo, who hailed from Cavite, and what happened to Andres Bonifacio and his brother were still an unresolved problem at the time. So, Ravelo had to change her name.
“Nag-isip ako na panibagong tawag na naiiba. Tapos nakakita ako ng dibuho ng mga seksing babae, ang tawag ng mga Kano ay Varga Girls. Ang gaganda ng mga dibuho. Doon ko kinuha ang pangalang Varga.” (I try thinking for another name that is unique. Then I saw some illustration of sexy girls, which the Americans called Varga Girls. The illustrations were so beautiful. That is where I got the name Varga.)
When Ravelo changed the name to Varga, he also changed some of the premises of the story. The superheroine will no longer be a Filipina given superpower by a diwata, but an alien entity will used a young barrio girl as vessel to appear and fight evil. From his nickname “Mars” (also the name of the Greek god of war and the fourth planet from the sun) and its Tagalog equivalent “Marte,” he purportedly used as the name of Varga’s homeworld. So, the Philippines’ first superheroine was born – “Varga, ang Kamangha-manghang Dilag mula sa Planetang Marte” (Varga, the Wonder Woman from the Planet Mars).
It came to pass that Ravelo borrowed the name Varga from the Varga Girls, which were painted pin-ups that Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas created for Esquire magazine (1940). There was another reason why he chose Varga, but as of this writing I couldn’t recall the complete details as much of the notes of my 1985 interviews with him are gone. Though I remember that it also has something to do with anagrams.
For Varga’s alter-ego, Ravelo has a galaxy of names mostly beginning with the letter “D” (I wasn’t able to ask why): Diana, Digna, Dina, Donata, Donna, Nova, Olivia, etc. Then later on he saw one Varga Girl name Diana. “Mahilig ako sa mitolohiya. Kaya napansin ko agad ang pangalang Diana. Siya ang diyosa ng pangangaso at ng buwan. Gusto ko yun. Pero gusto ko rin na katutubo ang dating.” (I like mythology. So the name Diana immediately caught my attention. She is the goddess of hunt and of the moon. I like it. But I also like a native impression.) Ravelo like playing with words and anagrams. He likes leaving signatures in his works. One anagram of Diana is Nadia. Then he discovered that if he replaced the “I” with an “R,” the first letter of his surname, the name “Narda” could be formed. “Bingo!” He said. “Naalala ko ang pangalan ng isang kakilala ko noong bata pa ako – si Narda.” (I remember the name of one of my acquaintances when I was a kid – Narda).
Ravelo drew the illustrations of Varga himself, the first issue being just a one-page, six-frame, layout, with a first-frame showcase of Varga. He admitted that his drawing was bordering on the unrealistic, “Malayo sa hugis” (far-off shape). “Naisip ko baka isa yun sa mga dahilan kaya inayawan ng mga publishers.” (I thought maybe that is one of the reasons why the publishers rejected it)
FEMALE SUPERHERO WILL NOT SELL?
“Natatandaan ko inalok ko yung istorya sa Liwayway, Salinlahi, Mabuhay, pero tinanggihan nila. Pakiusap ko pa sa isang publisher na para sana sa kaarawan* ko iyon. Pero hindi raw bebenta ang isang babaeng superhero.” (I remembered offering the story to Liwayway, Salinlahi, Mabuhay, but they turned it down. I even pleaded to one publisher that it would be for my birthday*. But they say female superhero will not sell). “Sabi pa nila, manatili na lang daw ako sa mga kuwento ng pagpapatawa.” (They even said, I should just stay in stories that make people laugh**). *RAVELO WAS BORN ON OCTOBER 9, 1916, AND HE STARTED HIS CAREER IN KOMIKS AS A **WRITER-CARTOONIST OF HUMOROUS EVERYDAY SITUATIONS OF ORDINARY PEOPLE.
That was not the case with Ravelo, who is a versatile and prolific writer. He likes writing in all genres, excel and be number one in it. “Gusto kong subukan lahat. Gusto kong maging mahusay sa lahat.” (I like to try everything. I like to excel in everything).
