Q&A with comic writer Budjette Tan
INTERVIEW BY: GELO GONZALES
October 18, 2009
How did you start as a comic book writer?
I started writing when I was a kid because I loved reading comics. I felt like I wanted to write my own, and write my own heroes. As a kid, I did a comic called Cosmic Man, who was like a Batman in space. He had a cosmic ship, a cosmic belt, and a cosmic ray gun.
As I got older, I realized I couldn’t draw, so I just ended up writing more. I started to meet better artists in college, and we decided to collaborate with each other. It was in college when finally we decided that we should do a real series, and seriously make a comic book.
I was graduating from college then, and for my grad gift what I asked was for my parents to send me to the San Diego Comicon. That was in '94. And I thought, if I'm going to go there, I wanted to be able to show stuff to editors. Because before the wonderful age of the Internet, I'd type up stories and mail it to them, and I would receive rejection letters. I’ve been rejected by Marvel and DC, and stuff like that. I was like “Wow, the editors recognize that I exist, but they rejected me.”
So reading about how people submit, it’s better if you submit a complete story. it’s easier for editors to look at finished comic book pages than a script. So I told my barkada, “let’s release our own book.” So we put together a book called Comics 101. It was an anthology as well, because it was the quickest thing we could put together. It was me, Bow Guerrero, Mark Gatela, JB "Taps" Tapia, my brother Brandie, Gerry Alanguilan, and Arnold Arre. I brought that book over to San Diego. And we got rejected more.
But that trip made me learn stuff about what editors are looking for, and how small you are when you’re standing in the middle of everyone else trying to pitch their stuff. When I got back, that was around the time when we formed our own group, Alamat comics, partly thanks to the prodding of Whilce Portacio, who at that time drew the X-Men comics.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
My first comic book stories were really picking up from an attempt to do my version of the works of my idols, I guess. I had a comic book before, which I did with Bow Guerrero, called the Flying Phantom. It was our attempt to do something like Indiana Jones mixed with something pulpy and pulp-type superheroes. Then I came up with a comic book called Batch 72 with Arnold Arre, which was kind of our attempt to relive college. When we were writing this, it was at the tail end of college. I was like “I don’t want college to end.” I felt like I was pouring that stuff into the page.
Writing horror, which is what I am doing now, has always been there but maybe I never really recognized it. Once, I wrote a story called “Payaso,” which was about a clown who had superpowers and went around running after child abusers.
It’s partly inspired by stuff we’ve seen from Stephen King and his works, and how something harmless or funny seems to have a dark side to it. I think that was brewing somewhere in the back. Me and my friends loved reading Stephen King. Likewise, Neil Gaiman is a major major influence as far as horror and fantasy is concerned.
As far as superpowered soap opera drama is concerned, I think I channeled that through Batch 72. They may have superpowers but the most important thing in their life was getting their band into a gig or making a girl fall in love with them.
Frank Miller is an influence too, in terms of crime noir. Warren Ellis is a big influence, as well as Alan Moore of Watchmen fame. These are guys that have taken what has been normal comic book staple, or even the whole medium itself, and have shown you what else can be done with it. As far as TV shows are concerned, X-Files comes into play. CSI played a big influence as far as Trese was concerned, because they were the ones who started this trend of the police procedural.
Like all artists, there must be times when you’re feeling drained. What do you do to get the creative juices flowing again?
One tip that I got from Neil Gaiman is that he likes to work on several things at the same time. So when he is stuck with something, there is something else for him to work on. I’ve tried that and it has worked sometimes.
One thing that’s certain is that waiting for inspiration to hit you is a myth. I mean, if inspiration does hit you, it’s a wonderful feeling to have, the story just gushes out. But if you keep waiting for that, sometimes it takes too long.
What worked a lot for me and Kajo was we gave ourselves deadlines, not that we respected the deadlines, but it was something that we kept in mind. So that when the deadline has passed, it gave you more sense of urgency to finish that stuff. Having a regular goal helps.
I also never stop thinking of the next stories I want to write. I have a notebook full of little plotlines, sometimes dialogue, which I don’t really know goes to what story, and it just sounded good. And it’s nice to go back to those notes if I’m stuck and pick up stuff from those.
Tell us something about Underpass.
Underpass is an anthology of four stories of dark fantasy set in an urban Filipino setting. Pinoys have always had a great love for horror, as you can see with the number of Shake, Rattle and Roll films we’ve had.
There always seems to be a Tagalog horror anthology show on TV, whether it be the Regal Shockers, the Magandang Gabi Bayan Halloween specials, or Kakabakaba. Pinoys can’t seem to get enough of getting scared. If you go to the bookstore, there’s already a whole section for ghost stories. It is the great unknown that Pinoys love to probe, and poke and see what it is in the dark.
In Underpass, we wanted to do a modern spin to Pinoy horror. It’s not anymore your typical White Lady standing in the corner; it’s really something else. We show horror found in a cellphone sim. We show horror in a pedestrian underpass. It’s not anymore the haunted house at the end of the street, which people really aren’t afraid of anymore because they’ve seen it a thousand times.
