I thought he brought up some interesting points, so I contacted him for an interview. I'd intended to ask him about the creative process only, but of course, as interviews and conversations often go, we ended up talking about other stuff. Read on for an in-depth conversation with Budjette Tan! (By the way, Budjette is a hoot. If you ever have the chance to talk to him, be ready to laugh a lot.)
|TRESE brings old Filipino myths into the modern urban landscape.|
There's Tagalog sentences in the interview, which are immediately followed by translations in parentheses.
Duy Tano: What I noticed with your approach to the creative process, in terms of coming up with ideas, is that you take existing ideas and you tweak them, and you mention relevance a lot. How important is it for someone to be able to identify with the story or be able to have it hit them on a personal level, as opposed to being in a completely alien setting or a different set of problems? How important is relatability?
Budjette Tan: That's a good question. Obviously, we enjoy American comic books, Japanese comic books, French comic books. There is that age-old rule of "Take a universal theme and set it locally," but I guess as a Pinoy comic book writer — one of my first comic books ever was about a guy who could fly, set in World War II. Basically my friends and I wanted to do Indiana Jones meets the Rocketeer. Wala lang, trip lang namin. (It was nothing; we just felt like doing it.) We did it for fun; it lasted 20 pages, and after that, we never got back to it. So when Whilce (Portacio) started — I'm working my way to an answer to your question — (general laughter) one of the first things Whilce told us when he came back—
|Gerry Alan, Stone|
This was '94. It was at the time Alamat was formed. It was one of the things he was telling us about. Write about what you know, write about your home, write about where you are. And when he did STONE, for example, he wanted it to be a comic book of course for an American market, but at the same time, if a Pinoy picks it up, he would say, "Oh, that's Megamall! Hey, that's the ice skating rink! I've been there! This guy's name is Gerry Alan! I know a guy named Gerry Alan!" His point was, if you write about familiar stuff, you will identify with the setting and the place.
But at the same time, there were things in STONE that threw me off. I don't know if it's because in the back of my head, I knew it was being written by an American — okay, he was Asian, but still, he was an American. He was mixing and matching stuff from Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings and putting it in a Filipino context. It had dwarves, it had kingdoms, and all of these things. It was okay, I guess, if you were into this whole fantasy element, and besides, no one has codified dwarves and duwendes here, so you're free to do whatever you want.
And...I still have no answer to your question. (laughter)
For me, what's important is that it makes it new, to find my own personal spin to it. I guess that's what I look for with the stuff I read that I end up liking. How did they give it their own spin? Ang hirap din kasi e. (Because it's also difficult to do.) Is it as simple as Marvel's attempt to put Spider-Man in India and make his origin magical and the Green Goblin is a genie? I don't know if that really works. I don't know if it's that simple to make it all work.
Obviously, especially with TRESE, it wasn't enough to say "Oh, it's another guy in a trenchoat; let's make it a girl in a trenchcoat!" In the back of my head, there needed to be little things, and it might be those little moments like the Kambal calling her bossing just to give it that flavor — it's more of a flavor — to make you feel more familiar with where it's happening. It's not enough to just show, "Hey, look, it's happening in Megamall." Baka yun yung nagkulang sa akin sa STONE. (That might have been what I have found missing from STONE.) I'm just using it as a comparison because that was also the attempt in STONE: put in Filipino myths but make it accessible to an international audience. Baka yun ang kulang. (That might have been what was missing.) It felt superficial, when maybe what it needed was that Pinoy flavor.
Would you say STONE was in the back of your mind when you were coming up with TRESE?
Wasn't at the forefront. What Whilce was talking about — how do we tell our own stories but make it appeal to a wider audience? So sure, that was a guidepost for me: familiar setting, bring it home for the reader, or at least make him say, "I have never seen that before in a comic book."
You spoke about what tweaks were enough, or how it's not enough to just set a story in a new place. Do you think of them as a series of little tweaks or is one big thematic tweak necessary?
I'm a lazy writer—
It doesn't show, Budj.
I'm not a world-builder-type writer. Dave (Hontiveros, BATHALA: APOKALYPSIS) is more the world-builder. He needs to have everything set in his head.
|"Gago! A higante can't fit in the banyo!"|
No, Merv is a hack. (laughter) Mervin is a world-builder, and he's the same when it comes to his advertising work and in his comic book work. He thinks things through, and sometimes it's done, and then he'll just revise it, because he thinks, "What if I brought it to this level?" But for me, I take it more a story at a time and slowly build that world. Like I mentioned in the talk, my cheat is that I was Filipinizing the stuff that I really, really like. I guess the biggest thing that also helped it work is we have such a wonderful mythology. And it wasn't as simple as, "I will Filipinize Superman."