It is an admitted fact that Wonder Woman (All Star Comics #8, December 1941) was published first before Darna (Pilipino Komiks #77, May 13, 1950), but this is only because the publishers that Ravelo approached in 1939-1941 turned him down. Then came the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines, the onset of the Pacific phase of World War II. Ravelo’s female superhero was shelved for more than five years. It was only after the war that he was able to again offer his works, this time to Bulaklak magazine. Now, as to who is the copycat among the two, I only recently confirmed.
In the book Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014) by Jill Lepore, it was mentioned that William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) a.k.a. Charles Moulton named his superhero “Suprema, the Wonder Woman.” Coincidence?! The probability is mathematically staggering! It was also revealed in Lepore’s book that Marston’s character was only called “Wonder Woman” when comics editor and script writer Sheldon Mayer dropped the name Suprema from the initial name given by Marston to publisher Maxwell Charles Gaines (1895-1947), which coincidentally also published Superman. Another coincidence is the name of Wonder Woman’s clandestine identity – Diana Prince. Well, maybe, we can accept the fact that Marston also love the Varga Girl name Diana.
Backtracking, it is noteworthy that Marston only got his “opportunity” when Gaines saw him being interviewed in Family Circle and afterward hired him as a consulting psychology. He immediately proposed to Gaines the possibility of publishing a female superhero. Like Ravelo, he also encountered difficulty in convincing the publisher with regards to a female superhero’s ability to sell. But unlike Ravelo’s experience of rejections with Filipino publishers, Marston was given a chance by Gaines.
The revelation in Lepore’s book brought up one question after another in my mind. Why would Marston gave such a name – Suprema? Where did he get? Or the better question, perhaps, is where did he hear the name? Don’t tell me it’s the female equivalent of the word “supreme.” That will bring up a million laughs. Marston was in the Philippines in the late 1930s up to the third quarter of 1940. Did he overhear Ravelo’s storytelling? Did he bootlegged Ravelo’s idea and turned it into his own? The evidences maybe circumstantial at this point but it warrants answers.
OF FATE AND CIRCUMSTANCE
The year Marston and Gaines died, 1947, was in a twist of fate the year Mars Ravelo got his opening for the publication of Varga (Karma working here or what?). Inside the pages of Bulaklak (Hiyas ng Tahanan) Vol. 4 Number 17, on July 23, 1947, Varga began her story: “In Barrio Masambong, not far from Manila, there lies a small hut. Here live Narda and Ding, in the company of their Lola Asay. They are orphaned and indigent. They ask people for alms while Narda sings accompanied by Ding’s harmonica. This is how they were able to make ends meet with their grandmother. One night, the two were with other kids playing hide and seek.....”
Contrary to what the editors of the other publications said about a female superhero, Varga became very popular with the readers. But by some twist of circumstance, the name Varga became the ownership of Bulaklak magazine (during those times, intellectual property right is not yet in effect) and when Ravelo left the publication in 1949 after a falling out with its editor, Varga stayed behind. Ravelo took Varga’s personality, revised her costume, and brought her to Pilipino Komiks, and renamed the character Darna, from the anagram of Varga’s alter-ego Narda.
On May 13, 1950, inside the pages of Pilipino Komiks #77, Darna, the original Filipino superhero, donned a crimson red bikini, white sash, golden wings on her forehead, and knee-high stiletto (probably diluted from the aftereffects of seeing Varga Girls pin-ups), and illustrated by Nestor Redondo, started her adventures battling the snake-haired woman Valentina. Rosa del Rosario, Manila’s “Golden Age” movie queen, portrayed Darna on its silver screen debut on May 31, 1951. It was the blockbuster of the era!
And the rest is history!
THE GALAXY OF DARNAS
DRAWN BY VARIOUS ARTIST
THE GALAXY OF DARNAS
DRAWN BY VARIOUS ARTIST