Join us as we muse on how a once-obscure Filipino martial art gained international exposure in comics and comics-based films.
As a lifelong comics reader, a fan of combat sports, and as somebody with a slightly more-than-casual interest in the martial arts, one of the developments in popular media that I’ve found quite intriguing in recent years is just how prominent depictions of the Filipino martial art eskrima have become in comics, film, and television outside the Philippines. DC Comics’ Nightwing is perhaps the most popular fictional practitioner of the fighting style in comics and many of the most popular action-oriented comic book movies of the past fifteen years have incorporated eskrima techniques in their fight choreography.
But what exactly is eskrima?
Eskrima (from the Spanish term for fencing, esgrima), alternatively spelled as escrima and known by other names such as arnis, kali, or the more generic FMA (Filipino Martial Arts) is a catch-all term for the traditional martial arts of the Philippines, which place an emphasis on stick-fighting and the use of bladed weapons alongside unarmed combat techniques—one of the particular features of eskrima is that the basic motions and principles for armed and unarmed combat are the same, varying only in terms of range. The historical origin of the martial art and even the etymology of its various names is a matter of occasionally contentious debate in certain circles, with regional biases and the usual distortions of fact and outright fabrications that accompany the oral history of traditional martial arts adding to the difficulty in extracting verifiable accounts from the few reliable written records dating from the country’s pre-colonial era. There is the thesis that eskrima is a syncretic fighting system based on indigenous Filipino armed and unarmed close combat fighting techniques fortified with influences from Spain’s Destreza school of fencing, Andalusian knife-fighting, Indonesian silat, and the Southern Chinese fighting arts brought by the Chinese diaspora to Southeast Asia.
As a “living” martial art however, eskrima is subject to on-going evolution and adaptation, its various schools absorbing elements from diverse sources, traditional and modern, Filipino or otherwise; its descendant arts responding to pressures both practical and theoretical. As such, any reasonably accurate definition of eskrima is bound to be in a constant state of flux and what could be said to be true of the art in the past and today may not necessarily be so in the future.
Besides being a component of the current public school physical education curriculum in the Philippines—check out this video of a high school kid displaying real impressive doble baston (“double stick”) form—as well as the country’s law enforcement and military training regimen, principles and concepts drawn from eskrima have found their way to the programs of instruction taught at the FLETC, the US Border Patrol Academy, and the US Army Combatives School in Fort Benning.One of the earliest references to the Filipino martial arts in a mainstream comic book can be found in Marvel Comics’ The G.I. Joe Order of Battle #2 (January, 1987), where the dossier written by Larry Hama for the character Torpedo states that he is an expert in the use of the balisong. An in-story reference to the Filipino martial arts would appear three years later in a back-up feature (“Punisher’s Fighting Techniques”) in The Punisher Annual #3 (June, 1990):
The feature, written by self-defense instructor Roger Salick with art by Mark “TEX” Texeira, shows the Punisher trapping his assailant—incidentally armed with a balisong—with a highly stylized (if somewhat inaccurate) depiction of an eskrima trapping/disarming move called gunting (“scissors” in Filipino and Indonesian/Malay) and its transition to elbow and knee strikes. Compare the sequence above with the video demonstration below by FMA guro Dan Inosanto and (a very young) Jeff Imada:
Various comics superheroes have appeared over the years equipped with weapons and fighting styles coincidentally reminiscent of the doble baston forms of eskrima—Marvel’s Daredevil, Shang-Chi, and Night Thrasher among them—but technically, the first mainstream comics character to be explicitly acknowledged by its creator as an eskrima practitioner is Grail, from Whilce Portacio‘s action-horror series Wetworks that began publication under the Image Comics banner in 1994:
Later that same year, DC writer-editor Scott Peterson and artist Brian Stelfreeze found themselves with an interesting quandary: how to present the then-paraplegic Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Oracle) in Showcase ’94 as a more action-oriented character. As Peterson recalled in an August 2011 post on the DC Women Kicking Ass blog:
It would be in 1995 that comics would get its most visible eskrima practitioner, however. Following the events of the “Prodigal” storyline in the Batman comic book, Nightwing (a.k.a. Dick Grayson, the original Robin) received a self-titled mini-series wherein the character got a costume and design makeover. While the series was illustrated by Greg Land, the new costume and prop designs were created by Brian Stelfreeze who, taking a cue from his experience redesigning Barbara Gordon for Showcase ’94, gave Nightwing eskrima sticks as well:
[Showcase '94] was, after all, a superhero comic book, so we needed some action. And [Barbara Gordon] had been a superhero with the capes and the tights and the mask and all that, and it just seemed to us that someone with the kind of drive to do what it took to be a superhero would do whatever she could, even without the use of her legs.
So we talked to Kelley Puckett, a black belt, about what kind of fighting techniques someone in her situation could master. Escrima, he said. A Filipino martial art, one of the features of escrima is using sticks to fight, sticks which rely more on speed than sheer strength—although we figured her arms were probably stronger than ever by now. So an escrima master she quickly became. And in one of my favorite twists, her skill with the sticks was so impressive, so cool, that when Nightwing’s costume was redesigned a few years later—by none other than Brian Stelfreeze—young Dick Grayson also started to make prominent use of the escrima sticks.