I'm telling Dave you said that. (laughter)
If you do it wrong, magmumukha siyang Kapitan Boom (If you do it wrong, it will look like Kapitan Boom.) One of Mars Ravelo's lesser-known characters. It's not like when he took the idea — whether Wonder Woman came first or not, or Captain Marvel — it was important that he made Darna a part of a family unit. Yung lola niya, si Ding (Her grandmother, and Ding [her brother])—
Oo. Hindi siya exact copy ng original character. (Yes. She wasn't an exact copy of the original character.) So there. It really helped to try and see those old myths in a modern setting. And thankfully, it turned out well.
What about Captain Barbell?
I haven't read much. As a kid, I watched more Darna stuff.
I think there was more Darna stuff in general.
Yeah, Captain Barbell, not so much. I kind of remember the Herbert Bautista/Richard Gomez version. And I can't remember many memorable characters, even villains-wise. Darna has the Planet Women, Valentina, and everyone mixes up the giant frog and the zombies, but that wasn't Darna; that was our Superwoman. There's Darna and the Giants. Maybe that's why Captain Barbell wasn't so memorable. Okay, I remember the character, but there were no memorable villains.
A few years ago, Mango Comics had a DARNA revival, and I was able to read it last year. In issue #2, in the letters page—(Budjette laughs)— and I saw your name. You weren't particularly impressed. What was missing?
|Budj's printed letter in DARNA #2|
Obviously, the basics of it will always be the same. Young girl gets magical stone and fights the good fight. Miller added to the whole Batman mythos without having to touch that whole origin.
I assume you liked Gerry (Alanguilan) and Arnold (Arre)'s LASTIKMAN?
But they were also trying to be faithful, so what was the difference?
Well, for LASTIKMAN, I saw it as Gerry doing his "Crest Hut Butt Shop," except it just happened to star Lastikman. I don't really know what was wrong with DARNA. Let me think about that.
So we talked about relatability. What about relevance? For example, SKYWORLD obviously tells a story that takes place over hundreds of years, but the political statements it makes are about now. How important is it to reflect the current sentiment? And if it's very important, how do you avoid being dated?
People ask me similar questions about TRESE. Or I've seen book reviews of TRESE—some students have been nice enough to share with me their thesis reports about TRESE, and it is surprising to see stuff like "Am I making a social statement about women, because in Book 1, all my victims are women"—
Your hero's a woman!
(laughter) Di ba? May mga ganun e. (Right? I get those.) And I tell them, no. My focus is how to tell a really good mystery, how to tell a new legend and tell it in a new way. I can't really speak for Mervin, but the reason they end up making these relatable situations, characters, moments is because that's what they see every day. Obviously, our new reader base are kids who were born after People Power. For them, Martial Law was no big deal. It's just a date in the history books. Same thing with Ninoy. A lot of them were born the year he died. So maybe for them, People Power 2 was the closest thing to (jokingly) "Wow, I was in a revolution! Powered by texts." That's in our history books and we see it on TV and on Twitter, and all of these talk about this politician, that politician, corruption. We grew up in it, and you can't help but bring it into your story. Especially when you talk about monsters in the city.
|SKYWORLD prominently features Alexandra Trese and the Kambal|
Speaking of which, exactly how much input did you have on SKYWORLD, as the editor?
Mervin and Ian (Sta. Maria) would just come to me, as far as plot was concerned, whenever they would come to a roadblock with a certain character. We would brainstorm about it and throw ideas around until Mervin figures out, "Okay, this is what I want." Or like when they first said, "We want to bring in Trese and the Kambal," and I said, "Sure!" Then they wanted to kill off one of the Kambal, and I said (decisively) "No!" (laughter) Of course they had their own interpretation of what the masks looked like, and other things, but they really had free reign on where they wanted to take their story, and I acted more as a sounding board. At the end of the day, it was their story. I would be in no position to say "No, don't do that."
Except when it came to your characters.
Yeah, little things like "Would they say that? Would they do this?" Then I had more say. When I write, I try to follow Stan Lee and Chris Claremont's basic rule, which is "Always assume this is someone's first comic book." So my biggest apprehension was, "Aren't you going to take the time to explain why Trese is important in this world? And who the hell is Kadasig?"
