Melvin S. Calingo is the real name of the artist Taga-Ilog. He majored in visual communications at the University of the Philippines, and graduated cum laude in 1999. During his college days, he directed two animated short films, “Puti” and “Blind Beauty”, which won top honors in 1999 and 2001, respectively, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Independent Film and Video Competition.
Right after finishing school, Calingo went to work as a illustrator and writer for Culture Crash Comics, where he wrote and drew Pasig, a post-apocalyptic action drama set in the future. He has worked on weekly comic strips for Philippine Ragnarok Online, which appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and he contributes spot illustrations for K-Zone magazine, and FHM.
He has held several art workshops and has been invited to talks and seminars as a guest speaker about animation and comics. He has worked for 7 Seas Entertainment, a US-based comic book company, where he drew Destiny’s Hand, a 3-volume shounen manga about pirates. He continues to produce comics locally, among them, Kanto Inc., and Pasig. He currently works as Art Director for Digital Art Chefs, an art studio based in the Philippines that specializes in making art for comics, games and more.
Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist?
I can’t actually remember the exact instant when I decided to be an artist, but I do remember one incident way back when I was in elementary school. My seatmate was drawing a portrait of Rizal for a homework he forgot to do, and it was a cartoony version of Rizal (a copy from the old 1 peso coin with Rizal not in profile). I was awestruck. I was always fascinated with people that drew. And to see him draw Rizal, complete with his signature hairstyle, I was really blown away. It was probably not a very good copy though. But in my mind, it was the most awesome thing I’d seen then.
It wasn’t until 6th grade when a bunch of my friends and I decided to draw comic books. We drew on folded bond paper, much like today’s photocopied indies. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was all the rage during that time, so we drew them with original stories, and had our classmates read them. Fun times.
I do remember when I decided to become a professional artist though. Fresh out of high school, I took entrance exams both in UST and UP, hoping for a degree in Architecture. I passed the exam in UST, but got wait-listed in UP. I had the option to take my 2nd choice, Fine Arts in UP Diliman, which I did. I thought, at the time, that I could always shift majors, but I instantly fell in love with the Fine Arts culture in UP… And also, I’m not very good at math.
Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?
Aside from the typical artist’s/writer’s block, and tons of procrastination, that would be the feeling of, “I could’ve done better,” or, “I should’ve done this instead,” after completing an artwork or a comic book. I know it’s silly, but when I look at my past works, there’s this weird feeling of shame at the imperfections of the work.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
haven’t, unfortunately. The best thing to do at this point is move on and try to improve my skills a bit more. I feel like I haven’t reached a level of art that I’m comfortable with yet. There’s this clip circulating around Facebook recently, kinda like a mantra thing, “Finished not Perfect” and I guess I should follow that.
Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?
TECHNOLOGY!!! No, really! Way back during my stint in Culture Crash Comics, using computers as a tool for making comics was at its infancy. The only computer colored comics at the time were mostly stuff from the US. I’ve also seen a few Alamat comics covers rendered on the computer, and also an indie called ARCHON. Culture Crash paved the way for me to explore this fascinating digital medium and I loved it. Especially Ctrl+Z.
I still draw comics traditionally (pen and paper,) but there are stuff you can do now that would have been otherwise impossible before the digital revolution. Before, you had to ink over your pencils, then erase the underlying pencil marks for clean line art. These days all you have to do is scan your penciled artwork, print it out in blue ink, and then ink over the “blue pencils.” That way you have preserved your penciled artwork. There are also programs that let you draw, color, and letter your comics digitally.
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
I wish I had known that copying from reference materials does not necessarily degrade your artistic integrity. You see, I had this notion from when I was starting to draw, that an artist needs to draw stuff that he REMEMBERS. This resulted in me remembering what, say, a car looks like, from memory. The results were really uninspiring. This also made the car ten times harder to draw and ten times less realistic. Before you go saying that I advocate art theft, I don’t. I’m not talking about tracing a panel from your favorite manga, slapping your original character’s face on it, and say it’s “referencing.” I’m talking about swallowing your pride and saying, “I don’t know what a 38 gauge shotgun looks like, so I probably need to look at references to copy it from.”
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making art or comics?
At first I just wanted to make a comic with an art style and genre that I really liked, basically I was doing it for myself at first. Now I feel that it has gone beyond me. The story needed to be written, not just for myself, but also for the readers. I think I owe it to the readers of my comic to see my story through.
Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)
Really busy. I wake up at around 7:00, head straight to the drawing table and draw my pending commissions. At around 8:30, I prepare for my day job, and arrive at work by 10:00. I leave work at 18:00. I get home at about 19:30 and spend some quality time with my family, but sometimes even that gets shoved when I have a deadline. I work instead. I sleep at around 23:00 or later when the deadline’s really near. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
Your mind tends to wander off when you’re drawing, and that’s where all the distractions come in. By far, the most successful method I’ve discovered to shut off distractions is by listening to a podcast or an audio book while working. For some reason, the brain can multi-task between drawing and listening to audio books, and this keeps your brain focused on both tasks at the same time, shutting out all the distractions. (Unfortunately, music doesn’t do it for me, because it’s passive listening.) Of course, you can’t listen to an audio book and write an essay or a story at the same time. That would just scramble your brain.
Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?
I remember a lesson from copywriting class during college where we were taught the creative process. One step is called marination. Let the idea soak in your head for a while. This means just stepping away from the task and wait for the eureka moment to come. Do something else completely unrelated to the task at hand until a bright idea comes, and when you return to it, you’ll be refreshed and would see things from a new perspective. Of course, this could be abused and be an excuse to procrastinate. Anyway, deadline is King and when a project is due, you’ll move heaven and hell to get the job done, burn out or not.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
got to have my pages exhibited alongside other local comic artists, renowned painters and sculptors (BenCab, Jose Joya to name a few) at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The Exhibit was called Musubitsuki: Japanese Images/Themes in Philippine Art. I was star struck the whole time.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
I’d have to say that my biggest failure would be that I haven’t elevated the status of Pasig (my comic book story) from a hobby to a full-time job. I know, deep down, that if I’d just focused on drawing and writing Pasig, I’d have an Intellectual Property that I can pitch to publishers, and maybe even TV networks etc. But reality always catches up with me and I need to get a day-job, and even side jobs, just to make ends meet. This ultimately ruins the “hobby” part since I hardly have the time to even draw for leisure these days.
Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?
I was lucky. By the time I graduated from college, a couple of friends invited me to draw comics for a company that their friend was creating. That turned out to be Culture Crash Comics. When CCCom folded, I was contacted by Seven Seas Entertainment, a US based manga company to draw an Original English Manga for them. I got onboard and worked for them
The best advice I could give people on this topic is 1. Be lucky, and 2. Have an online portfolio. Since we can’t do anything about number 1, let’s focus on number 2. There are tons of websites that offer free hosting for your artworks. I have a DeviantArt account, and that’s how the US client got a hold of me. Build your portfolio. Put only your best work. Scrap your WIPs and doodles. First impressions matter, especially when dealing with clients and fans alike. If you want to work for say, Marvel or DC, submit your portfolio. Some editors actually take the time to look at your stuff and even write a critique of your artwork’s weaknesses and strengths. Whether you get accepted or not, their response matters a lot because these are people who’ve worked for years in the business, so they know what they’re talking about.
If you are aiming to get your story published, that’s a whole new ballgame. Some publishers need a thorough convincing of the salability of your work. Some publishers only accept completed graphic novels. Some look for the next BIG thing. The best thing to do here is just send in your work to them. If you feel your work is at par, or even better than what they currently have on their shelves, then by all means, send it in. If you get rejected, kindly ask for a critique. At least you’ll have an idea on how to improve your next work, and maybe match the criteria by which the publishers choose the works that they publish.
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
The ultimate dream would be world domination, oh wait, that’s my other dream… I guess the big dream would be to have my work be recognized in the same vein as the golden age comics classics of the 1960s like Darna, Panday, and Captain Barbell. There’s no gameplan though. Just wishful thinking. 😀
Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?
Way back when I was in Culture Crash, it was mostly just keeping up with the team. Admittedly, I had the worst artwork among us during that time. Elmer was already in god-mode in terms of drawing, and Jio already had mad Photoshop skills. While I barely knew how a PC ran. James’ One Day Isang Diwa had the best story, and was a fan favorite, while I was just “winging” the story of Pasig. I needed to work harder to improve my comic. I guess you could say that competition brought out the best in me.
The best story ideas are stuff that personally happened to you. I cannot apply that to Pasig unfortunately, but in Kanto Inc. (a collaborative work co-authored by me and Joanah) we crammed in as much nostalgia in the comic as we could. We’ve tackled a wide range of topics, from ghost stories, folk Customs, oral traditions, 80’s pop culture, telenovelas, to current geek culture.
Q: What is your big “WHY”?
Art for me is a means of telling a story. It’s an expression of what the artist is thinking at the time of its creation, and reflects much of who he or she is. This is most true in comic books, so this is what I choose to convey with my story.
Ever since I started drawing comics on those folded bond papers way back in elementary, to my Culture Crash days, to the present, It felt really good whenever I saw my classmates, colleagues, or fans read my work, and get deeply involved in the story. For in that brief moment, when they’ve finished flipping through those pages, you’ve made an intimate bond with them, because you told them your story, and they listened.
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
Battle Angel Alita, Blade of the Immortal, and Mad Max.
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills?
Harley Brown’s Eternal Truths for Every Artist (sadly my copy got wrecked during Ondoy), Robert McKee’s Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting (you’ll never read or write a story the same way again… ever), How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (my first ever taste of a true tutorial. A must have!), Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics Book series, and the Writing Excuses Podcasts.
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
Somewhere with good air and zero internet connection but with a PC loaded with reference materials 😉
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
That would be a tie between Jim Lee and Hiroaki Samura. Could I pick half of the brains from each to form one big brain?
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills? (Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally.)
I guess that’d be my peers at Culture Crash Comics, James Palabay, Jio Beltran and Elmer Damaso. These are a bunch of guys with a single vision of producing top quality comic books for the Philippine Market, and nowhere else at a time when everyone was striving for a piece of the US market. We push each other’s skills, and teach each other new techniques we have learned. I remember whenever Elmer learned a new technique, or shortcut, in Photoshop, he would hum the Final Fantasy victory music and teach us ecstatically his new discovery.