Zona Cero by Faye Villanueva is a steampunk comic on the Philippine war against Spain, except that the countries are named differently, and there is also an element of fantasy involved. The story follows Antonio Malik, a teenage Ilustrado or upper class who lives in the huge archipelago of Intramuros (Luzon), a colony of Iberia (Spain).
It is 1892, and Intramuros has failed numerous times to conquer Manuvu, a big island fashioned after Mindanao which is known for its minerals that Intramuros needs to create weaponry. Intramuros has always used Aserong Soldado, or robot soldiers, to fight with Manuban warriors from the different tribes of Bagobo, Bilaan and Teduray. However, the robot soldiers are always defeated by the fearsome warriors.
Out of frustration, Intramuros decides to revive the Hidalgo, a legion of its best soldiers and famed for being unbeatable in battles. They start to recruit young men who will train to be the new Hildalgo, which includes Antonio, who enlisted after encouragement from his father.
WHAT I LIKED
First and foremost, Zona Cero is a comic book, and the story needs to be told in words as well as in pictures. In this aspect, Villanueva succeeds as the story flows with ease with beautifully-colored illustrations.
The storytelling keeps readers on the edge, with the right amount of suspense, drama and comic relief. Antonio as the main character is your typical hero who can do no wrong and possesses all the heroic virtues. Even when he was a proud Ilustrado, he mingled with the Indios, preferring their company than his own social class. His character is actually reminiscent of manga or anime heroes who are “chosen ones” with their above-human qualities, save for a few quirks.
The author also needs to be praised for her use of historical terms and attempt to use this in the new world she has created.
(Spoiler alert! Highlight succeeding text to read.) Creating a new world is difficult because you need to introduce how this world works. In this steampunk and fantasy take on events inspired by Philippine history, the main premise of a colonizer versus a colonized nation was retained but everything else was changed. Luzon was named to Intramuros, Mindanao to Manuvu, etc.
The steampunk and fantasy element added into this mix can also be too much to handle at times. While the story itself is simple enough to follow, you have to keep up with the different terms, titles and even names introduced at fast pace.
Last, there are panels where the drawings feel like they have rough edges or unpolished but to be fair, the quality of drawings remain consistent all throughout.
A lot of popular Philippine comics are often comedic in nature, and only a few, like Tepai Pascual’s Maktan 1521, dare to take on history as its topic. Zona Cero is notable in this sense because it is a brave gamble on the independent author’s part. If you want to read something different and be plunged into a steampunk-fantasy world of colonial Philippines, then Zona Cero is your bet. ☁