Jose Zabala Santos or “Mang Pepe” to his neighbors in Kuatro Kantos, Malabon, was born in Calumpit, Bulacan on July 20, 1911. He acquired his early drawing skills from his mother whose avocation is painting. Later on, he took up Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines when he was sixteen but soon quit because cartooning wasn’t offered then. Instead, he enrolled in a U.S. correspondence course on cartooning and earned his diploma.
"Zabala", as he is known in the cartoon world, started his career in 1932. It was Amado Hernandez or Ka Amado, then editor of Sampaguita magazine, who launched his career as a cartoonist. Pre-war readers of the vernacular comic strips were soon introduced to the delightful characters of – Titina, Lukas Malakas, Sianong Sano and Popoy. When Sampaguita folded up, Liwayway Publications started running his characters in 1935, thus ensuing the popularity of his character Lukas Malakas. When World War II broke out in 1941, he abandoned his career. However, in 1942, he was invited by the Manalang advertising agency to join its art department until 1948.
It was his stint in the advertising field that he discovered animation. In 1949, he worked in the advertising department of the Philippine Manufacturing Company (PMC). There, he made Juan Tamad together with Francisco Reyes for a PMC product in 1955. Juan Tamad is a six-minute pioneering animated short film shot in 35mm and processed in the U.S., but believed to have never had a commercial run in the movie house circuit.
After his retirement from PMC in 1970, he joined Francisco Reyes’ advertising agency. Then in 1978, he inevitably joined Nonoy Marcelo’s full-length animation production of Tadhana. According to a magazine interview that same year, Marcelo mentioned that his uncle Jose has been in the field of animation ever since he was 14, and it was his uncle who was Marcelo’s closest collaborator.
Through the years, Jose Zabala Santos, has been associated with such big names as Vicente Manansala, Tony Velasquez, Mauro Malang Santos and Francisco Coching, among others. He is a recipient of numerous awards and honors such as the Komiks Operation Brotherhood or KOMOPEB Life Achievement Award and the 4th Gintong Parangal ng Malabon’s Gawad ng Katangian both in1984.
Jose Zabala Santos passed away on September 7, 1985 at the age of 74.