Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods asks if the people who migrated to the United States brought their old gods with them and, if so, what are those gods up to now? Trese co-creators Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo applied a similar approach to their supernatural procedural comic set in modern-day Manila. When Filipinos moved out of the provinces to the city, did they bring their monsters and gods with them?
Trese adds new life to the supernatural genre, elevating traditional stories passed down through countless generations across the Philippines. Tan’s imaginings are the key to unlocking the gates to these little-known tales and making them universal, while Baldisimo’s mind-blowing art is something to behold — a superstar artist, waiting to be discovered.
Though it’s already been available in the Philippines since 2007, as well as at an independent Filipino book store in San Francisco called Arkipelago, Trese hit the remainder of the United States and went global for the first time on Dec. 2. Through Ablaze Publishing, a new audience will be introduced to Trese’s reimagined, contemporary tales of classic Filipino folklore.
The series stars occult detective Alexandra Trese, who tussles with a variety of supernatural manifestations while wielding the powers of the Mandirigmang-Babaylan (warrior-shaman) and armed with a collection of antiquities including a magical dagger called The Sinag. Trese is accompanied by her bloodthirsty twin bodyguards, Basilio and Crispen, also known as the Kambal. Descendants of the Bukidnon god of war, Talagbusao, the Kambal are loyal to Trese, specialize in melee combat, and are armed to the teeth with weaponry.
These weapons and gifts give Trese and her cohorts the power to take on monsters and gods of all shapes and sizes. This includes the “tikbalang,” a demon-horse, minotaur-type creature that hangs out in the woods. He would wait by the crossroads for a lone traveler and cast a spell so they’d never get home. However, the traveler could also wrestle the tikbalang and if they plucked a hair out of its mane, they would be granted a wish.
“You’d ‘tame the tikbalang,’ as they say,” Tan explains. “So if that was what he was doing in the province, what would he be doing if he moved to the city? Instead of wrestling with people, he was drag racing with cars along the highway. It was a continuous process of finding that character we love, and got scared of, and finding a place for them in the city.”
“This was the main engine of Trese,” Tan continues. But Trese isn’t just a definitive retelling of Filipino folklore. Tan was driven by a desire to find closure for these scary stories he’d heard as a kid.
Even before it went international, this Filipino comic was so hot that it’s now being turned into a 2021 Netflix original anime series. Produced by Tanya Yuson and Shanty Harmayn’s BASE Entertainment, the series has lured Jay Oliva (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Young Justice) to direct.
Tan and Baldisimo spoke exclusively with SYFY WIRE about Trese, it’s growing popularity, and the road to becoming a Netflix original anime series.
WHAT IF TRESE WERE A WOMAN?
The main character of Trese was originally Anton Trese, a mash-up of Batman, John Constantine, Fox Mulder, and Kolchak. But Tan had a nagging feeling that he was creating a carbon copy of what he knew. How could Trese be different? There hadn’t been a hard-boiled, female lead in Filipino noir comics. So Tan changed his protagonist so that she was Anton’s daughter, Alexandra, a wicked spellcaster who’s more than willing to pluck bad guys’ eyeballs from their sockets.
Each scene feels different than the typical noir or detective procedural because of Alexandra’s presence; how she breaks down a forensic scene, her empathy, and unconventional methods make for a very different story.
“She is a badass, but she's also graceful,” Baldisimo shares. “She needs to be a 'ballerina' and a 'hunter' at the same time. I need to always visually represent her with those qualities while in action, fighting an enemy or while being stationary, just interrogating suspects.”
One line, in particular, stood out to the creators, a key piece of dialogue that guided them as they built up Trese’s world: “My name is Alexandra Trese. I am nothing like my father. Remember that next time I come here.”
“When I wrote that line, I didn’t know what Anton Trese did,” Tad admits. “I just knew she wanted out of that shadow, which came from a personal experience. My dad was a producer in the Philippine TV industry and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re Buddy’s child.’ As a kid, I thought, ‘Wow, people know my dad, do I need to be like my dad?’”
Growing up Filipino, if there’s a family line of business, there can often be immense pressure to take over the business before you’re even 10 (especially if you’re the child of a nurse and/or a doctor). “That’s very Pinoy,” Tan commiserates. “I felt that I needed to give the reader this sense of history, that the creatures of the underworld knew and respected Anton, but Alexandra had not yet earned their trust and respect.”
NO PERMISSION NEEDED
When they were younger, Tan and Baldisimo tried making comics on their own, separately. Friends would remark to Tan, “Wow, that’s an expensive hobby you have.” The pair eventually met while working for sister ad agencies in Manila. In 2005, Tan got an email with a proposal from Baldisimo:
“Give me a 20-page script and I’ll give you 20 pages of art. I’ll use my lunch break to draw one page a day.”
Baldisimo, who once worked feverishly long hours creating ads but has since switched careers to be a storyboard artist for Filipino TV directors, experimented for 20 days, after which Tan received 20 pages of art. Ten days after that, they’d completed the lettering and made the cover.
“My mentality was to do this for ourselves, do it for fun, and we don’t need anyone’s permission to do this,” Tan explains. The friends used the company copying machine (a lot) to churn out various editions of their comic. Trese repeatedly sold out at Comic Quest, a comic shop inside the Philippines’ largest mall chain, SM Megamall.
MADE IN THE PHILIPPINES
Despite selling out of the photocopied ashcans in one store 30 copies at a time, Tan and Baldisimo hit a ceiling in regards to Trese’s outreach because they had not yet found a publisher. “Since there was no Facebook at that time, most of the feedback we got was on the Trese blog, which got a handful of comments from people.” That is, until they were guests at the 2006 Komicon and were promoting “Secret Constellation,” a Trese issue that was a tribute to Darna, the Philippines' equivalent to Wonder Woman.
A reader came up to Tan and said, “I hate you. I hate you because you made me cry. Please sign my book.” For a few months, the comic was on pause, as the comic shop they’d frequented had to restructure the way it did business with self-publishers, so Tan and Baldisimo uploaded the first issue for free on their blog. Emails began to pour in, with readers asking where they could buy the rest of the series. After a year of pitching to Visprint, they finally got published properly in 2007.
The more readers who got their hands on Trese, the more fell in love; they’d buy extra copies to give away as “pasalubong,” souvenirs you can get only in the Philippines that would be given to family abroad on visits. You’re coming to visit? Great. Could you grab me some of the latest collections of Trese before you get on that plane?
Even with its supposedly limited bubble, because of this grassroots love, sporadic fan emails came from the United States, naturally, and Australia. A reader from Germany corresponds with Tan and Baldisimo regularly. Most recently, a writer for a fantasy magazine in Sweden wanted to review Trese.
“Because there’s that familiarity with the [book’s] procedural [style], it’s a template, it becomes the crutch of a new reader,” Tan explains. “Even though they’re being exposed to the other half of this new mythology, it’s easy to piece things together through the formula. We just had the right mix of Pinoy folklore and people who love detective stories.”
“It fascinates me how manga is a driving force of pop culture, globally,” he adds. “One popular manga can suddenly introduce that aspect of Japanese history or culture to the rest of the world. Taken to the extreme, you have kids learning Japanese through the movies and there’s cosplay being done. It’s no different than a kid immersing themselves into Harry Potter. Once there’s enough of that world that is interesting, they will want to get into it.”
Baldisimo sees it more pragmatically: “Budj wrote great stories and I did my best to visualize them based on the culture that makes up a giant chunk of who we both are but we'll see in a couple of months if it speaks to another audience of different orientation. If Ablaze actually gets to finish and publish all 13 books, then maybe, I can say that we made a connection.”
THE NEXT GREAT BINGE
That connection will continue with an upcoming Netflix series based on the comics. Veteran Hollywood and Filipina producer Tanya Yuson and Indonesian producer Shanty Harmayn’s BASE Entertainment work to get stories from the Philippines and Indonesia into production. They shopped Trese at film festivals for years as a live-action production but nothing materialized until 2018 when Netflix announced it was producing original anime series. Trese was chosen as one of them. Filipino director/executive producer/showrunner Jay Oliva (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) joined the production and a writers’ room was filled with Filipino screenwriters.
Baldisimo spent time with Oliva’s art and story team but admits he’s not part of the animation process. “I think they wanted to know some of the rules so that they can properly break them and push the material in a better direction within the confines of only a few episodes. They are extremely talented and experienced professionals so I trust that they will give Trese justice,” Baldisimo says.
MORE TRESE IN THE WORKS
Tan lives in Denmark now, working for LEGO, but he still collaborates with Baldisimo, who has moved to Davao, far from the hustle and bustle of Manila. There are now seven volumes of Trese in the Philippines, with hopes that Ablaze Publishing will distribute all volumes to new audiences around the globe. Ablaze also asked the creators to add more pages to each story. Tan worked in journal entries about each creature featured in that issue at the end, written in Trese’s voice. This also helped some sequences — like the one-page action sequences — to breathe more across two or three pages. Although Baldisimo didn’t stop there.
“Kajo pulled a George Lucas and re-drew everything,” Tan admits. “I was begging Kajo to not do it. Star Wars was great, but you don’t have to redo everything. But in this case, it was a good decision.”
“I’m never happy with my art,” Baldisimo says modestly. “The original pages for volume one were mostly done during lunch breaks. Being published by Ablaze and getting a worldwide release gave me an opportunity to improve upon the art. I'm still not happy with it, but it's better than the original. For me, it was selfish fun so yes, I'll do that again with the next volumes.”
Thanks to Trese, Tan has been commissioned to write a book about Filipino folklore. He was given more research material, including one book written by sociology professor Maximon Ramos, the Godfather of Filipino mythology. The opportunity has only lent to his imagination.
“How many monsters do we [Filipinos] have?” Tan asked. “We have a lot! So if I can get Trese to investigate a monster from each province, we’ll be here for a while.”
Trese Vol.1 ($19.99) will be available in print in December from Ablaze Publishing and Vol. 2 is available for preorder in comic shops and on ComiXology.
Budjette Tan also recommends these other comics created by Filipinos:
- J. Torres’s Lola
- John Amor’s work with Justin Jordan in their Webtoon Urban Animal
- The Sparrow’s Roar (Boom) by Christina Rose Chua and Paolo Chikiamco