AJ Bacar: Comics, the Dogshow, and the Weird Mundanity of 'Multo Serye'
October 16, 2023
Allan Jeffrey “AJ” Bacar is first to poke fun at himself.
The comic artist's jokes often include the spiel that his Asian parents must be so proud of him: he is an electronics engineer, after all, who decided to quit corporate so he could create comics full-time.
The creator of Sskait that's behind the wildly popular web comics "Multo Serye," AJ shared half-jokingly in an interview with The Beat Asia that he left the engineering world so he could "draw cute stuff like dogs and cats and random clouds."
He has a lighthearted air to him, the type who likely laughs easily around strangers and doesn't take himself seriously at all times. This was evident in the way he chose what he wanted to study in college, which was influenced by one of the legendary cartoonists he looks up to. Or so he assumed.
"I thought Pol Medina [of] 'Pugad Baboy' [took] engineering... So, I thought, let's go engineering 'cause Pol Medina also did engineering and I'm a big fan," he explained.
Except, Medina was not an engineer... AJ would find out later that his idol, in fact, took up architecture.
"Well, I did pretty good with engineering 'cause I love math, I enjoyed everything that happened in college. It was the path I must take and it led me here. I did not take [an] art course that time because it never crossed my mind... Math 'yung parang na-e-enjoy ko, although I also love art, so no regrets, enjoy lang (I enjoyed Math, although I also love art, so no regrets, just enjoy," he said.
AJ earned his Bachelor of Science in Electronics Engineering degree with Honorable Mention from De La Salle University, where he also became editor of the arts and graphics section of the Filipino school publication "Ang Pahayagang Plaridel."
For a couple of years, he worked for a telco giant and started Sskait on the side in 2016, but while he reaped small and big wins at work and his passion project, he eventually had to decide where his fulfillment truly lay.
"It was a struggle because in the Philippines, it's hard to do art full time, to be honest. It's not really practical, you have to build your way to be comfortable..." he said.
"I had to check myself nasaan ba 'yung fulfillment ko (where my fulfillment was), saan ko ba nakikita 'yung sarili ko sa future (where I saw myself in the future). Then, it came to a point na okay, I have to do this, I have to decide. It was not quick, when I decided, alright, [but] I just have to trust my gut and jump. Of course, my parents were hesitant."
Now, his family are his biggest fans.
Sskait means "Siya, Sila, Kayo, Ako, Ikaw, Tayo" (He, She, They, You, I, We), aptly named so because AJ gets much of his material from his friends, coworkers, and pretty much all the people that surround him.
Most of his comic series, in fact, started out as jokes within his circle and were only meant to be random, one-off strips that eventually grew their own arms and legs.
"Nagsimula siya (it started out) as an innocent, one-shot na masayang dogshowin (that was fun to dogshow) [and] I got to the point na, wait, this is really getting good, I'll make a story out of it, and so isusulat ko na siya (I'll start writing it),” he said.
(“Dogshow,” in Filipino slang, roughly means to make a joke out of something or to tease or make fun of someone).
One of his earlier web comic series, "Man vs. Ipis" (Man vs. Cockroach), featured a man and a flying cockroach who took turns trading barbs and witty comebacks.
There's one series on a baby demon who, contrary to his nature, exhibited good manners and good deeds and was the source of his demon parents’ dilemma.
In another, a dog named Spike who'd write about the lives of his owners in a diary.
The stories are weird and mundane at once, relatable, and don't take much to digest. Most of AJ's storylines for his series aren't that deep – and this is his intention.
His authenticity as an artist lies in the intentionality of his craft and the kind of message he wants to put out. He grew up reading comics at a young age, from "Funny Komiks" and "Pugad Baboy" to "Garfield" and even "W.I.T.C.H." By age four, he was already making his own comic strips.
"Noong bata ako (when I was young), whenever I read comics, I feel that I'm being heard, na may kasama ako sa araw na iyon (that I am not alone). Naalala ko (I remember) when I read comics noong bata ako (when I was young), I get to share the experience with my brother, my ate (older sister), with my friends," he said.
It's the same feeling that he wanted to replicate with Sskait, which he started as a form of respite from the corporate grind that often left one uninspired, if not mentally depleted.
"I realize through the years as Sskait, I created my platform to be a breathing space kasi personally I did Sskait as my escape sa lahat ng ingay, gulo, (from all the noise and chaos)," he said. "Pag ginagawa ko to (whenever I do this), I feel solitude and peace. Ah, ako nag-dadrawing ako dito (I'm just drawing here), it's my own time, I can relax for a bit..."
"There's a lot of noise happening around, dami ring (a lot of) creators gumagawa diyan (who also create their own)... Some people [add] fuel to the noise, that's where they're happy. Me, this is my place, it's where I'm happy sa nagagawa ko na ganun (that I'm able to do what I do),” he added.
Even then, the comfort comics gave AJ as a young boy couldn’t be more palpable. And for something that is often thought of as a solipsistic activity – reading – comics also, ultimately, allowed AJ to reimagine the possibilities of community.
The Phenomenon That Is ‘Multo Serye’
At present, Sskait has almost 600,000 likes and around 680,000 followers on Facebook alone. While AJ has had his own share of loyal readers since the early years of Sskait, his huge following can be attributed to his pandemic-born series, "Multo Serye," which is also his most popular and longest-running one yet.
The premise was simple. And yes, it started out as a joke, too.
In Philippine culture, visitors of a wake often take a detour before going home to "pagpag" or shake off evil spirits or ghosts that may be following them. Convenience stores, like 7-11, often make popular pagpag spots for their, well, convenience.
