Sep 13, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Trese 1-3

When the books about Filipino komiks are written, Trese will go down as a turning point in its history, and Budjette Tan will go down as one of the greatest Filipino comic book writers of all time, and that's about one of the highest badges I give. Granted, the history of Filipino comic books have had some great writer/artists come down the pike, such as Francisco Coching and Jess Jodloman, but as Gerry Alanguilan pointed out in his introduction to Book One (Murder on Balete Drive), there haven't been many contemporary writers that have been all that notable. So this may not seem like high praise, relatively speaking. But it is.



The concept of Trese is simple, and it's something that can be appreciated by Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike. Imagine the world - our world - specifically, Manila - and make it so that creatures of Philippine mythology populate its deepest darkest corners, as well as its highest offices. Imagine the real world, as it is, but nuno live in sewers (because ant mounds are too uncomfortable) and where some of the highest officials in the central business district are tikbalang. If you're unfamiliar with Filipino mythology, this is the book for you. And for you non-Filipinos, don't say that a comic about Filipino mythology would be impossible to get into and that a comic book set in Manila would be hard to relate to; I spent most of my childhood reading and watching stuff about American, Celtic, Greek, Irish, Norse, and whichever else kind of mythology, and most of those stories were set in New York City, so I'm pretty sure you can all follow this. There's actually only one exception to this rule of accessibility, which I'll get to later.

The title character of the series is Alexandra Trese, who is the daughter of Anton Trese, and continues the work of her father by taking care of the supernatural elements in the city, whenever they go astray. In the first issue, she investigates the murder of a white lady (a ghost, so to speak). In another, she has to deal with a rogue tikbalang (that's a horse that walks like a man).



The first two books, Murder on Balete Drive and Unreported Murders, each deal with four "done-in-one" short stories, while the third one, Mass Murders, tells of the origin of Alexandra and the origin of her sidekicks, the Kambal (literally, twins), and it has all of the prior plot threads tie together into one very exciting climax. Alexandra is a really compelling character, mysterious and detached enough that you want to know more about her, but smiles at just the right times that you're not completely put off by her (I'm looking at you, Bruce Wayne). The Kambal are more archetypal than anything, and are incredibly amusing, especially since one of them finds joy in their job and the other one just treats it like a job.


There is only one issue in which the accessibility seems to not be all there: that's issue 4, or the last story in book one. The title is "Our Secret Constellation," and it's essentially, as revealed in the dedication at the end of the story, a tribute to Warren Ellis and Darna - that is, a darker representation of the Philippines' arguably number one superhero. This isn't all too surprising, since the superhero genre tends to be insular -- if you're in on the joke, you get it; if not, you don't -- but also because the way Darna herself works requires a good deal of explanation, and that would have hampered the story. Budjette was banking on readers to be familiar with the Darna mythos. Having said that, this one story is the exception that proves the rule.


As evidenced by that, though, Budjette doesn't do much in the way of exposition, and leaves it to Kajo Baldisimo to set the mood, introduce the characters, and tell the story. Kajo's art is almost purely line - in a time when most artists are relying on Photoshop to introduce gray tones or create distortions in their artwork, Kajo's art is a breath of fresh air. With very few exceptions, his work is all pen and ink -- and he'll denote shadow with pen and ink, and he'll denote the ephemeral quality of the sisters made of wind with pen and ink. Sure, it may look discordant, but I'd rather have it than fancy-schmancy computer tricks.


In addition, no one can tell me that Kajo, whose technique improves palpably per issue, isn't a master of using heavy blacks. With an example like this, he's as good as Mike Mignola.


What impresses me most about Trese is Budjette's ability to neatly wrap every story together. Almost invariably, the last line of each story is powerful - making it obvious that no matter how many bullets were shot and no matter how "action/adventure" the previous pages of the story were, that there's always something more behind it, something deeper to the story. Whether it's about love, respect, dreams, or anything else, almost every adventure subtly uses the theme as a setup for the big action, and then ends it with a meditation on that theme that knocks you off your socks. I know that the ending to every Trese story either floored me, or at least made me smile at the cleverness of how neatly it wraps up.

Trese is a fast-paced, compressed, dark, and compelling comic book about the ancient mythology of the Philippines as set in the modern day. It crafts a compelling universe, with likable and interesting characters, and anyone from anywhere with an appreciation for the whimsical or the dark - or both - can appreciate it. When the history books about Filipino comics are written, Budjette Tan will go down as one of the greatest writers in our history. And if there's any social justice in the world, when the history books about all comics are written, Budjette, Kajo, and Trese will be in there as well.

Trese's official Web site, where you can read all of the issues on your computer, is here, and you can buy the books anywhere in the Philippines. If you don't live in the Philippines, you can order them online from National Bookstore.

5 comments:

Allysons Attic said...

You've convinced me. I'll check it out.

Well...it also helps that the issues are free on the web.

Duy said...

Yep! If you get it online, they're still really cheap -- books 1 and 2 go for 3 dollars, book 3 goes for 4. I can't imagine shipping being all that much, especially if one buys a bundle.

Aris B. Panganiban said...

I always intended to pick up the Trese books (I have one of the original issues), but your review finally made me go get volume 1. I've even posted a Trese article on my own blog. Thanks for recommending a great comic.

Rich Handley said...

That DOES sound interesting, Duy--I'll have to check that out!

--Rich Handley

Duy said...

Glad you think so, Rich!

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