Comics Review: The Other Half by Mervin Malonzo & Noel Pascual; The Friendzone by by Mervin Malonzo & Noel Pascual
Disclaimer: These titles are carried by the retail store I manage for the day job.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
When we talk about stories, each phase of the narrative is important. If the reader gives up due to an unengaging opening, then it does not matter how fulfilling the ending might be. Similarly, a horrible ending can undo all the successful buildup you’ve accomplished so far. When talking about The Other Half and The Friendzone, what I’m interested in discussing is how the comic’s ambition—and pitfall—falls under the latter category, especially when the work is overtly horror. Alternatively, it can also be a question of execution, and even the most meticulously-planned narrative can fail because authorial intent does not match the reader’s perceptions.
The Other Half and The Friendzone are two comics of what is to be a trilogy in a series called Shiver, Jangle and Spin, a tribute to the series of Filipino horror films Shake, Rattle, and Roll. In many ways, the said movie has deeply influenced the work of Noel Pascual, whose other comic, Crime-Fighting Call-Center Agents, directly alludes to it. Of the two, The Other Half reminds me of Pascual’s roots, because in many ways, he’s trying to replicate his success with Crime-Fighting Call-Center Agents in the sense that he’s attempting to deconstruct a common Filipino trope, while still telling a competent horror story. In this case, it’s the often-used manananggal, and Pascual’s mouthpiece is one of the children in the story, who points out the ludicrousness of a monster who splits from their bottom half. Throughout the entire narrative, we’re propelled by Mervin Malonzo’s art, which provides a distinct style and atmosphere to the story. And whereas he’s had success with his iconic art in Tabi Po, he goes for a darker color palette and ambience in these two comics. The Other Half feels like the more polished comic, especially in the scenes where images of the manananggal is juxtaposed with the reactions of our protagonists—a scenario that wouldn’t be as effective in a non-visual medium. And for the most part, The Other Half hooked me until I reached the penultimate page, and this is where the role of endings come into play.
Both The Other Half and The Friendzone requires a certain suspension of disbelief from the reader. Without it, it simply fails. In the case of The Other Half, what we’re supposed to feel is this realization of narrowly missing a tragedy, that it could have ended so terribly for the protagonist if it weren’t for some quirk of fate. And if that’s how readers feel about the comic, then congratulations to Malonzo and Pascual. But for me, the penultimate page provokes plot holes rather than that particular epiphany. Why would the adults not pause to check what they ran into? Why is it contrived that the protagonist would see what the others should have also seen? For me, it comes down to either a failure in execution, or the inability to sustain and juggle both the deconstructing elements of the story and the atmosphere of horror, with the former sabotaging the latter instead of supplementing it.
The Friendzone, on the other hand, is a different kind of deconstruction, and had the potential to be superior of the two. The story deals with the contentious term “friendzone” as a boy tries to win over his romantic prospect, who merely considers him a friend. It’s a problematic—but common—premise and it ends the way you think it would end. But before I tackle the ending, The Friendzone is hampered by several other factors.
What’s brilliant with the art of The Friendzone is how a lot of the pages follow a 12-panel structure, with Malonzo making use of both the visible and invisible borders. However, the art falters on two occasions. The first—which requires a bit of buy-in from the reader—is the McGuffin of the piece. The love potion in this instance is a pearl-like substance that the female protagonist is supposed to swallow, and it goes with her cake. It’s really not clear what this substance is: is it a piece of Mentos? A marshmallow? Darna’s magic stone? The second problem, and is the larger art issue, is Neena’s transformation scene. Once she swallows the magic pearl, Malonzo goes for a stylistic attempt at showcasing her transition. The problem is that once it’s over, it’s not clear what happened. A few pages later, the reader will come to realize that Needa has been shrunk, but ideally this should have been immediately evident. Maybe there needed to be more establishing shots, maybe the page was too cramped, or maybe the dialogue could have conveyed it better. But either way, there’s this level of vagueness that shouldn’t have been there, and is a stark contrast to the transparency of Malonzo’s art in The Other Half.
These problems, however, are forgivable and minor, compared to the crux of The Friendzone’s main issue: the ending. It’s clearly written with the male gaze in mind, and undeserved, especially when you consider what happens earlier in the comic. Pascual’s thesis is that if a boy tricks you into eating a magic stone that shrinks you, puts your life in danger, and in the end, eats you to protect you, you’ll fall in love with him. And the greater tragedy is that had the comic ended a few pages earlier, it would have been a truly horrific story that’s true to the characters and deconstructing the patriarchal concept of the friendzone: you have a female protagonist who realizes that her friend is in love with her, but knows it won’t work out; and you have a male protagonist whose folly places both their lives in danger, and in a desperate attempt to save the person he loves, consumes them. It’s an ending that works on multiple levels, presents some ambiguity for the reader, and ends on a high note. Instead, The Friendzone jolts the reader with its plot hole and succumbs to wish fulfillment that perpetuates the misognystic status quo.
Malonzo and Pascual have an out when it comes to The Friendzone, but if so, it requires a mental leap that’s not readily apparent—and if that was the intention, the comic fails because of its inability to clearly convey these ideas. The female protagonist, throughout the entire story, has agency: even after consuming the McGuffin, she is able to aptly judge her situation, and even reject the advances of her friend. That’s why the ending stings, because after everything she’s been through, she goes for the decision that seems the least organic. On the other hand, if Malonzo and Pascual are presenting that prior to the ending, her facilities have been debilitated, then that fact isn’t clear, and somewhat undermines the entire point of the narrative, which attempts to present a compelling argument to fall in love with your best friend. If it is simply going to be resolved with a magical handwave that robs our protagonist of culpability, then why go through the process of showing us the secret of the magician’s magic trick if it does not employ logic or reason?
The tragedy of both The Other Half and The Friendzone is that the seeds for brilliance are there, but the lack of refinement at critical moments robs them of opportunities for delightful ambiguity, and instead creates a narrative that is jarring and can be misconstrued for something else. The journey was enjoyable, but the endings of these comics undoes the good will that was earned, and only serves to highlight their shortcomings.