(laughter) Ang daming nagtanong nun e. "Sino si Kadasig?" (A lot of people asked that. "Who is Kadasig?"
Do you still follow that rule? Assuming this is someone's first comic book? Because in the age of the Internet, these things may no longer be as important.
Of course that's what they do say. I heard one podcast where they said — I think it was (Paul) Levitz — now with Legion (of Super Heroes), you can easily Wikipedia whoever.
Getting back to TRESE, do you write full script or do you write Marvel style?
Full script for Books 1 to 4. For Book 5, we're trying it Marvel style, because we're late! (laughter)
How much leeway does Kajo have when you work full script? He can do anything he wants?
Any advantages to working Marvel style?
We seem to get things done faster! But now the burden is on my end because I now have to figure out which dialogue happened where. Or it's the reverse now. I'll give him two pages of dialogue and say, "This all happens in a room for the next three pages." What I notice is that it's when I write the dialogue that I get the feel for the character. My fear now for Book 5 is since it's all action, it was when I started writing the dialogue for those pages that I started to feel better about the story.
You've obviously already worked Darna into a TRESE story. Do you have any desire to work any other classic komiks characters in?
No comment! (laughter)
Oh, was that a potential spoiler?
I did already sneak Panday in there. Do you remember the Metalero?
|Ang Panday? Metalero gets a phone call from Trese.|
Oh yeah! Do you have any desire to work with those old characters at all?
You know, ABS-CBN bought the rights to around twenty, thirty Mars Ravelo characters and no one is doing anything with them. When I asked Gerry, he said the same thing he said on the (Darna Lives!) website, which is that he and Arnold would rather work on their own characters. Pero nasasayangan ako (But I feel this to be something of a wasted opportunity), because I'm definitely happy working with my Trese characters, but it would be great to do something with them.
To play in that sandbox.
Yeah. It's what inspired you. You grew up with that, and you want to play with that. Yun yung sayang e. (That's the wasted part.) Not like, "Sure, let's forget about Darna because we've got someone else now." I'm just not too happy with how they treat the character as "This is how we're gonna promote the hot new girl in our stable." Which might be a story in itself, because if you think about it, that's why there was a Vilma Santos story, a Nanette Medved Darna, an Anjanette Abayari Darna, Angel Locsin. Did you get to see what Arnold did with these characters on his Facebook page, with his version of the characters?
Where Panday looks like Pacquiao?
|Arnold Arre's modernize Pinoy heroes|
Your Darna analogue story was dedicated to Warren Ellis. He's your favorite writer, so why him over everyone else?
I think it's the same principles on my attempts to tell a story. He got hold of STORMWATCH and figured it out and morphed it into THE AUTHORITY. And of course, his biggest statement on superheroes, PLANETARY. He has that whole manifesto on pop comics — the superhero genre's been around for the longest time? How do you make it new? He did that for me.
Would you say he's your biggest influence?
Him and (Neil) Gaiman. In terms of structure, in terms of how to tell a story, it would be Ellis. In terms of world-building — or what little I do of it — it's Gaiman.
You're obviously attracted to Filipino myths. Do you have any desire to do other kinds of stories, like sci-fi, or anything else?
One of the big itches I really want to scratch is, for some reason, I really want to write about a uniformed superhero team, like the Fantastic Four or the Classic X-Men. For some reason, naaaliw talaga ako (I really get amused) seeing a team in uniform. I guess that's something I haven't seen in a long time, or in a Philippine context, for that matter.
And generally, superheroes. BATCH 72 was supposed to be part of an imprint of books. We were trying all sorts of routes. My uncle used to own a publishing company. They made Tagalog romance books. I asked, "What can I do that you would want to print?" And he said, "Write something in Tagalog." And I said, "Oh shit!" So I got the guys together and said, "Hey, my uncle said we should make a Tagalog comic book!"
Are you just not comfortable writing in Tagalog in general?
I've tried it. I just feel like people will see how bad it is. I struggle at it. BATCH was my only attempt at writing in Tagalog and writing superheroes. So what we did for two consecutive nights was brainstorm our entire universe. We had our superhero book, we had our dark magic book, we had our cop book, we had our space book, and then we thought, "What about a fifth one?" And that's what BATCH was. And for some reason, mas natuwa kami sa BATCH (we liked BATCH better). These were the guys who don't get the spotlight. But there, that was the exercise in writing it in Tagalog.
That brings me to my next question. There's a sentiment among some people who think that if it's not in Tagalog, then it's not Filipino.
