By Ruel S. De Vera, Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 12. 2008
MANILA, Philippines -Almost from the very beginning, Budjette Tan has been surrounded by the unusual. “When I was a newborn baby, my parents moved into what turned out to be a haunted house,” he explains. “The ghosts were seen by my yaya and my uncles. My parents didn’t believe in such things, until one summer day after my mom gave me a bath. She said the right side of my face suddenly wrinkled up—that it looked like the face of an old man. She prayed over me until I became normal again.” Psychics were summoned and a séance held. “The psychics told the spirits that they had to move on to the next plane. The haunting stopped after some time.”
Even Tan did not know that something similarly spooky would redefine his life later on. With him doing the writing and Kajo Baldisimo providing the art, Tan came up with “Trese,”a comic book series that follows mysterious investigator Alexandra Trese as she helps the police solve unearthly crimes in Metro Manila—sometimes with some direct action from Trese and her bizarre bodyguards, the Kambal.
The White Lady of Balete Drive is dead—again. The losing parties in drag races on C-5 start vanishing. Deadly bargains are struck deep in Paco. Every year, someone dies in Livewell Village. Secrets lurk in the bowels of a huge mall.. Wonderfully weird ideas mixing old and new, traditional and newfangled, come together in this fascinating and impeccably crafted comic book.
The 35-year-old Tan, whose full name is Ferdinand-Benedict Garcia Tan, is Deputy Executive Creative Director at Harrison Communications, an ad agency for companies like Globe, Neozep, Jack `N Jill, Levi’s and Bayer. Early on, his world expanded its borders, as his late father, broadcaster Buddy Tan, brought to Philippine television such foreign shows as “Sesame Street,” “Wonder Woman,” “Voltron” and “The Twilight Zone.” Growing up, Tan and younger brother Brandie considered themselves lucky. “We were given most of the toys that we asked for when we were kids,” he recalls. The parental indulgence applied as well to comic books so Tan found himself devouring comic books with titles like “Uncanny X-Men.”
Similarly, Tan’s mother Adjette wanted him to read even more. “She bought me the entire collection of Hardy Boys,” he says. “Maybe that’s where my love for detective stories started.” Even back in grade school, he already tried his hand at making comics, crafting by hand such characters as Cosmic Man, Lightning Hawk and the Computer Creeps. In high school, he began playing a role-playing game called Shadowrun. “The idea of magic and magical creatures set in the modern world was something that stuck, and I’ve often wondered how that would work in the Philippine setting.”
With friend Mark Gatela, Tan spent some time developing a radio show of horror stories inspired by Stephen King stories and TV shows like “The X-Files.” Though the radio station closed soon after, the show’s fictional narrator left an impression on Tan, a character named Anton Trese.
An Ateneo graduate, Tan was instrumental in the formation of Alamat, the seminal group of Filipino comic book creators. “Around 1992-93, me and the guys tried to break into the comic book industry,” he explains. “We sent submissions to Marvel and Image and even Atlas Komiks; all of them rejected us.” They decided to go about it on their own, self-publishing Comics 101. In 1994, after Filipino-American comics star Whilce Portacio visited the country and recommended Tan and company to come together, Alamat Comics was founded.
Meanwhile, Tan’s work in advertising brought him into fateful contact with Baldisimo, who was part of Alamat. “When I started working in Harrison Communications, I would sometimes commission Kajo to do artwork for our ads,” Tan recalls.
Unlike Tan, Jonathan Abdula Baldisimo had no such supernatural experiences. “My receivers are off when it comes to such things, which is not a bad thing,” the 30-year-old Baldisimo explains. The eldest of three children to resourceful jack of all trades Armando and industrious printing press employee Virginia, Baldisimo showed signs of artistic inclination at age 3, when he began doodling on the pages of his aunt’s dictionary. A big fan of Pinoy komiks, he rented all the titles he could get his hands on at the corner store. “Then, in high school, classmates introduced me to Jim Lee’s X-Men and that’s when I decided this is what I want to do till I croak,” he says.
While still in school, Baldisimo began drawing for Vampira Komiks for P300 a week. He would go on to take up fine arts at UP Diliman before leaving to study computer graphics and design on his own. After freelancing for a bit, Baldisimo joined McCann-Erickson and worked on the prestigious Coca-Cola account. Today, he is a freelance illustrator and a junior trainee for international comic talent group Glasshouse Graphics. In his spare time, Baldisimo shares his beloved Transformers with his even more beloved 3-year-old son, Josef Achilles.
In 2005, Baldisimo sent Tan a text message, saying he wanted to collaborate on a comic book by churning out a 20-page monthly comic book in 20 days. “I laughed and didn’t think it was possible because I was working on the Globe account and he was working on the Coke account, two of the busiest accounts in our respective ad agencies,” Tan says. But once they began working on it, the project developed a life of its own. The character originally named Anton Trese soon became Alexandra Trese, a mysterious investigator with more than a passing connection to the real underworld, the kind with lamang-lupa and malignos.
For Alexandra’s look, Baldisimo did not go far for visual inspiration. “Trese’s look was inspired by a ton of anime and manga chicks that never left my mind,” Baldisimo explains. “Trese and I share the same Devil’s hairline and I used to think of my ex-girlfriend, Divine, when I was drawing the first few issues because, like Trese, she’s strong and always gets her way.”
Tan and Baldisimo also found a comfortable working dynamic. “He writes, I draw, then we go back and forth for revisions and last minute ideas,” Baldisimo explains. “It’s very dynamic, very effective, much like the concept team style used in advertising.”
Once “Trese” began coming out, it caught a following, fanned by word-of-mouth (probably with fangs). Tan’s modern take on folklore and his whiplash-inducing plot twists meld perfectly with Baldisimo’s moody and distinctive black-and-white art.
Tan self-published the series, a role that has proven challenging. “When you publish your own book, you have to play many roles,” he says. “You’re also the business manager.” Fortunately, “Trese” found an ardent fan in publishing company Visual Print Enterprises which also publishes best-selling local authors like Bob Ong. “We can focus on making the book and they take care of the business side of things,” Tan says.
The Visual Print deal has also allowed “Trese” to take actual book form. The digest “Trese: Murder On Balete Drive” collects the first four issues, while the just-released “Trese: Unreported Murders” gathers issues five to eight. Now, instead of the traditional issues (affectionately called “floppies”), “Trese” will be coming out exclusively in digest form, with the third volume, which gathers the remaining five cases in the first 13-issue arc, due out before the end of 2008. “Book 3 will answer some questions that people have been asking about the Kambal, Trese and her father,” Tan says.
Originally aiming to tell just 13 stories, Tan and Baldisimo are now thinking up a whole new cabinet of weirdness for Alexandra and company. “I actually have more mysteries for Trese that she needs to solve,” Budjette Tan says, “Just don’t know how soon we’ll get around to telling those stories.” For his part Kajo Baldisimo can’t wait: “Budj and I will be churning out books every year from now on so I hope that the readers will continue to enjoy reading it as much as we continually enjoy cooking it.”
“Trese” is available at Comic Quest, Comic Odyssey, Pandayan Bookstores, National Bookstore, Best Sellers, PowerBooks and Fully Booked. For a preview, log on to www.tresecomics.com.
Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved.