To say that Darna is a cultural and feminist icon is a gross understatement.
Darna, first created by noted Komiks creators Mars Ravelo and Nestor Redondo in 1950 as a retooling of Ravelo’s “Varga” character, was every bit the quintessential superheroine: tall, strong, beautiful. Depicted as a paragon of strength and virtue, Darna eventually found life beyond the humble pages of the komiks she starred in, eventually becoming the star of 14 feature films, three TV series, and even a major ballet production.
Despite this, one major critique has always hounded the character: she doesn’t really look all that Filipino. Looking at the character through her various live-action mainstream incarnations, this becomes even more obvious, with a majority of actresses who have portrayed her practically lifted from the mestiza mold: fair-skinned with Patrician noses, fine-featured, and yes, conventionally beautiful.
Local comicbook publisher Mango Comics attempted to correct this when it rebooted the character in a 2003 mini-series as a college-age student: morena, athletic, and more strikingly Filipino. But while this morena incarnation of the character won a National Book Award during its short run — it soon found itself in the backburner, as local entertainment executives found it more profitable to push for conventionally beautiful mestizas as potential Darnas.
So when artist Jem Bernaldez posted the rejected images of a Darna comic that was supposed to be released in conjunction with the upcoming movie, the online reaction was monumental — and that’s putting it lightly.
Morena, curly-haired, dressed in a costume that’s not pandering to the male gaze, and unapologetically Filipina, the rendition of the character was something that’s never been seen before — at least locally — and the public wanted more. Illustrators Rob Cham, Cy Vendivil, and Rian Gonzales, seeing the reaction to Bernaldez’s images, initially thought about creating a fanzine but later decided to open the project online for other fans to participate in.
“So @rianbowart and @cyanroll were suggesting a fanzine but we also figure hey we could just have it be online and just post art of their own takes on Darna” Cham said in a tweet, adding that it was Bernaldez who helped coin the hashtag #SigawDarna.
And #SigawDarna, the people did.
From punk-rock vocalists, to non-binary heroes, to mecha-piloting schoolgirls to indigenous warrior women, new iterations of the quintessential Filipina superheroine soon popped up online, each one a unique representation of what fans of the character wanted to see, or felt was underrepresented in the mainstream media’s take on the character, similar to what Western audiences are currently seeing with their heroines: Miss Marvel is now a teenage Pakistani-American Muslim, Barbara Gordon’s donning a more practical and tactical suit as the Batgirl of Burnside, and Kate Bishop’s doing a pretty impressive ongoing run as Hawkeye.
Critics of the #SigawDarna movement — yes, there are quite a number of them online — say it’s nothing more than a collective social justice warrior-tinged temper tantrum, and that there’s nothing wrong with the traditionally mestiza and sexy Darna and its support and continued existence in popular media. They’re wrong.
Former Women’s Center staffer Prachi Kochar says it best in her 2018 essay Who Gets To Be A Superhero: “Even though issues like comic books or video games may seem trivial, media can be very significant in shaping the way that we perceive the world around us, other people, and ourselves” she writes, adding: “…Media can also become a platform through which marginalized people can express our voices and experiences. The diversity of comic book creators is an integral part of any conversation about diversity in comic books.”
For many decades now, Darna has always been looked at as a symbol of strength, of virtue, and by extension, an aspirational representation of our identity as Filipinos — and it’s high time she started to actually look like one. #SigawDarna is one good start.
Here are some of our favorites:
(Cover image by Borg Sinaban @borgdraws)