Is that still alive? (laughter) Are people still saying that? If that's the case, then we should stop listening to every single English song ever written by your favorite Pinoy band. We should stop listening to every single English song ever written by your favorite Pinoy singer. They sing about the stuff that happened to them because they are Pinoy.
I don't know if the Indians have this same problem. There was an article in Time a couple of years back called "The Empire Has Struck Back" or "The Empire Struck Back." Basically it was all about these non-English authors who were then dominating the American and British book market. Salman Rushdie was one of the popular ones at the time.
It's part of our culture. And again, I go back to TRESE. The feedback I get from people about it is more like, "Thank you for bringing these myths and folklore back." And not about the language.
I find it interesting, for example, that the National Book Development Board is giving away 200,000 pesos to anyone who wants to write a novel in Cebuano. It's their attempt to make that market grow. In the Palanca Awards, there are categories for Cebuano, Ilonggo, all those different dialects.
Gerry's response to that question is, "I write in English because I want more people to understand my story."
On TV networks, you mentioned that you think it's a wasted opportunity that nothing's being done with the old characters. Given that TV is looking to komiks, or I guess they always have, do you think they hold the key to wider komiks distribution?
If our komiks stories can be translated to other media, most especially TV and film and even web videos, then I think it will open the market and attract more readers. I was watching a documentary on the history of comics and another documentary promoting the HISTORY OF DC book. When I was looking at it, it was because Superman became so popular that he ended up radio, which gave life back to the comic, then the serials, then the TV shows. It was feeding off each other. Same thing happened to Batman.
He was about to be cancelled when Adam West showed up.
Right. I don't know if they made it campy because of the Comics Code Authority, which led to the idea of making the TV show campy, and then nagsawa na yung mga tao doon (the audience got tired of it), which led to Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams making him darker, which led to DARK KNIGHT, which led to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. (Tim) Burton said he was inspired by DARK KNIGHT.
|Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams were allowed to |
gradually evolve the tone of Batman.
Without that period that allowed Batman to become darker — it was a gradual change for the Batman. It wasn't just a big shift. So para sa atin, yun yung kulang. (So for us, that's what's missing.) Sure, Darna gets revived every once in a while, but sayang na hindi siya present on print (it's a waste that she's not present on print). Or even on a comic strip. Stan Lee still writes the Spider-Man newspaper strip!
Superman and whatever magical qualities those characters have, they have the sustaining power to remain on different media. For some weird reason, I don't know why Wonder Woman can't sustain it.
That's the weirdest thing about Wonder Woman. She seems to be popular everywhere else. She's got clothes, lunchboxes, everything. But somehow her comics don't really sell. Does anyone else have such a big gap between how popular she is in comics and how popular she is everywhere else?
I picked up the New 52 Wonder Woman, and it was just —"Sorry! I tried you for 12 issues!"
I think you had a status message that said you didn't really like the New 52. Even STORMWATCH?
I'm comparing it to Ellis e.
Grant Morrison's ACTION?
I tried it, but nothing.
Not even BATWOMAN?
Even before New 52— I love (JH Williams') art. I love how inventive and original his paneling is. Pero hindi ko masakyan si Batwoman e. (But I just can't get into Batwoman.)
I can see that.
But there. It would be great if there were a big burst just to make people aware, "O, may komiks pala. Saan galing 'yan? Ang ganda." ("Oh, komiks exist. Where did they come from? They're great.")
You wrote the komiks adaptation to TIKTIK: THE ASWANG CHRONICLES. Do you think it would be possible and sustainable if ABS-CBN started a small publishing imprint and continue that?
TIKTIK is actually co-production between Reality Entertainment (owned by director Erik Matti and producer Dondon Monteverde) and Agostos Dos (owned by Dingdong Dantes). The movie is being co-promoted and released via GMA Films. So, I think it was great that they decided to go the comic book route in order to promote their movie, months before it gets released. If this proves successful I hope they continue to produce comic books as a way to promote their movie or maybe even use it for spin-offs or prequels.
I think a small publishing imprint by a movie company or a TV network like ABS-CBN is highly possible and sustainable, whether it's in print or on the web. I think one example of how you can sustain a spinoff from a series is, ABS-CBN had a really successful show called Imortal. John Lloyd with as a vampire, and Angel Locsin. It's basically Twilight. I'm sure Imortal fans will hate me for saying that.
But what happened was, ABS-CBN created a website, and they had webisodes. I think they were probes of the other characters from the Imortal series. Even after the TV show ended, ang taas ng traffic sa site (the site traffic was very high). So even after the TV show ended, the people had fallen in love with the characters and wanted to know what happens after the show.
