The supernova that was Nick Manabat
by rick olivares
Imagine meeting comic book superstar artist Jim Lee for the first time ever in your life. Either you stammer and finally manage a weak, “Hi,” ask him to sign your X-Men and Batman comics, or even have a picture taken with him. It could even be all three.
However, for Nick Manabat who was at that time staying at the San Diego home of Whilce Portacio, Lee’s co-superstar artist, his icebreaker was, “Can you help figure out how to work the microwave oven?”
It is hilarious. An unknown anecdote in the short life of Nicolas Manabat who led the second Filipino invasion of the American comic book scene in the early 1990s. However, that is pretty much up to par with Nick who his father, Alex, describes as “unconventional and extremely low-key.”
“From the time that he inherited his older brother Robert’s comic book collection, Nicky fell in love with the medium,” recalled the father during a conversation at their home after this past Christmas. “He was already into art and while in school in Australia where he grew up, he was oft asked to draw things or prepare the props for plays. Anything that involved art and creating something, Nicky was involved.”
After Manabat won first prize in an art competition sponsored by Filbar’s comic book store to coincide with Portacio’s triumphant Philippine homecoming following stellar runs on The Punisher, X-Factor and Uncanny X-Men, he received an offer from Homage Studios to work as an apprentice in what was then the hottest den of artists in all comicdom.
“This guy could be the next comic book superstar,” recounted Alex of Lee’s comments after he went over his son’s portfolio with Portacio.
At that time, Homage Studios had just left Marvel Comics to co-found Image Comics. From a small studio that initially included Lee, Portacio, inker Scott Williams and painter Joe Chiodo, it had grown by leaps and bounds to include Marc Silvestri, J. Scott Campbell, Scott Clark, Aron Wiesenfeld, Trevor Scott, Ryan Benjamin, David Wohl, and Michael Heisler to name a few of the hot artists of that time. “And my Nicky was a part of that,” beamed Alex.
“My family couldn’t believe it,” expounded Mr. Manabat of the golden ticket handed to his son. “He was going to do comic books in America and was going to be paid at least $36,000 a year (at that time the exchange rate would peg his basic income at a gross of PhP 972,000)! It was like a storybook dream come true for Nicky, and of course, our family.”
Nick initially worked on designs for Portacio’s first creator-owned book, “Wetworks” that featured a military special operations team that was bonded with symbiotes that enabled them to battle supernatural foes. As the launch of the book was postponed to various non-publication issues, Lee pulled out the then 22-year old artist for another project that turned out to be “The Cybernary;” hence, that initial awkward meeting at Portacio’s home where the young Fil-Australian asked the man who drew the biggest selling comic book of all time (X-Men #1) how to operate a microwave oven.
“Both Jim and Whilce saw Nick’s potential,” narrated Alex. “Whilce even told me that they all expected the comics that Nick would work on to be best sellers.”
Nick’s American comics debut was in the pages of Deathblow (Jim Lee’s comic about a black ops soldier) in February 1993 where he drew the back-up story, “The Cybernary,” that was about a criminal who exchanged her life for a colleagues and was turned into a cybernetic warrior.
That initial nine-page Cybernary story (written by co-creator Steven Gerber whose claim to comic book fame was that he created Howard the Duck for Marvel) immediately drew raves as fans compared his dark and moody art to Phillipe Driullet, Simon Bisley, and H.R. Giger. And in the letter columns, fans seemed to take more to The Cybernary than the book’s main feature, Deathblow.
Nick followed that up by turning in some fantastic pages for the “Wetworks Sourcebook” and a Cybernary chromium trading card for Wizard magazine. “He was also given a script of ‘Stormwatch” to work on,” added the father.
“Incredibly, Nicky never had any formal art training,” revealed his father. “He just drew a lot. And he consumed a lot of sketchbooks not to mention pens. One time he would lay down on the ground and held his hand up like he was blocking out the sun and I asked him what he was doing. He answered, ‘I’m trying to look at what it would look like from this angle so I can draw it properly.’”
“He made use of heavy inks,” added Mr. Manabat who had previously lived in Hong Kong where he manufactured children’s toys. “But he had to unlearn that later on so if you noticed his work on the ‘Wetworks Sourcebook’ and ‘The Cybernary #4,’ it was lighter and made for better coloring.”
A perfectionist, Nick spent long hours at his work station. “He was such a perfectionist that if he didn’t like something in his sketchbook, he’d tear it out and throw it away,” recalled his father. “I heard from the Homage guys (that later became Wildstorm Studios) that the other artists would race to the garbage bins to recover Nicky’s discards and take them home as mementoes.”
Being a newbie with not much of a portfolio in comics, the young Manabat did not have a table in the artists’ alley in the San Diego Comic Convention of 1994. But he did join his Wildstorm mates behind the table. When he spotted British painter Simon Bisley who had such a massive influence on his style, Nick said, “I need to get his autograph.” And he did.
“He was extremely happy to be where he was,” noted Nick’s father. “We had to reassure him that he belonged because didn’t think he was good enough. Here is a guy who was so used to living in Australia (for 17 years of his life) that during a trip to SM North EDSA, he went there barefoot. I told him this isn’t Australia, son. But Nicky was like that – very unconventional.”
Not soon after, Nick fell ill and when brought to UCLA’s Medical Center, he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue. “Nicky had not been feeling well for sometime but he never complained,” said Alex Manabat. “By the time we brought him to the hospital, the doctors informed us that the cancer metastasized. There was nothing we could do.”
While Nick was at the hospital, the first solo limited series for “The Cybernary” was released with artist Jeff Rebner taking on the artist’s chores. In the cover for that first issue, cover dated November 1995 but released two months earlier, Rebner paid tribute to Manabat by scribbling: “For Nick.”
And ironically, Nick Manabat passed away on the 5th of November 1995 barely two months after his 25th birthday. He was cremated and his remains brought back to Australia.
Today, 22 years after Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio offered Nick Manabat a contract, Filipino creators are continuously making waves in the American comic book scene. Some like Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and Jay Anacleto to name a few who came up the ranks along with Nick, have become stars in their own right. A new host of talented creators are also drawing raves for their work as well while the local independent scene is alive and teeming with talent.
Once in a while, Alex Manabat, who to this day is still in the toy business, drops by the comic book stores to have a look around. He doesn’t buy comics anymore but looks around and periodically checks out the kiddie shows on television to see what is popular and in vogue. “If Nicky were alive today, I know he’d be in the thick of things. And he will be loving every minute of it because he would be living every kid’s dream. This time with a lot of other people.”
Author’s Note: In the third paragraph, I mentioned Nick at the helm of the second Filipino invasion of American comics. The first was in the 1960s when DC Comics editors Carmine Infantino and Joe Orlando went to the Philippines and signed up artists such as Tony DeZuniga, Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, Rudy Nebres, and Steve Gan to name a few to work on American comics. Whilce Portacio came up almost by himself in the late 1980s where he drew raves and attention for his Japanese-style art.