[Meet the Storyteller] Budjette Tan’s Alexandra Trese

MeetTheStoryteller

Meet the Storyteller: Budjette Tan

budjette

Myra here.

I am glad to welcome award-winning, immensely talented comic book writer, Budjette Tan at GatheringBooks today for our Crazy for Comics Reading theme until first week of November. Thank you, Budjette, for finding the time to answer our questions here at GatheringBooks.

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One of the first things that struck me about the graphic novels was that while most of them seem familiar (the encanto, the aswang, the manananggal, the concept of bangungot), they also seemed redefined in a sense. Take for instance, the way that you described the batibat and bangungot in Wanted: Bedspacer (in Book 4: Last Seen After Midnight), your description of the bangungot was literally heartbreaking – unwittingly causing the death of one you are determined to protect from heartache. I just want to know whether you also do a bit of research with all of our mythological creatures – and where does your research (or perhaps stories from your Yaya Lani as you acknowledged in Book 1) stop and your own imaginings and infusions with these mythical creatures begin?

Most of the stories in TRESE are based on stories told to me by my mom, dad, friends, relatives and yes, my Yaya Lani. Growing up, I didn’t have any books that contained stories about our own myth and folklore. When I write a Trese story, the two guiding questions would usually be:
  1. Where are the old gods/old creatures of myth and folklore now? Where are they hiding in this modern city of ours?
  2. How can I tell this story in a way that hasn’t been told before?
The first time we saw a manananggal attack that old nipa hut was scary (from that “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” movie). The second and third time we saw, it started to feel typical and normal. So, I thought, in TRESE’s world, the manananggal would be armed with a machine gun and they’d come and attack you as a gang. Then it would be considered scary! Or, at the very least, something new to see and more threatening.
Click on image to be taken to websource.

Click on image to be taken to websource.

In the case of the bangungot in WANTED: BEDSPACER, I was looking for a new way to depict the bangungot, which has normally been described as something that’s been caused by a batibat, a spirit that lives in trees and manifests itself as a hug woman that sits on the person sleeping on the bed and suffocates the person while he slept.
Click on image to be taken to Trese's Official Site. Illustrations done by Kajo. Shared here with permission.

Click on image to be taken to Trese’s Official Site. Illustrations done by Kajo. Shared here with permission.

So, that was my starting point and I just started to ask myself “what if” questions. “What if it the death wasn’t cause by a batibat? What if the bangungot as completely different creature? What if the bangungot was attracted to heartache – in a similar fashion, demons are supposedly attracted to people weakened by greed, lust, anger, envy and they somehow feed those sins?

Alexandra Trese appears invulnerable and incorruptible to me. I am just reminded of a few classic comic heroes, like Superman for instance, with his Kryptonite. Was it deliberate on your part to make Alexandra Trese seemingly-indestructible, without any kind of discernible weakness? Do you think it makes it more difficult or easier for readers to relate to her because of this?

When I was first writing Trese’s first cases, I just really wanted to portray her as “detective who wanted to solve the mystery right away”. She just went down to business and got the job done. Later on, that was the feedback I got from people, that it seemed like nothing could stand in her way.
Click on image to be taken to websource.

Click on image to be taken to websource.

So, on one hand, there are a lot of readers who like the fact that we’ve got a female character that is not a damsel in distress and we’ve got readers who say that she’s become predictable and that she will get to solve the case in “4 moves” / in 4 pages. Which is why, starting in Book 3, we’ve tried to have Trese stumble and make a few mistakes along the way. And as you might have seen in Book 5 and 6, she’s now up against the Madame, who seems to be “4 moves” ahead of her. Hope readers will find Trese’s future adventures more interesting.
Click on image to be taken to Trese's Official Site. Illustrations done by Kajo.

Click on image to be taken to Trese’s Official Site. Illustrations done by Kajo.

Reading the Trese graphic novels is akin to opening your daily newspaper with all the detailed reports of gory murder, mayhem, corruption, prostitution, drug cartels splashed in the pages – except that there is enchantment and kababalaghan in the supernatural sense thrown into the mix. There are politicos (I especially loved the portrayal of the Madame and the three attorneys in Midnight Tribunal) as well as celebrities (the boxer Manuel in The Fight of the Year as seen in Book 4: Last Seen After Midnight) thrown with an incisive and serrated edge into the narrative. Would you say that your stories function as a social commentary of sorts? You could have departed from reality altogether – what was your intention as an artist in deftly interweaving these biting social realities into a fantastical/mythical realm? 

