Comic books

Q&A: Comic artist Josel Nicolas on ‘Windmills: Bearings,’ the 1st graphic novel published by UST

Marguerite de Leon

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Q&A: Comic artist Josel Nicolas on ‘Windmills: Bearings,’ the 1st graphic novel published by UST
'Don't make an epic. It's better to draw a hundred short works and understand how to tell a short story than a long one that becomes your ball and chain,' Nicolas advises budding comics creators.

MANILA, Philippines – Since 2006, artist Josel Nicolas has been making comics. From the beloved “Doc Brick” series on K-Zone magazine, to children’s comics anthology PIKO, to the 41st National Book Awardee Death be Damned, the 36-year-old Nicolas’ work is testament to the creativity and perseverance of today’s komikero.

His first book, Windmills: Bearings, is a compilation of the first six issues of his series Windmills, which he describes as a “slice-of-life autobiographical literary furry komik.” It also happens to be the first-ever graphic novel published by the University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House, and came out in late 2023.

In this Rappler interview, Nicolas shares his origin story as a comic book artist, the trials of getting his work published, and what budding comic artists should know before getting into the industry.

First thing’s first – for the uninitiated, is there a difference between komiks and comics? 

I think it’s my close friend and constant collaborator, Adam David, who started using “komiks” recently, and I just kinda piggybacked on it since we travel pretty much in the same circles. Personally I’m a huge fan of the ’70s underground comix movement started by Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar and other American comix stalwarts, so using the Pinoy “k” to denote PH komiks and komix just seems like a natural progression, but as far as any real delineation of what qualifies one’s work to be called komiks/komix, I’d say just comics produced for a Pinoy audience. Komiks with a “k” was already the norm back in the golden day of komiks. Even though the margins of what is mainstream and not mainstream here in the Philippine context is razor-thin, I think it’s just fun branding. Seems like that is something that one should be wary of in this day and age, to market and sell yourself in as few words as possible. 

How did you first get into doing comics?

My brother-in-law lent me Watchmen and Dark Knight as a high school freshman, which led me to read more comics. He was graduating as a med student so I bought him Gerry Alanguilan’s Wasted, which was my introduction to making komiks in a local setting. There was this interview in the back where he talked about how when he was reading an interview of Whilce Portacio (X-men artist) and he found out that Whilce was Filipino, it made him think that he could also make comics. Which made me think, oh Gerry is also Filipino, I’m Filipino, I can also make comics. There’s a repeated recursiveness in how things pan out in my life, which does entertain me a lot. I’m Filipino, I can also make comics.

The ethos of just doing, with the skills that you had at the time because you had an emotion and a story that you needed to get out, has carried me through pretty much through my high school, college, young adult, and adult years. This led me to find other personal works, like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Oliver Pulumbarit’s Lexy, Nance, and Argus (a seminal queer Filipino work, also serialized in Pulp Magazine). But apart from that, it was reading Sir Gerry’s blog and joining Komikon.

I want to encourage people to express themselves and not worry about if it’s any good or not, at least in the trial period where you are just starting. The idea of just doing regardless of audience has always appealed to me, but even as I try to reach more people right now with Windmills: Bearings, I want to keep some of that one-on-one personal connection with anybody who would care to buy my work.

The title of your book is “Windmills: Bearings.” Could you tell us the story behind this title?

Windmills as a whole, is a reference to Don Quixote. I have not read the actual novel, but I did grow up remembering a specifically terrifying public domain cartoon that was shown on IBC 13. Don Quixote is also a street next to where I lived in UST, that had a karinderya that I would eat at as a UST student. As I understand it, Don Quixote mistook windmills as giants to be slain, and it is the general idea of mistaking something mundane and common for something not just fantastical, but is out to hurt you, and so you run at it at full speed with your lance and trip and fall. Nearly every Windmills strip is just about me working from an assumption and proving that assumption to be wrong, and quieting down. 

