By Anson Yu
TULAY Chinese-Filipino Digest, July 6 – 9, 2010
Those who are passionate about their professions are lucky.
Count ad man and writer Budjette Tan as one of them. A big fan of Marvel Comics since grade school, he and artist Kajo Baldisimo have teamed up to produce what is one of the most original local comic book heroine, supernatural crime fighter, Alexandra Trese. Her gripping graphic novels take folklore on high adventure in modern times: Tan and Baldisimo take characters from Philippine folklore and mythology such as nuno sa punso, tikbalang and mananangal and place them in a contemporary Philippine setting.
In one episode, Trese and her team solve a series of mysterious killings inside a shopping mall parking lot. As it turns out, the killings were by tiyanaks, unintended spawns of an illegal abortion clinic in the mall!
A graduate of Claret School and Ateneo de Manila University. Tan became passionate about comic books as a young boy.
“Way back in grade school I already developed a love for comics. It started when a friend gave me a copy of ‘The Uncanny X-men’ issues 188 and 189. That got me hooked. It was also during this time that Filbar (book and magazine retailer) opened shop under the escalator in Virra Mall (in Greenhills, San Juan). Comic books arrived weekly. I no depended on (another bookstore) for ugly reprinted comic books.”
By the time Tan was in high school, he had become a really big comic book geek. He knew comic book artists and writers so well he could name the issues or publications they worked on. It even became more exciting for him when he found out that some of the artists were actually Filipinos such as Whilce Portacio and Alfredo Alcala.
Later on in college, he discovered the graphic novels of Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis.
While growing up, Budjette learned about local myths, legends and folklores from the family household helpers.
“We had maids from different provinces who told paranormal stories from their provinces,” he recalls. From their stories he noticed how common it is for the supernatural to intervene in everyday life.
In an incident he relates in Yvette Tan blog (yvettetan.com), his own family has witnessed paranormal forces at work on a number of occasions. He relates how his mother was bathing him once while he was still a baby. She noticed the right side of his face had wrinkled up like that of an old man’s.
“My right eye stared at her in defiance. She slapped in my right cheek and commanded the spirit to leave. And even though she slapped me hard, I did not cry but just stared back at her. She ended up praying the entire rosary before my face returned to normal.
“A séance was later held in the house and the medium spoke to two spirits, a father and a daughter, who died believing the house still belonged to them. The medium explained to them that they were already dead and needed to move on. No other occurrence happened in that house after the séance.”
It was between 2002 and 2003 that Tan began toying with the idea for Trese’s character. It happened while reading the Marvel Universe Handbook. It “explained everything I needed to know about the world that Marvel comic book heroes lived in. There were a bunch of characters in it that I found very interesting. I thought to myself, what if these superheroes fought and dealt with supernatural crimes in everyday settings? So I cobbled together a few of these characters with the character known as “The Shroud” as the main focus. I pitched that idea to Marvel Comics, which of course got rejected. But it was one of those ideas that stayed with me.”
With that concept in mind, he now needed a name for his character. It led Tan back to a radio show that he and his friends work on when they graduated from college.
“It was for a small AM radio station with a very weak transmitter. We were assigned one hour and in that one hour we were asked to fill it up with anything related to the world of the paranormal.
“We decided to divide the hour into four segments. In one portion we told ghost story in today’s setting. We did not do the usual headless priest or the nun with bleeding eyes. Instead we would do stories like werewolves running around in Project Two in Quezon City.
“... we were fans of Stephen King and Twilight Zone, and one of my friends, Mark Gatela, came up with the name Anton Trese. He was the narrator of that segment and he would just introduce himself as ‘Good evening, I am Anton Trese. Tonight our story is…’
“The name somehow stuck (in my mind) and I thought it was such a wonderful name. It sounded very mysterious and I thought it sounded as great as another superhero, ‘John Constantine.’”
Even though Marvel Comics rejected his pitch, Tan began doing several drafts of Anton Trese. In one draft he was a tabloid reporter and in another draft he was an agent with the National Bureau of Investigation.
As Tan developed the script, Baldisimo asked if he wanted to join hands and do a monthly comic book.
