I had a chance to catch up with one such notable figure in the Comic industry, Budjette Tan. Creator of the popular Pulp Horror series Trese, Budjette and co-creator Kajo have released five volumes of the series with more to follow. With a potent mix of Filipino folklore and classic gumshoe detective work, the series has quickly gained notoriety as one of the premier series on the market today. Below, I talk with this prolific writer about his creative process, folklore and the current Komiks industry today!
Can you tell us how you got started writing comic books?
Bud: I started making my own comic book when I was probably eight or nine years old. My parents would occasionally bring home some comic books and I eventually got to the point when I wanted to tell my own stories. It was during our college years when we started to send pitches to the United States. I still treasure my first rejection letter from Marvel Comics. I was just thrilled that some one from Marvel wrote back to me. We never got a reply from DC and we were also rejected by Wildstorm. But it was because of comic book companies like Image and Dark Horse that made us realize that we didn’t need to get accepted in Marvel or DC to get into comics. We just had to make our own comic book stories.
On the year I was graduating from college, my parents funded my trip to the San Diego Comic-Con. (This was way back in 1994.) I wanted my trip to SDCC to my chance to break into comics, so I got my friends together we made a comic book anthology called COMICS 101, which contained 4 to 8 page stories. And I went around SDCC, meeting writers, artists, and editors, giving away copies of my comics. All that effort didn’t get me into any comic book company, but I did get to meet several Filipino artists who were based in the United States at the time and one of them was Whilce Portacio. On November 1994, Whilce Portacio returned to Manila and called for a meeting of all the local comic book artists and studios. He gave the suggestion that we should band together, similar to what they did in Image Comics. Instead of having a dozen different studios, we collectively called ourselves Alamat Comics (Legend Comics) and did a simultaneous launch of all our comic books in one of the major malls in Manila. It was through this collective of comic book creators that I met a young artist named Jonathan Baldisimo. All his friends called him Kajo.
Since doing comic books is not the sort of dayjob you can keep here in the Philippines, I ended up in an ad agency and whenever I needed something illustrated, Kajo was one of the guys I usually called to do work for us. Every now and again, we’d try to work on a comic book or comic strip, but our workload at the ad agency prevented us from ever completing an issue. It was in June 2005 when Kajo texted me and said he wanted to do a comic book. He said, if I can give him a 20-page script every month, he’d finish drawing in 20 days. At that time, I didn’t really think we could finish it. Or if we could finish it, we’d probably not have enough time to make another issue. But I did it anyway, because it was a sort of release from the daily grind of advertising work. So, I found an old unfinished script from 2003 called “Trese”. I dusted it off, rewrote 90% of it and eventually “Trese” became our big hit.
For those who may not be familiar with the series, could you tell us about Trese?
Bud: TRESE is about occult investigator Alexandra Trese. Her mysteries are set mostly in the city of Manila and she is called in to investigate crime involving murdered ghosts, a gang of aswang (vampire-like creatures), drag-racing tikbalang (centaur-like creatures, but with the head of a horse). To aid her investigation, she has her own network of informants in Manila’s underworld. The Nuno is a gnome-like creature that lives under a manhole and is a great source of rumors and secrets. The Duwende is a dwarf that provides her access to the tunnels underneath Manila, as well as gte favors from the Duwende’s Laman Lupa (creatures made out of mud and earth) when she needs some heavy lifting done. If she’s investigating an arson case, she can summon the Santelmo, a fire elemental using her cellphone, by dialing the right sequence of numbers. Trese’s family has had a long history with Manila’s underworld. She has now inherited the duty of protecting the city and maintain the balance between our world and the their world.
How did the character of Alexandra Trese come about?
Bud: The original incarnation of Trese was “Anton Trese”. The name was thought up by my friend Mark Gatela. We were writers for a radio show that talked about paranormal and supernatural experiences. Mark said we needed a narrator, in the same manner that Twilight Zone had Rod Serling and Tales from the Crypt had the Cryptkeeper. So, Mark conjured this name “Anton Trese” and he was our guide and narrator to horror stories that was set in Manila. This all happened back in 1994. So, around 2002-2003, when I was just itching to write a comic book script, I brought back Anton Trese and tried to write a story about him. To be honest, Trese is a mash-up of all my favorite characters: Carl Kolchack, The Nightstalker, Fox Mulder, Batman, and John Constantine.
In 2005, when I was trying to finish that script for Kajo, I then looked an Anton and looked at all my favorite characters and thought that I was just copying all of them into this amalgam of a character. So, I thought, just to make it different, why not make Trese into a woman. And thus, she became Alexandra Trese. At that time, my favorite TV show was CSI, so I decided to make it a procedural, but instead of using science to solve the case, Trese would use magic spells and her underworld contacts to figure out the mystery.