Click on image to be taken to websource.

Click on image to be taken to websource.

It’s funny that people normally ask me if my stories are “social commentaries”, to which I reply, “But it’s my way of telling you how weird Manila really is”. Every day, I open the newspaper and read about crime and graft and corruption; and every once in awhile, I’d read some unusual crime that just gets one paragraph and no follow up report. Crime news like: man found in black trash bag, woman found burned in motel room, aborted fetus found hidden in basket flowers offered at church, woman killed because was suspected to be an aswang. We live in a city, in a country, where anting-anting (magical amulets) are sold outside churches and it’s accepted as a typical day in Manila; where if you pass by a termite mound near a tree, you’re supposed to say “Tabi tabi po” so that you don’t offend the duwende (dwarf) that’s supposedly living in that mound. So, I don’t think I’m making a strong social commentary,  but I’m just reporting what I see and hear.

How do you put out the darkness after you complete a story so that you are not consumed by it for long?

I eat a lot.

The Kambal (Crispin at Basilio, nice touch) are portrayed as childlike, playful, mischievous, flippant even. Yet their own story is one steeped in tragedy and pain – suggesting that there is more to them than meets the eye. How do you see the story arc for the Kambal happening?

Click image to be taken to websource.

Click image to be taken to websource.

They will get tired of fighting with aswang and will join Pinoy Big Brother, become famous celebrities, host noontime shows, then run for office and become senators.
Okay… Kajo doesn’t really approve of that story arc.
Me and Kajo have already discussed the fate of the Kambal. It will involve a glorious bloody, battle.

If you had infinite resources and you had a benefactor who could provide you with everything you need/require/want – how would you reprint Trese? If you were to make a movie (and I could see that even ten minutes of a Trese short film would be in the millions) and money is not an issue – what would the movie be like? Do you have any ideas on who can play Alexandra?

Hahaha! I dream of this every day.

We printed Trese in black and white because it was cheaper to print it that way. But it has worked out for the best and Kajo’s black and white artwork seems to be the best way to portray the world (and underworld) of Trese.
If we were to release it in color, then Kajo would probably use a dark and gloomy palette.
We’d like to find a way to get Trese into the hands of readers around the world. We’d like to release it in a format that will make it affordable enough for students to buy on a regular basis.
Even though the ebook version is now available via Amazon, Buqo, and Flipreads, it would still be great if a printed version is made available in comic book shops and bookstores around the world.
Click image to be taken to websource.

Click image to be taken to websource.

TRESE the movie? I’ve always said that I’d prefer to find a new actress to portray Trese, rather than find a popular actress, in fear of people seeing the celebrity more rather than the character. Every time Tom Cruise appears on screen, you see Tom Cruise and not really the character he’s portraying in the movie.
But if you ask Kajo, I think he’d cast Ellen Adarna. When I saw Pacific Rim, I thought Rinko Kikuchi might make for a good Trese, especially after seeing that scene of her in the rain with the umbrella.
As far as Filipino directors are concerned, I liked how Erik Matti portrayed Manila in his film OTJ. It was “gritty, glamorous”. Even the scenes in the squatters area looked like beautiful places to visit even though you could still smell the stink and squalor. For foreign directors, might be great to see how Fukunaga would portray Trese’s world. Or also (Hellboy) and Peter Jackson or the directors / creators of Penny Dreadful.
Click image to be taken to websource.

Click image to be taken to websource.

What are the things we should be looking out for in the future for Alexandra Trese, the Kambal, and the Diabolical and all the other fantastical creatures in Trese?

As I’ve always said, as long as there are mysteries for Trese to solve, we’ll always make more Trese stories. We’d like to introduce the other brothers to the readers (they’ve already met Verdugo in Book 6). We will, eventually, show readers what happened in the Great Balete Tree (where Trese under went twelve trials on her eighteenth birthday, where she spent three years of her life travelling to different realms).
Hank will still be serving drinks at the Diabolical and we’d like to hear more of his stories. So, we’d like to be able to release more volumes of Stories from the Diabolical.
Click image to be taken to websource.

Click image to be taken to websource.

Thank you, dear Budjette, for being part of GatheringBooks for our Crazy for Comics Reading Theme! Looking forward to reading more of Alexandra Trese’s crime-fighting adventures.

  1. Thank you for posting this interview! It was good to know more about this world because it’s my favorite Filipino graphic novel series. 🙂 A definite yes to making it readily available to readers all over the world. Looking forward to seeing more books in the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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