"Multo Serye” dropped in October 2022, and its first scene begins with ghosts catching up on each other inside a 7-Evelyn store after being “shaken off,” not having the slightest inkling that the cashier, Evelyn, has a third eye and could see them.
As the story progresses, Evelyn and one of the ghosts, Oliver, develop a crush on each other and a series of amusing antics ensues.
The plot seems zany, but it is also ordinary. It’s difficult not to root for its characters, for their own personal experiences are struggles that rang true for many of Sskait’s readers. It isn’t perfect; sometimes the scenes suffer for being too on the nose, other times the jokes are corny, but “Multo Serye” provided the kind of relatability and reprieve that socially starved Filipinos on lockdown needed: frivolous landian (flirting), kilig, phallic eggplant and kalbo (bald) jokes, hugots, a love triangle, jealousy, pabebe moves, supportive and wholesome friendships, even serious themes like trauma and mortality – all of which carried nuggets of truth.
But it is also self-aware. For all its eggplant jokes, in fairness, “Multo Serye” emphasizes, for example, the importance of boundaries and consent from the get-go. Its comedic timing, too, through switching to a more "anime" art style to change a scene's mood is at once jarring and hilarious. “Multo Serye” gave readers a sense of comfort and community amid the health crisis – and a whole lot of joy.
At present, the series is still ongoing and seems to have no end in sight; AJ usually posts one comic strip a day or every few days for "Multo Serye" and said he follows for fun how netizens engage to see what direction the next strip could take.
What struck AJ the most about his stories, though, which he described as just "for the fun, for the dogshow," was the kind of reactions these would arouse from readers.
"Sometimes you just create stories for fun and these stories may look basic and simple. Nakakatawa siya (it's funny) but the ripple effect that I'm trying to do is when a reader reads the content of Sskait, it's something that they share [with] their friends or tinatag nila yung (they tag their) friends sa comment section. Then magrereply sila (they'll reply), 'Huy it's been a while, kamusta ka na? (How are you?).' It sparks a conversation and I think that's really beautiful [that] I was a medium to reconnect people,” he explained.
According to him, a simple “How are you?” can already be so meaningful for those who may be going through difficult times.
“People smile a lot, but you don't know what's happening in their life…” he added. "Pag nagiging (when you become a) medium ka of conversation or a way para mag-hi sa tao or makapag-hi kay crush (to say hi to another person or your crush)... I think that’s really beautiful, and it adds so much value [to the] daily [lives] ng mga tao (of people)… It's so simple [that] it's so powerful and it's really nice."
Onwards for Ssskait
When AJ resigned from his engineering job and could finally focus on comics, he thought he could handle everything because he now had all the time in the world to draw. But living the dream doesn't mean every day would be effortless.
"Bakit napapagod ako? (Why am I getting tired?) I ask myself, bakit ko nafi-feel to? Ginagawa ko naman yung gusto ko eh (why do I feel this way? I'm doing what I've always wanted to do). It was my childhood dream and I'm living the dream, I'm doing comics," he shared.
It was crucial, he said, to check his own boundaries and know when to pause. Even he is not immune from the creative blocks that artists suffer from.
"Feeling mo kaya mo lahat pero tao ka lang (you think you can do everything but you’re only human), so you should find the time to take a breather..." he said. "Mga overachievers tayo (we’re overachievers), we try to always get the best out of ourselves and we want to burnout ourselves because of the expectations [we set] for ourselves."
"Our greatest enemy is ourselves kasi nasanay tayong mag-over excel, mag-overachieve (because we're used to over excelling and overachieving). It's nice [pero] kapag sobra (but if you go overboard), that's detrimental to our mental health."
He does have big dreams for his art, and for someone who joked throughout the interview, AJ took a serious tone when he talked about his ambitions for Sskait.
"I worked with a vision, sabi ko gusto ko maging next Disney ng Pilipinas or Marvel ng Pilipinas, in terms of storytelling and animation. I have that big goal in mind but I'm working my steps slowly up there… I'm trying to work in a way [where] as much as possible na ‘pag nawala ako kaya niyang mag- continue (if I pass, it can continue).”
It was the pandemic’s effect that people spent more time online and this worked in AJ's favor as he created comics that people could easily have access to. He admitted he's still far from the kind of life where his art can be a lucrative source of income. He does sort of okay financially and works with brands who are also fans of Sskait and through this practical work, he's able to sustain his needs. He also sells Sskait merch, which includes mugs, shirts, stickers, and his signature eggplant plushie.
"I actually do Sskait without the money in mind. Kapag ginagawa ko 'yung comic, wala namang pera diyan (when I do the comics, there's no money there). 'Yung mga tao, magkano kinikita mo pag nag-u-upload ka? Wala (people ask, how much do you earn when you upload posts? Nothing)," he said. "I started Sskait, wala, masaya lang mag drawing hanggang ngayon (when I started Sskait, nothing, it was just fun for me to be able to draw then until today)."
Facebook introduced "Stars on Reels" to the platform in 2022, which has made it simple for users to support creators through their live broadcasts and videos. One Star from a fan equates to one cent earned from Meta, although AJ shared that what he receives there is just a perk.
"[It’s] not something big na kayang bayaran yung bills ko (that can pay my bills). It's a form of appreciation from the readers, I love that, thank you very much. Does it pay my bills? Pang-milk tea siguro (maybe for milk tea),” he said.
“It's their way of giving thanks for the years that I've helped them. I'm happy and grateful to get that praise in some form."
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