The incorporation of eskrima as a permanent fixture of the character’s design is all the more impressive given how resistant the superhero comics genre can be to significant and lasting change. (The same cannot be said for Barbara Gordon however, as she was reverted to her old Batgirl persona with DC’s “New 52″ initiative.)
Eskrima would become something of the trademark martial art of the extended “Bat-family” over the years: Stephanie Brown would adopt eskrima sticks as her weapons during her stint as Batgirl, ex-Robin Jason Todd, in the guise of the villain/anti-hero the Red Hood, would take to wielding a kris, a weapon associated with the eskrima variants originating in the island of Mindanao as well as Indonesian silat, and the “New 52″ Earth-Two version of Batman using paired eskrima sticks as his weapons of choice.The depiction of eskrima in comics is not limited to the superhero genre. In a brief online conversation I had with Arvid Nelson a few years ago, the writer revealed that the knife-fight scenes in his alternate history graphic novel Zero Killer were staged and choreographed based on his knowledge of arnis (click here to see comparisons of the reference photos he used and artist Matt Camp’s work). Nor is the depiction of eskrima in comics outside of the Philippines limited to Western publications. Rinka Urushiba—the platinum-haired protagonist of Hajime Segawa’s Tokyo ESP superhero-deconstruction shōnen manga—is an eskrima adept, using twin collapsible batons as her weapons of choice. Similarly, Kaoru Inoue, the protagonist in Yaku Haibara’s manga adaptation of the popular Japanese police drama SP: Security Police is based on a character that is portrayed as an expert in eskrima. Boy band member and actor Junichi Okada, who played Kaoru on TV, is actually a certified FMA instructor who also served as an uncredited fight consultant on the show.
No discussion of eskrima in comics would be complete without a mention of former Amazing Spider-Man, Savage Sword of Conan, and Conan the Adventurer artist Rafael Kayanan. The Filipino-American illustrator—who has also worked as a fight choreographer on the 2003 film The Hunted (starring Benicio del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones), a trainer in the George Clooney-produced Sam Rockwell-vehicle Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), and a fight advisor on the TV series NCIS: Los Angeles—is a high-ranking instructor of the Sayoc school. Below is a video showing the fight scene storyboards for the film The Hunted based on Tom Kier and Kayanan’s fight choreography:
But if eskrima has carved out a distinct niche in comics alongside popular martial arts staples such as ninjutsu, kung-fu, and karate, it has probably gained even wider adoption in the fight choreography of superhero/comic book-based films and action films in general. Fight choreographer and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada—you may remember him as Dan Inosanto’s baby-faced training partner in this article’s first embedded video above—whose work in The Bourne Trilogy has done for eskrima-based fight choreography’s popularity in film what Stelfreeze’s Nightwing re-design has done for the martial art’s profile in comics, has worked as a fight choreographer and stunt coordinator on superhero and/or comic book-based films such as The Crow (1994), Blade (1998), Daredevil (2003), and The Green Hornet (2011).
The Blade Trilogy also features some fight choreography based on highly-stylized eskrima, with the first two films featuring fight design by Jeff Ward and the third film’s fight training and scenes being overseen by Chuck Jeffreys, a multi-system martial arts expert certified by Dan Inosanto as an FMA instructor.
Other comic book films like Punisher: War Zone (2008) and Kick-Ass (2009) also feature some recognizable FMA-style fight sequences to a limited degree.
Filipino martial arts formed the basis of the fighting style used by the Spartans in the film adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel 300. Fight choreographer Damon Caro (a student of Dan Inosanto) reasoned in a production journal [Quicktime plug-in required] that since no detailed records of the ancient Spartans’ fighting system have survived to the present-day, the best way to recreate a plausible, stylized facsimile of it for a commercial film would be to use an extant weapons-oriented system like eskrima, along with silat and Thai krabi krabong, to inform the film’s fight design.Setting aside the notion of personal martial arts style preferences in our discussion, I surmise that the appeal of eskrima in comics and film is rooted primarily in the need by both the artist or director/choreographer and the reader or viewer for clarity in the visual storytelling of close quarters combat. The silhouette of a character armed with sticks, knives, or short swords is quite distinct and the use of melee weapons in depictions of fighting exaggerates intent, motion, momentum, and impact, making fight scenes “read” or “scan” more easily. Additionally, the rather straightforward approach of armed and unarmed techniques in eskrima—with some exceptions, most schools eschew the use of awkward and complex stances and attacks that require extreme levels of conditioning and bodily contortion—places it in the broad “happy medium” between the poles of sloppy brawling on one end and intensely stylized, rigging-dependent, wuxia-inspired “wire-fu” on the other, making it ideal for artists, fight choreographers, and directors who want to depict fast-paced, exciting, technical hand-to-hand combat that has the right balance between realism and stylization that can appeal to a wide contingent of readers and audiences of varying familiarity with the martial arts. It is also that last quality that makes it so versatile as a base system for fight design and choreography: Eskrima and eskrima-like moves don’t necessarily read or scan as being particularly culture-specific or coming from a codified fighting system when viewed out of the strict martial arts context, which is why, as we cited in an example above, it can serve as the basis for a reasonably convincing “Spartan fighting style” in the film adaptation of 300 and the pragmatic, adaptive, physics-based “non-style” of Jay Chou’s Kato in The Green Hornet.