Bearings, is because it’s another pun, which I used a lot in this book. To be honest, I think it’s the only one that really works, as it’s about finding where you are on your map.

You describe “Windmills” as a “slice-of-life autobiographical literary furry komik.” This definitely sounds different from the typical superhero-type comics known in the mainstream. Was getting an audience a challenge given that this kind of comic is not what Filipinos are used to? 

I made Windmills because I was making esoteric drug freak-out comix inspired by the underground movement. The comix were about Rico Yan and Kurt Cobain and the 27 Club, and John Wilkes Booth in a dreamscape. I decided that I wanted more of an audience, so I started drawing cute animals. With that said, none of the early strips scream marketable. Who knew existential dread and confusion would limit my reach! Walls of text and anxiety is a lot to ask of a young comic audience.

What was the best part of creating this book? What was the worst?

The best part was creating the book and the worst part is selling the book. It was originally published in 2015 and had been turned down by publishers before. If it wasn’t for the efforts of Professor Nerisa Guevara, I wouldn’t have gotten even a meeting with the publisher. There are so many people who will tell you your work deserves to be read and seen, but only a few will go to actual lengths to help you. She is one of those people. I am lucky to have her in my corner.

The book is old and it holds all of the thoughts of a younger me. I didn’t think this new edition would get a publisher; I really had given up on it. In truth I gave this to my publisher because it was the only book I knew I had complete ownership of. The story of the making of this edition is in the intro of the book, so you can read that. A lot of people helped me in proofreading the stories and seeing if they work, but I know that they are my stories; they happened to me for better or worse.

I think the best part is realizing that the me from 15 years ago is saving the me from now. That no matter how old and possibly outdated this book might be for the market, it’s still there. I’ve been trying to advocate for myself more, because it isn’t enough to just draw and write; you have to get yourself out there in a way that gets you your audience.

You are also a stand-up comic. Does this inform how you make comics, and the other way around? 

Well, Windmills was always supposed to be a comedy. It is a comedy to the people I originally made read (Mimi Johnson, a huge influence on me starting out as a writer and artist). At the very end of the book, during the break-up sequence, I do draw myself as doing stand-up comedy, but I hadn’t started then. I didn’t even know there was a stand-up scene here. It’s really something that in the years after doing the first edition of the book, I ended up just trying so hard to get away from making comics by being a shitty stand-up comic. The fact that I thought Windmills was ever a comedy says so much about how not a good stand-up comedian I am. Haha. Mid. But in a funny way, after the pandemic, when I started drawing visual aids onstage, it solidified my act. Trying to get away from being a comic book artist hampered my own comedy, and accepting it as a vital part of me actually unlocked my potential as a stand-up comedian.

What’s your advice to someone who wants to get into comics? 

  • Don’t make an epic. It’s better to draw a hundred short works and understand how to tell a short story than a long one that becomes your ball and chain. I started making autobiographical comics so I didn’t have to think of how to end stories. A cartoonist is a body of work, not just a specific book or strip.
  • It’s either you want to draw well, or you wanna tell a story. It’s the spectrum in between that you’re going to discover as you practice making comics. Drawing a stick figure and a fully realized anatomically correct human, you’ll find that one is definitely harder, but both can tell relatively the same story. So why not start out simple, and build from there?
  • Play with it. Either play with the form, the drawing, the writing, and the distribution. But to make something where the act in itself is rewarding and cathartic, that will help you through some very hard times, as cartooning isn’t exactly a lucrative profession. The best one can hope from being a cartoonist is to be relatively financially stable, not rich.
  • Read more than comics. The worst thing you can do for yourself is to limit your pool of influences to just comics. There’s a whole spectrum of art and literature you can gain influence from. There are hundreds of countries each with their own comics tradition to understand and respect. 
  • Drawing the same thing over and over again perfects it.


Windmills is available on the University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House’s Shopee page. Nicolas will be part of stand-up comedy show Leapin’ Laughs at Vault Greenhills on February 29.

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Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.