Setting the series within Manila must of had its fair share of drawbacks and benefits, how did you settle on the location?
Bud: From a writing standpoint, it was easier for me to set everything in Manila because this is where I live. I grew up hearing stories about the White Lady of Balete Drive and the Snake Monster under the mall in Ortigas. Our local tabloids would have screaming headlines in red font about a someone getting attacked by a manananggal (a winged creature that eats unborn babies) or how a woman gave birth to a fish and might have been a mermaid. One of the oldest churches here is Quiapo Church and outside that holy place you will find fortune tellers and vendors selling amulets and potions. Manila is a very magical and mysterious place and I wanted a guide into our city and that’s one of the things I make Trese do, she’s the one that takes us by the hand and brings us to these dark corners of the city. When we started to attract a foreign audience (when I uploaded some stories on my blog), I was surprised at how easy it was for them to get immersed in Trese’s world. They didn’t get lost despite the fact that it’s set in a city they’ve probably never visited and populated with creatures whose names they can’t probably pronounce. (Try to say “manananggal” five times fast! Even I get tongue-tied! [Laughs Hard]!) Maybe we’ve got Google and Wikipedia to thank for that!
Were you inspired by any other Filipino Pop Culture in general? or perhaps from around the world?
Bud: As far as Filipino Pop Culture is concerned, as mentioned above, I used Trese to try and solve / shed light on Manila’s urban legends, to finally give an explanation to the origins and whereabouts of these characters. I’ve also done tributes to popular Filipino comic book characters like Darna (a superwoman character), as well as real life personalities like Manny Paquiao.
Can you tell us about the process of writing each edition?
Bud: Well, it usually starts with the crime or the crime scene and there’s usually something unusual about it. I also have a list of creatures from Philippine myth and folklore that I’d like to use. Sometimes, as I’m writing down notes for a story, one of them just pops up from the list and demands to be written into the story. And then I put Trese in the middle of that crime scene and I just to follow her around. That’s when I start to figure out thing like, what spell will she use to get a clue? Which underworld contact will she bribe to get information?
When the script is done, send it over to Kajo. He sends me penciled pages or thumbnails. I give my comments on what needs to be improve or if there’s a detail we’d need to highlight or emphasize. He then inks it and letters it. I then review the lettered pages and edit it, removing bits of dialogue or adding more captions in order to make the story flow better.
What are your thoughts on the comic book scene in general in the Phillipines?
Bud: We used to have a thriving Filipino comic book industry back in the 1950s and 60s. Our movies and TV shows were mostly based on our “komiks” stories. That industry died in the 90s. Those komiks publishing companies shut down. Why did they shut down? People started buying other things, I guess. A lot things get blamed for the “death of the komiks industry”, ranging from video games to the internet, from cheap Filipino Romance Novels to cheap DVDs of telenovelas. But it was in the 90s when the “independent comic book scene” started and it just kept on growing since then.
We now have three major comic book events every year (The Komikon) and we’ve seen organizers in other cities and other provinces start their own comic events. Local comic book creators are invited and welcomed in the big ToyCons and Cosplay events. We have a very active, thriving, healthy comic book scene. We now have companies like Visprint, National Book Store, Adarna, and Black Ink publishing comic books. We are not yet in the same levels as the 1960s, when komiks sold in the hundreds of thousands, but I think we’ve got a better scene now. Local comic books are now supported by big and small book stores, as well as comic book shops, making it easier to find new readers. I have high hopes that, maybe, in five to ten years, we might be back to having a full-blown Filipino comic book industry again.
Do you have any plans to explore different writing projects in the future?
Bud: Me and Kajo will continue to create more Trese stories, as long as there are mysteries in the Philippines that need to be solved. There’s going to be a new Trese story in MANILA NOIR, an anthology edit by Jessica Hagedorn, published by Akashic Press in New York. Trese will be the only comic book story in that anthology. Should be out by June this year. I’ve started a spin-off series called PRECINTO 13, illustrated by Atan, which focuses on the police squad that helps Trese’s investigations.
This year, I’m also launching a new horror title called MYSTERY RIDE with Bow Guerrero and JB “Taps” Tapia. In 2012, me and editor Paolo Chikiamco started KWENTILLION, a compilation of comic book and short stories for young adult readers. It was pilot project with one of the local publishers. We’re hoping to find a new publisher for this title.
FLIPREADS (Only Php 50.00) http://flipreads.com/trese-01
TRESE blog: http://tresekomix.blogspot.com/
TRESE Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/TreseComics