Underpass features the work of a great bunch of comic book creators. Gerry Alanguilan is the one telling the sim story. We’ve got David Hontiveros, and Oliver Pulumbarit. David is an award-winning prose writer. He won a Palanca for one of his sci-fi stories, and is also one of the founding members of Alamat. The last time David and Oliver collaborated, it was for a vampire story, and it’s very nice to put them together again, and this time they put up a very different type of ghost story.
Katumbas stars a character created by Ian Sta. Maria. Again, Ian was one of those guys that had been with Alamat for the longest time. Katumbas stars a character called Kadasig who became an immortal warrior because during Pre-Hispanic times, his village was going to be attacked by Aswang, so he made a deal with Ibu, the goddess of death to spare the village and in return, he becomes Ibu’s eternal servant. Lastly, there’s The Clinic, which is written by me and Kajo Baldisimo. In it, we show a starlet who gets pregnant, and is prodded by her manager to get an abortion to save her career. She is brought to a place called Venus Clinic, where she discovers again the darker flip side of the city.
We hope Underpass will excite people again. If you love horror and mysteries, you should come down with us to the underpass.
Have you ever experienced supernatural things first hand?
We have lived in haunted houses, but I’ve never experienced the horror personally. Once, my mom and dad saw a floating head in the garden. At the back of our house, we normally see bats, so it’s normal to see something whiz by.
But one particular Sunday, something flew past the garden, which was lit with spotlights, but then the thing suddenly stopped, and it started to hover. And they realized it was a head with wings.
Our dog started to growl and as the dog started to rush to the garden, my mom said it suddenly stopped, it bowed down, and it started to whimper. So my mom and dad just rushed to leave.
When my mom told the house help about it the next day, the kusinera said: “Ma’am may sasabihin po ako sa inyo may nakita po akong ulong gumugulong sa likod ng kusina.” So it turns out, my parents weren’t just seeing things.
So they called the mangtatawas. The ritual the mangtatawas did was he had a basin of water, a candle, and the candle wax was allowed to fall onto the water. The wax took shape into the face of somebody. The mangtatawas said, “May dwende kayo dito” and he instructed us to bring food to the foot of the tree where the dwende lived, at 3 or 4 PM everyday.
But the thing didn’t stop, so we called up Tony Perez, who then sent his spirit questors to our home. We did a spirit quest near the garden, and from there they were able to figure out that there were two clans, the white and the brown dwende. Supposedly, the flying head was actually a shape-shifting dwende. The two clans were trying to lay claim over the middle of the house. The questors asked: “Kumusta po ang business nyo?” We told them that sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. They said that when the business was doing good, the white dwende were winning, and when it’s doing bad, the brown ones were winning.
Personally, I’ve never really seen or heard those supernatural occurrences first hand. And I’m thankful for that.
So you like writing horror stories, but you don’t really want to be a part of those horror stories yourself.
Yeah. It’s there in the page, don’t come near me.
Ever had a comic book to movie adaptation offer?
Trese has had an offer or two, but we’ve been holding them off because we wanted to finish book three. So maybe now it’s a good time to start talking to those guys again.
We’ve told people we made Trese episodic, so it might be good to adapt it to TV. The thing I’m worried about though is the production quality of our TV shows. A producer asked me once: “Wala bang love interest si Trese? Baka pwede naman natin siya bigyan ng boyfriend.” I told them I’d think about it. (Laughs)
Would you really compromise?
As long as it doesn’t involve giving our characters a talking cat or dog just because it’s cute, sure.
After Underpass, what’s next for you?
We’re hoping Underpass does really really well that readers will ask for more. Definitely, there’s more to the dark side of Manila and the Philippines to explore. So more of Underpass, we hope. And definitely more of Trese.
I would love to do a superhero book, given the chance to try again because I’ve been a big fan of the Avengers and the Justice League since I was little. It’s something I never really got to do. I’ve never been able to write specifically about guys in tight outfits hitting each other. It would be great to do a superhero comic book in the future.
If you could be any comic book superhero, who would you be?
Bruce Wayne, for his money and his great looks. (Laughs) But my high school answer would have been Martian Manhunter from the Justice League because he can turn invisible, read minds, change shape, is invulnerable, has laser vision, and heat vision. So he’s like Superman and Professor X combined. From Marvel, Wolverine is another favorite character, because he gets to say the stuff you can’t. He can get into trouble, and it doesn’t really matter because he can heal quickly. From any other book, Sandman comes to mind, but I don’t exactly want to be him, or someone from the Dreaming.
You can be Desire.
No! (laughs) I look more like Despair. So yeah, no. (Laughs)
How about a supervillain?
Good question, I’ve never though of that. I’m not too sure if I want to be Magneto or Doctor Doom because they’re like full of themselves. They really think that “I know the answer to life, and I will rule you…” That sort of thing.
I’d choose The Kingpin I think, because he was so powerful he’d just order villains around, and he was fat too. So I said, hey I could be this guy, I don’t have to learn karate, and I can just sit around and just order people around. He’s shrewd. He’s cunning, and the last thing he would do is get his hands dirty. He has everything set up around him.