CCSE 2021: Alex Niño And His Long, Sometimes Painful, Journey As An Artist

by Gary Catig

Even during a Thanksgiving weekend, Comic-Con Special Edition had some very exciting comic guests at their event. The beauty of the show is that they invite a wide variety of creators from different periods of the medium. Previously, Sina Grace had his own spotlight panel where he announced several new projects he’ll be working on. Early Sunday afternoon, the illustrious Alex Niño talked about his career as an artist that spans almost 50 years.

Before he shared his story, Niño first introduced his family and thanked them for playing such an important role in his life. He had a humble upbringing in the Philippines and began drawing by using a rusty nail in the sand. When it came time to go to college, his parents wanted him to pursue a medical degree however he was turned off by the instructors of his classes and dropped out to become an artist. This decision would cause friction between him and his family and he would use that chip on his shoulder to drive him to make a career with his art.

House of Mystery #204

Early on, he was inspired by the work of Nestor Redondo and Alfredo Alcala, which he saw in the magazines at the newsstand across the street from his university. It just so happened, both helped Niño break into komiks, the Filipino comic scene. Initially, he had a difficult time adjusting because there were restrictions on horror and science fiction stories by the government and the biggest draw was romance. Unfortunately, he thought his “ugly” style wasn’t conducive to the genre. It wasn’t until he saw magazine clippings with illustrations from Jack Davis and Al Williamson that he turned his dreams towards the west.

After the success of Tony DeZuniga, the artist along with DC Comics publisher, Carmine Infantino, and editor, Joe Orlando, visited the Philippines to discover and recruit new talent. Niño described them as the three Magi bringing hope and wealth in the form of an opportunity to work for an American company.

The excitement got the best of him and he didn’t bother asking for the page rates before he accepted his first gig. After he completed his drawings for ‘To Die for Magda’ in House of Mystery #204, he learned he would only be paid the equivalent of $1 per page. He thought since DC Comics was a western publisher, he would be paid like a western artist. He was so upset that he ripped up the pages but his wife ended up taping them back together and mailing them out because the family needed the money.

It wasn’t until Niño started working for Warren Publishing that he felt he was coming into his own as an artist. He was granted more freedom and could pretty much do what he wanted. This allowed him to explore more and experiment with his style. The imaginative designs he learned during this period highly influence his work today.

Alex also dabbled in animation a bit and probably helped define the aesthetics of the films some of us enjoyed in our youth. He worked R & D for Disney, and much like at Warren, he had great freedom. He could pitch whatever he wanted. He wound up designing the backgrounds for Mulan. That led to contributions to Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Tarzan, and The Emperor’s New Groove.

Despite the success in film, he did return to his comic roots. Most recently, he provided the art in the graphic novel, Alandal, which came out only two months ago. It is written by J. Philip Ignacio with lettering by Lorraine Mare Garcia Barte. The story occurs during the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines where a Spanish military commander saves a young baby girl during a naval battle with the Kingdom of Sulu. The girl, Sabina, grows up and learns of her real identity which puts her on course with a date with destiny. Unfortunately, Alandal hasn’t quite been made available outside of the Philippines.

For the closing minutes of the panel, Niño did a demo showing the audience his art process. He says he sees imaginary lines even on a blank page and uses that to guide him as he draws. He prefers not to do pencils because erasing is a waste of time. Using only a fine pen, a sharpie and a brush with ink, he created a beautiful illustration in no more than 15 minutes. Whether it was out of reverence or awe, the audience quietly looked on with each masterful stroke. It seemed so effortless and efficient but Alex was quick to remind people that it was a result of almost a half a century of drawing. One lucky member was even awarded the finished product.

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