This Toronto artist learned English from comic books - now he's the force behind DC series 'Trinity'

Growing up in Scarborough and born in the Philippines, Francis Manapul perfected his English inside the DC universe with the likes of Superman and Batman as his teachers. Now he's drawing his own life into the comic books

'It was an opportunity for me to say the things that I couldn't say in person,' Francis Manapul says

Growing up in Scarborough, Philippines-born Francis Manapul perfected his English with the comic books his parents bought him. Now he's creating them as an artist with DC comics. ((David Donnelly/CBC))

Growing up in Scarborough, Ont., the child of immigrant parents, Philippines-born Francis Manapul perfected his English inside the DC universe with the likes of Superman and Batman as his teachers.

His parents — his mother, an interior designer, and father, a writer and broadcaster — figured there could be a no more exciting draw to reading than comic books.

They didn't know it then, but Manapul was learning much more than reading from those superheroes and villains — and years later, he'd be writing his own words to go into their mouths.

Manapul told CBC Radio's Fresh Air, he and many others he grew up with were looking for their ticket out of their modest lifestyle.

"You can get out of these kinds of situations by playing basketball," he'd think to himself. But at his height, being a baller wasn't for him. Besides, art was his passion.

'I just stuck with it'

So he put pencil to paper and decided he'd make a living out of drawing, putting together a portfolio even as the industry seemed to be taking a turn for the worst. Artists were leaving Marvel and DC en masse, but Manapul couldn't shake his love for comic books and kept at it.

"Even when the money went away, I really fell in love with the medium. I fell in love with the art of storytelling," Manapul said. "So I just stuck with it."

It paid off.

Manapul's work got noticed, drawing the attention of DC Comics. At first he worked more on secondary characters, but before long went on to work on Necromancer, Tomb Raider, Sept Guerrieres, The Darkness and eventually, The Flash.

As much as the epic battles and larger-than-life characters thrilled him, Manapul felt something was missing. Characters that reflected young people like him were far from represented in the comic book cast.

So in his very first arc of The Flash, he created a villain of Filipino background. The choice to make him a villain, he says, was a deliberate one to make sure he was equal in stature to The Flash, instead of having to stand as a supporting character.

A connection to the craft

"Part of breaking that ceiling is making that feel like the norm rather than, 'Oh it's diversity being forced upon us,'" he said. "I don't like saying it, but you have to do it slowly."

It was a moment he could have only dreamt of as a kid. But a few years later, his connection to the craft would grow even more personal.

Around the second issue of Trinity, Manapul's father died. The two had a strained relationship and Manapul hadn't seen him in over 10 years.

"For complicated reasons, I didn't want to be anything like my father," he said, largely why he chose to stay away from writing for most of his life.

"But I realized that naturally as I was going through my own career, I suddenly had a need to write and I realized I was becoming more like him."

Much had been left unsaid over the years and Manapul didn't have the chance to say all that he'd wanted to his father.

'Like everything I did before was hollow'

So, he decided the driving force of his new book would be family, putting the words he couldn't say aloud to his father into the mouth of Clark Kent, a new father in the issue, not unlike Manapul himself.

"It was the first time in my career I think that I wrote something that was really honest," he said.

"It was an opportunity for me to say the things that I couldn't say in person because it was too late. … It made me feel like everything I did before was hollow."

What was an extremely personal move paid off, Manapul says, eliciting a great response from readers who seemed to strongly relate to the real-life narrative.

"Most books, like let's say Justice League...a big threat shows up, they team up, and they fight them. That's the story."

This time, Manapul became a hero in his own.

With files from Eli Glasner