By Maureen Bautista | Banner design by Paulina Linarez

If you were asked to name any female character from a Filipino comic, who would that be?

Perhaps avid fans of the superhero genre or even people with limited knowledge of comics may mention names like Darna, Dyesebel or Varga. If it took you a while to answer, it’s perfectly understandable as there are noticeably more male leads compared to female leads, which has resulted in increased clamor for more female characters in our comics.

After the anime adaptation of “Trese” on Netflix garnered a worldwide audience, it has not only reignited our interest in comics, it also became an eye-opener to the imbalance between male and female characters. In “Trese After Dark,” the creators Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo say that this last-minute decision to have their detective protagonist be a woman instead of the typical tough guy archetype was a response to the male lead supremacy that still persists in the comic industry.

However, as far as bettering women representation in comics is concerned, is the call for an equally “strong” female character enough to resolve the gaps surrounding the matter? To be clear, this particular archetype is not bad per se, but to favor it solely may limit the possibilities of proper representation of women in comics—the same way misogyny and sexism have limited the possibilities of diversity in comics.

With comics being historically male-dominated, female characters are often highly sexualized such that their hourglass figures or skin-tight outfits, instead of their personalities, are highlighted. They often take the submissive or seductive role, clearly meant for a male audience as not only a form of amusement but also a reinforcement of a misogynistic mindset.

Thankfully, we have (mostly) gone past this trend thanks to feminists and creators speaking against gender stereotypes and vying for recognition of female comic writers. But, again, a more diverse representation of women will be at stake if our only solution would be to introduce more “strong” female characters. We want to represent women of various personalities, ages, sexualities, and cultures: their strengths, weaknesses, dreams, hopes, and fears. What we need is not necessarily a “strong” female character, but one that is complex and flawed and multi-faceted, someone women readers can relate to.

Design by Mavs Soriano
Take the protagonist of “Trese,” for instance. Alexandra Trese may be your typical female protagonist with a cold and badass persona, maintaining peace between the supernatural and mortal world as the Babaylan-Mandirigma. But what lies underneath is insecurity and the pressures of doing her job well amid the havoc caused by supernatural creatures. All of this added depth and dimension to her character, making her more relatable to women readers and viewers alike despite the fantasy setting.

Many female comic writers have emerged over the years to help diversify the portrayal of female characters, especially to show how modern women live their everyday lives and their struggles in the face of gender roles and beauty standards. Well, who can better portray women other than women themselves?

Here is a list of Filipino comics with female protagonists by female comic writers. We hope it can widen your perception of what it means to be a woman. This is not to limit yourself from these titles, but to invite you to check out other similar works!

1. Nagmamahal, Maria Clara by Marian Hukom (Penlab, 2020)

What would happen if Maria Clara was magically transported to modern day Manila? In Marian Hukom’s “Nagmamahal, Maria Clara,” Maria Clara De Los Santos, Clara for short, finds herself in a world where women can wear revealing clothing, work together with other men, and act in an “unladylike” manner. To her surprise and confusion, Clara learns that while Maria Clara is often regarded as the ideal model for Filipinas because of her purity, modesty, beauty, and elegance, it also carries a negative connotation.

In portraying this modern day Maria Clara, Hukom was careful to not fall trap to reductive dichotomies and simply create a character that is everything Rizal’s Maria Clara was not. “We wanted to center on her good qualities that could make her a modern day model for all Filipinas, so we retained how she was virtuous and dedicated to her beliefs [and] family. This can apply to both liberal or conservative lifestyles and could mend the chasm between the two [so as] to show that whatever lifestyle is okay as long as you’re true to yourself and you’re not hurting anybody,” says Hukom


Yet it was also important to subvert the Maria Clara stereotype, to question outdated qualities by rewriting them in a way that examined their roots: “We wanted to question outdated [qualities] like being demure, meek, obedient, and strictly religious. [These] traits turned into traditions that were passed with lack of thought and could constrict a person,” says Hukom.

While the Maria Clara in Rizal’s novel was helpless and submissive to her tragic fate, in Hukom’s comic, she was portrayed as strong-minded as she tries to navigate a society where feminism may be emerging but women are still being disrespected and sexually harassed. This balance of retaining and rewriting Maria Clara’s qualities, paired with careful consideration of context and human complexity, made for a nuanced portrayal of the iconic character.

“If it’s something you genuinely believe and find the good in though, that’s alright. As long as you’re not stepping on anybody. So in the comic we emphasized that and gave Maria Clara the freedom and choice to be herself while learning from her environment and the people around her,” Hukom adds.

2. Dead Balagtas Tomo 1: Sayaw ng mga Dagat at Lupa by Emiliana Kampilan (Adarna House, 2017)

History and science are intertwined to not only explain the creation of our lands but also to symbolize the relationship between pairs of characters, whose stories are divided into four sections starting with the myth of Tungkong Langit and Alunsina. This award-winning comic has captured the hearts of its readers and empowered the various voices of modern Filipino women, particularly through two of its stories.

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“Ang Daigdig” narrates how two close friends, Jonoel and Danica, who bonded over their mutual love for video games drift apart when the latter chooses to become a doctor, breaking their childhood promise to stay together. Meanwhile, “Lupang Hinirang” follows Dylan, a UP student activist, and her lover Anais, a factory worker struggling to make ends meet. In a time of class struggle and capitalism, the two women become each other’s strength amid all adversities.

3. There She Glows by Christine Silva (Penlab, 2020)

Silva’s heart-wrenching comic may only contain one chapter, but it speaks volumes about the pressure women face due to socially constructed beauty standards. The relationship between two Filipinas comes to a tragic end when one of them tries a popular beauty product called “The Glow.” It is advertised as an instant and permanent fix that reveals the “real you,” yet, paradoxically, it is actually a mask covering the face.

The product only gives her a moment of happiness as it is soon revealed to be radioactive, causing pain in her ovaries and her skin to glow too brightly. In “There She Glows,” Silva has exposed how beauty products have hurt women mentally and physically, teaching us that in a society that favors Western standards like white skin, we must remember that women’s bodies and appearance belong to them alone.

4. Itch by Mich Cervantes (2015)

“Itch” follows Aya Estrada, a thirteen-year-old girl attending an all-girls Catholic school who starts becoming more curious about her sexuality, but soon faces a dilemma as she lives in a conservative society rooted in Catholic values of chastity and purity.

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This insightful comic that explores such a taboo issue was created to be age-appropriate for teenage girls who remain confused about their sexuality. Without proper education on the matter, harmful misconceptions will persist. In “Itch,“ Cervantes tells us that a woman’s choice to abstain or act on her desires does not define her worth as a person.

5. UGH by Julienne Dadivas aka Hulyen (Haliya Publishing)

“Masama akong tao.” This is how Julienne Dadivas describes herself in the first page of “UGH,” a comic about her high school life. With candidness and humor, Dadivas turns her sad and embarrassing moments into a work that practically anyone, young girls especially, can relate to.

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As for the portrayal of women, this comic doesn’t shy away from depicting imperfections — body and personality-wise. Dadivas says, “I think I’m also trying to show an accurate portrayal of women in comics. Or something na based sa actual experiences ko. Gusto ko i-drawing yung mga babaeng weirdo, yung mga siraulo, mga di nagshe-shave ng body hair, mga nagmumura at naba-bad trip din sa mundo,” says Dadivas. In a society that controls a woman’s way of living, these imperfections should be accepted as something that makes them human.