At the time, both were busy with fulltime work in advertising.
“Are you crazy? Where are we going to find the time?” Tan remembered saying.
Unfazed, Baldisimo said ”Lets give it try” and he committed to draw a page of the comic during his daily lunch break.
As the two collaborated, they decided that it would be more interesting to do a female lead character instead. So Budjette and Kajo shifted the plot from Anton Trese to his daughter, Alexandra. Born into a family of psychics and paranormal investigators, she is very much at home in the world of the supernatural. She is also equally skilled at both handling a gun and a magical kris (a Maranao short sword). Accompanying her in her adventures would be two sidekicks known as the “Kambal”, They are distinguished by the Greek masks for tragedy and comedy that they wear whenever they combat the supernatural forces.
Since superheroes need to look distinctive, Budjette and Kajo came up with an image for Trese that included a bob haircut, V shaped bangs, and a black, Chinese inspired trench coat. Like some comic book hero, Alexandra lives a double life as the owner and manager of a Malate club known as “The Diabolical” But unlike most other comic book heroes, the police knows of her secret identity. In fact they contact her when confronted with puzzling crimes, like the discovery of a corpse believed to be the White Lady who in popular lore haunts Balate Drive in New Manila or an outbreak of zombies at the South Cemetery.
The first issue of Trese came out in 2005. The first issues were simple photocopied sheets stapled in the middle. It wasn’t until two years that Trese got its much deserved break. While attending the annual comicbook convention, Komikon, a fellow comic book writer and artist, Carlo Vergara, introduced Budjette to his publisher, Nida Ramirez of VisPrint Enterprise. Nida immediately liked Trese “It was different from most of the local comics. I love the fact that it was based on Pinoy folk tales, as well as Kajo’s black and white art work, which is very striking.” Trese would later become the third comic book that VisPrint would publish. It was also agreed that they would published the Trese series under the banner of Alamat Comics.
In 2008, Visprint republished the series in a graphic novel format entitled ‘Trese: Murder on Balete Drive.’ Since then, two more graphic novels that have been published and they are now available in major retailers Fully Booked, Powerbooks and National Bookstore. According to its publisher Nida, the title is doing very well for a local comic book series..
Fans have taken the series to heart, some of who have sent in photos of themselves dressed up like Trese and her team! Who knows what is coming up next? A televison or movie deal perhaps?
Though most of the Trese stories are based on Filipino myths, legends and pop culture, sometimes a bit of Tan’s roots seeps into a story. In one adventure Trese and the Kambals briefly fight kidnappers in Binondo who turned out to be a team of manananggals!
“The closest I got to a Tsinoy theme in my comic book is the creature under the Robertson Mall. Even then I was thinking that everyone else had already done that snake thing. What if it is not a snake? Maybe it is a dragon? Maybe he is completely misunderstood and not eating the girls? Now he is stuck in a basement with Internet connection,” Tan says.
Wait! Robertson Mall? Is it a reference to Robinsons Mall?
Tan smiles, noncommittal.
He has crossed paths with Robinson’s malls owners, the Gokongwei family. When the Gokongwei’s publishing group, Summit Media, recently launched its first graphic novel, ‘Underpass’. Tan and Baldisimo contributed a story called “The Clinic”.
“It is not about Trese, but we made certain references to her world. Before we could get it approve by the editor, we had to send copies of Trese to Lisa Gokongwei. The funny thing was when she got to that part of the Robertson Mall. She texted me: ‘Is that my dad?’ ”
Tan has not quit his day job. And he feels very fortunate to be able to live out his passion, “to tell the stories I’ve always wanted to tell. And, as a side benefit, it seems like a lot of people like the stories we're telling and it's such a great feeling when we get feedback like: ‘I couldn't sleep after I read your book!’, ‘Your story made me cry!’"
As of now Alexandra Trese and her adventures might not be in the same league as other Pinoy superhero characters such as Darna or Captain Barbell. But with her creators’ passion and enthusiasm, that may yet happen.
You can read the first seven cases of Trese for free at www.tresecomics.com