In a part of Taguig City, beside the hustle and bustle of High Street where night-dwellers bask in the company of fellow night-dwellers and the sheer hope of a good time, is a quaint building where a hero quietly watches over the city while sipping from a Batman cup.
“Ad man by day, comic book man by night,” says comic book writer Budjette Tan’s Instagram account, and this is no easy job for any man. Read on to know how Tan got an eye for the weird and became one of the biggest writers in the Philippine comic book industry.
Luck, tawas, and duwende wars
Beside the window overlooking the nightlife of BGC, Tan reminisces about his childhood in Quezon City where his family lived in the middle of a war – a duwende war.
He takes a sip of water and retells how his mother called to their house a manggagamot who performed a tawas (a ritual wherein the form of molten wax dropped on a basin full of water is interpreted) to get to the bottom of the weird things happening in the house. The manggagamot told them that there were two opposing tribes of duwendes fighting inside their house – the white tribe, which brings good luck when it wins, and the black tribe, which brings otherwise. The manggagamot also instructed them to offer food to the duwendes and leave their door open so that they could pray to the Virgin Mary statue in their garden. “Really? [The duwendes], they’re Catholic?” Tan scoffs.
With these paranormal experiences in his childhood, add to these some crazy stories from relatives and yayas from the provinces, Tan grew up with an open eye for the weird.
Birth of the comic book guy
The X-Men issues 188 and 189 given by a friend were the first comic books Tan laid his eyes on. He appears excited in remembering this. He and his friends always hid their comics under the table during recess, and nothing’s really changed; except only now, he’s allowed to read them anywhere. Tan says that it really was good timing that he was hanging out with comic geeks. “Through friends I discovered Batman, through friends I discovered Neil Gaiman’s work,” which are inspirations for a few story elements of Trese.
From two X-Men issues, a lot of Sunday trips to Filbar’s with his Dad (a gateway to heaven, he says), and a group of friends with the same hobbies, Tan’s comic book hobby grew into a collection and, eventually, a career.
In college, Tan wanted to make a comic book, so he got Bow Guerrero (Demon Dungeon), J.B. Tapia (Demon Dungeon), Arnold Arre (The Mythology Class, Milkyboy), Gerry Alanguilan (Wasted, Elmer), his brother, Brandie Tan (Payaso), and Mark Gatela (Payaso) together and made a comic book called Comics 101.
From superheroes to Trese’s tikbalangs and dead white ladies at Balete – how did this jump happen? It was a matter of chance once again and the great creative juices of Tan and his barkada. Tan shares this story like it just happened a while ago.
He and his friends were fresh graduates when they had a job at a local radio station. They were assigned a one-hour show with the theme of the paranormal. His barkada didn’t want to tell those typical horror stories so Gatela thought of localizing the stories by setting them in Metro Manila. The show’s narrator was named Anton Trese (Yes, Alexandra’s father in Trese and who is voiced by Tan) who told stories about the paranormal underbelly in Metro Manila. Thus, the humble beginnings of Trese.
The Trese story
“As Batman is to Gotham City, as Constantine is to the underworld of London, I use Trese as the guide to Metro Manila,” Tan says about one of his goals with Trese, his crème de la crème of a comic book.
Trese is a black-and-white comic book first published in 2005, written by Tan and drawn by KaJo Baldisimo. “When crime takes a turn for the weird, the police call Alexandra Trese,” as printed on the back of the five-book comic, and weird indeed is the most perfect word to describe Trese’s work.
Alexandra Trese is an espresso-drinking club owner and a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, except the cases she solves are all linked with supernatural and paranormal entities like Tiyanaks, Aswangs, Tikbalangs, and Duwendes, who are, by the way, masked as the Metro’s drug pushers, strip club owners, drag racers, and sewage occupants.
“Manila is a great city, but it’s being taken for granted. There is another side to the city that we live in,” says Tan on why he chose Manila to be the setting for Trese.
Indeed, people have embraced Trese as a game-changer in the local comic book industry. It has won two National Book Awards for Best Graphic Literature since its first publication in 2005 and has since earned a cult following online and within the Philippine comic book industry.
Ad man by day, comic book man by night
When he puts down the comics, Tan works as a creative director at a famous advertising firm. Asked if he has ever considered working full-time on comic book work, Tan answers as fast as the bullets of the Kambal and says, “Everyday,” but says that it’s not viable because “the Philippines is not the place. It’s hard. Even novelists and poets (worst for poets), even if you’re a Tagalog romantic novelist you have to be writing five books a month to make it full-time. It’s very hard.”
Nonetheless, Tan remains optimistic for the local comic book scene as there are more publishers willing to publish comics, much better photocopying machines, and more talented writers and artists. It’s all about continuing the momentum of producing quality output after another.
“I’ve fallen to the trap of endless revision because they [the publishers] want it to be perfect and if you do that, you will never finish. But you get better. You might not ever reach perfection, but you’ll only get better.”