Fifteen years ago, from his office desk at an advertising agency, illustrator Kajo Baldisimo was itching to make comics again. In the past, he frequently hung around with comic book creators, fervent for a meager chance to draw.
“Back in high school, around 1992, I used to spend my Fridays where all the local publishers were and tried to annoy editors to give this mediocre noob a script to work on,” he told VICE. “I was lucky to have a few stories published. It was very cheap labor, but the experience humbled me so much and made me want to learn more about the craft.”
He scored a few projects after that, satiating a hunger to bring narratives to life through panels — ignoring the fact that the work hardly paid the bills. But Baldisimo admits he never had the discipline of an artist. So that by 2005, he found himself working in advertising, sketching out storyboards for TV commercials and laying out print ads. Shackled by the mandate to sell — and sell hard — Baldisimo joked that while the environment was very creative, the experience at certain times made him want to “hurl myself through the office window.”
Convinced he was just jaded by the quotidian work, he decided he needed to make comics again, this time purely for fun.
Little did he know that this would become Trese, a series of graphic novels beloved in the Philippines for its crime-busting lead, Alexandra Trese. Set in the dark corners of Manila, where the local cops come across cases that deal with the supernatural and figures in Filipino folklore, they call Alexandra Trese to take care of the aswang (shape-shifting monsters) who run kidnapping rings, or the magical engkantos stealing people’s possessions.
Looking back, 2005 seems so long ago. The idea of making Trese was just a creative outlet, a little passion project for Baldisimo who wanted to escape from the prosaic day-to-day.
“That is why I texted Budj,” he said. “I wanted to know if he still had that itch to tell stories through comics even though, in reality, both of us didn't really have the time. I needed someone to share the insanity with.”
“Budj” was Budjette Tan, a writer who also dreamed of making a mark in the comics universe. He and Baldisimo met in the 90s through a community of creators who gathered to share their work, brainstorm, and talk publishing. Tan also ended up with a career in advertising, in an office just a few streets away from Baldisimo. By this point, Tan had already published a few books he co-created with his friends (Comics 101, Alamat 101, Batch 72). In one of the projects, he pulled the money from his own pockets but was never able to earn it back.
“It’s a great case of comic book creators not being good business planners. It’s like, we go to the printing press, they say we have to do 1,000 copies — and you hear this story from a lot of comic book creators at that time — they’re stuck with 1,000 copies in their room,” said Tan.
When Baldisimo texted him asking if he wanted to do a comic book together, he was hesitant. Plus, he thought, their schedules would never allow it.
Baldisimo promised he would work on one page a day — squeezed in during the lunch hour. "Send me a script, and I promise I'll finish it in one hour," he assured.
With nothing to lose, Tan sifted through his old files, and revisited a draft he developed in 2002: a detective story with National Bureau of Investigation agent Anton Trese, investigating the death of the White Lady, an iconic ghost in Philippine folklore. It was a police procedural probing supernatural crime, fronted by the creatures told to Filipino children to scare them before they slept. Like the manananggal who separates its upper body and flies with bat-like wings before preying on unborn babies, or the giant kapre who lives in the trees. Tan never finished the story. When he revisited the file again the next year, he even made Trese a tabloid reporter. “And again I couldn’t finish it. And I don’t know why.”
Looking through it, he decided to send Baldisimo the unfinished draft.
One hour later, Baldisimo emailed back a sketch. The scene showed Anton Trese, facing off with a very large aswang. It was great, thought Tan. But something was off. It felt too familiar. A male detective fighting supernatural crime.
“What if,” texted Tan to the artist, “What if Trese was a woman?”
Baldisimo replied, “She would be so badass!”
Alexandra Trese was born.
They made 30 black and white copies through the neighborhood photocopy center and dropped them off at Comic Quest — a comic book shop located in a major shopping mall in Manila that supported the local comics scene. Worried they wouldn’t sell, they priced it at less than one dollar. After one week, Comic Quest messaged Tan. All the copies were sold out.
“One week later, I got a call from the store manager, and he said, ‘You’ve sold out, can you bring more?’ So I made 30 more copies. I didn’t want the same situation of 1,000 copies I couldn’t get rid of, right,” Tan said, laughing.
In the same year, the first comic convention in the Philippines was held in Manila. Tan and Baldisimo brought 50 copies with them. Without even meaning to, they had amassed a cult following. They sold all copies.
Today, Trese has seven issues and is a three-time winner of the Philippine National Book Award for Best Graphic Literature of the Year (2009, 2011, 2012). Asked what they did right this time, Tan pondered: “What I do hear from people is that they say, ‘Oh, thank you for writing about the stories that I heard when I was a kid.’ And maybe that’s partly it, it’s that we’re all familiar with [the stories]. Somehow I think that has contributed to its allure — even to foreign readers. Maybe they feel like, ‘I know what he’s talking about.’”
“I thought, at first, that maybe the fun we had while making the comic was being transmitted and felt by the readers,” Baldisimo added.
“I didn't understand it then, and up to now, I’m not sure what resonates with Trese fans. But I just thought, ‘we should keep telling them more stories.’”
This year, Trese is on its way to international bookshelves, an effort made possible through a crowdfunding initiative that trickled in support in the beginning from followers, but hurriedly reached their goal when Neil Gaiman tweeted about it.
Then came the Netflix adaptation — a project that actually had been in the works since around 2009. Back then, producers Shanty Harmayn and Tanya Yuson of Base Entertainment were looking for Filipino stories to pitch internationally, and through the years, had been bringing copies of Trese to big studios, film festivals, and production companies globally.
“We actually got a rejection from a big studio at the beginning of 2018,” said Tan. “But it was the same year when the anime division of Netflix said they were looking for stories from all over the world … and it got in!”
The anime series is directed by Jay Oliva, who worked as storyboard artist on several Marvel and DC movies (Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok), and directed a two-part animated film Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
The Trese creators were able to speak with director Jay Oliva in January 2019. When Oliva came to Manila to do research for the story, Baldisimo flew in from Davao to spend a day with him. Oliva visited the locations of the stories, including a train ride through the city. While Tan said he has read the scripts and had a peek at the artwork, Oliva is the showrunner for the series. Suffice to say, the Trese creators are excited about it, and are looking forward to a final viewing before its release.
“I think until we see the show it probably hasn’t sinked in yet,” said Tan, laughing. “Looking at what they’ve done to the story, they’ve stayed true to what Trese is all about, but they’ve managed to make it surprising for an old reader. They’ve found a way to surprise even me, while keeping it within the Trese universe.”
“I'm very excited about the film,” said Baldisimo. “The movie was made by very talented and highly competent people, so I feel that many people will enjoy it.”
With a series adaptation and Trese seeing bookshelves outside Philippine shores, it is one of those comics that just makes it.
“It still feels unreal. But to see these bits and pieces and to not be disappointed, I think feels great right now,” said Tan.
"It is true what one of my favorite authors said: an overnight success is 10 years in the making,” mused Tan, referring to Tom Clancy in his book Dead or Alive. “Of all the times that we’ve been rejected, I remember Kajo saying something like, ‘Well, we don’t have control over that. But we do have control over making the next issue of Trese.’ It’s something that I remind myself of: whether it’s a rejection or fantastic news that everything is coming together, I just remind myself, we need to do the next issue of Trese.”