Adobo Magazine Book Review: TRESE
by Leigh Reyes
Alexandra Trese might have boobs, but you can’t really tell under the black trench coat she always wears. She has yet to be seen in heroic spandex and matching high-heeled combat boots. She is not as fond of emitting coruscating beams of light from her fingers as she is holding an espresso.
Trese, the comic book whose pages she moodily graces, is written by Budjette Tan, with art by Kajo Baldisimo. The two address her with respect. How can they not? She solves mysteries. She isn’t into big grins. She’s got the Kambal, two powerful half-breed bodyguards, who wear the masks of comedy and tragedy.
Her Manila is the twilight twin of the city we know, where superstitions take the bus and nightmares can be quite cordial. It is a delicate struggle, always, to imbue a story with a sense of place without making the place the story. In a way, Tan and Baldisimo—who moonlight as creatives in Harrison Communications and McCann Erickson when they’re not following Alexandra Trese around—succeed. You accept the Manila they populate with an equal mix of the ordinary and the damned and move past it to the thrill of the mystery.
Like any mystery, the first issue begins with a sprawled dead body. Like any good mystery, the body isn’t just anybody. It’s a white lady. The rest of At the Intersection of Balete and 13th Street smoothly brings in a street-smart nuno sa punso (a sort of leprechaun), an aswang (ghoul) gang and tidbits of Ms. Trese’s origins.
Tan writes Trese with a mongrel flair, mixing bursts of macho terseness—the staple of crime fiction—and sentimental goth. Add Tagalog words to that pot, and sometimes the mix wobbles. In the third issue, one of the bodyguards says, “Gago! A higante can’t fit in the banyo! (Dumb-ass! A giant can’t fit in the bathroom!),” and for a moment, you think, oh dear, one of the Kambal is a closet kolehiyala.
It is the art, the vigorous shadows and meticulous hairlines, that makes Trese truly noir. Baldisimo keeps backgrounds rough, sometimes leaving tentative first lines in, and it works. Dramatic juxtapositions of swoops and sharp angles keep the action crackling from panel to panel.
In Our Secret Constellation, the pair delivers a small miracle: a gripping story with a twist sure to leave fans of Filipino comics with a bittersweet smile. The plot twist is deftly handled. The story moves from crime to tribute without a hitch.
The most recent issue, The Tragic Case of Dr. Burgos, is noteworthy for its humane treatment of cats, although it feels like Tan and Baldisimo are just humming the tune, waiting for the lyrics to arrive. By now, you want to know more about Alexandra Trese. Why does she solve crimes? Why does she care? Why did her father and grandfather hang out with tikbalangs (half-man, half-horse creatures)?
Trese is a mosh pit of influences, from Sting to Starbucks to the Pinoy supernatural. Beyond the culture riffs and references, what makes it worthy of your shelf space is that most comic-book of qualities: the alchemy of words and art. The ultimate mystery of Trese is how, at its best, it makes you believe in Filipino comics all over again.
Leigh Reyes is the executive creative director of Y&R Philippines and the president of the Creative Guild.