So to me, that's a big signal that you can sustain it. We have a way of killing a series and then bringing it back ten years later. Mara Clara, they're back! Two new kids, Mara Clara again! For example, Mulawin. Why did they kill it? If it was so successful, next season, why did they go, "Oh, let's do something completely new." I don't know. Is it market research that says it? And that's where Richard Gutierrez and Angel Locsin became popular.
It doesn't seem to be sound, businesswise. Wouldn't business sense tell you to milk it for all it's worth?
Correct. Unless somebody at GMA says, "No, our editorial line is 'Let's always come up with something new, but it has to be fantasy-based.'" And for a five-year stretch, everyone was doing a fantaserye. Even ABS did some sort of Power Ranger post-apocalyptic thing. But then GMA did Encantadia, then that thing underwater, then they discovered superheroes all over again.
Popular characters, why aren't they milking it? Do they just want to make a quick buck? Or do DC and Time Warner just have really shrewd businessmen, who continually found a way to make Superman and Batman work?
Time Warner seems really focused on those two characters. It doesn't seem like they know what to do with the others.
Well, let's see how Arrow works. Which still bugs me that he's calling himself that. (deep voice) "I'm ARROW."
Let's get back to the notion of Filipinizing ideas.
Another character that's been nagging me is, bakit walang Pinoy Spider-Man? (Why is there no Filipino Spider-Man?) There was an attempt with Gagamboy and Boy Ipis, but we never saw them again.
Roaches are icky.
But a lot of people hate spiders. They find spiders icky as well. Not as bad as cockroach, especially a flying ipis. And I asked some Spider-Man fans, anong pinagkaiba ni Spider-Man kay Blue Beetle? (How does Spider-Man differ from Blue Beetle?) It felt like they were on the same archetype.
They were created by the same guy.
That is absolutely right. Oo nga, no. Except Ted Kord Blue Beetle went the more techie route.
He's also not really a beetle.
Yes, and that's what they did now with the new one. That new Blue Beetle is in that Spider-Man archetype. He's a teenager, he has problems. It really feels like once you have an established character claim that archetype, it's so hard to do the next one. After Wolverine was created and got really really popular, who was the next guy with claws and a mysterious past that reached that same level?
None, but everybody tried it! There was a five-year stretch where everyone was doing it!
Sa iba't-ibang lugar na lumalabas yung claws! (The claws were coming out from different places!) The angsty character, with claws!
Are you looking forward to any specific comics coming out?
Let's wait and see what Mark Waid and Leinil Yu do with the Hulk.
As a writer, what do you think of the Hulk? Because as a reader, I think he's very limited. But he's clearly very popular; he's arguably the most popular guy in Avengers.
I would go back to Stan Lee's whole logic behind the Hulk. He's the angry man inside you who's always wanted to lash out. And let's talk about the other green monster, Oscar the Grouch. Jim Henson and Sesame Street said, "We need a monster, because kids will get grumpy. Kids will get grouchy." And that's who Oscar is. He's the kid with the temper tantrum. Then there's Elmo. I don't want to talk about Elmo. Anyway, Red Hulk, Green Hulk, there's something there! (laughter)
This interview just went all over the place!
If you think about it, they're also trying to figure out what to do with Hulk. Every now and again, they'll go back to the default Hulk setting of Jekyll and Hyde. Struggling with his identity, trying to control himself. Then they'll go to this world adventurer, space explorer, gladiator, smart, monster killer, mafia guy, and then they go back to basics. How many times have they split the Banner and Hulk personality, only to put them back together again?
He had the least successful of the Marvel movies, and he somehow walks away as the most popular guy in the Avengers.
Of course, the trick is how do you sustain that? I still like Norton's Hulk over Bana's Hulk.
What about Ruffalo?
Oh, he was perfect. Perfect Banner.
Do you have any advice for comic book writers?
Start it, and then finish it. Start small, because you end up feeling disappointed when you don't get to write your hundred-page epic story. You feel like a failure. So you may as well feel like a failure writing your four-page story, because then you can start anew and feel like a failure with your five-page story. Start small. Start with a four-page story and work yourself up to an eight-pager. Can you tell a story with one panel? I think those are important exercises to go through, typical of learning any craft.
Do you find that the same skills apply on a four-pager as to an eight-pager, and all you have to do is scale up?
Yeah. And of course, do your best. When you're done with your story, move on. Get your first draft done. Don't revise as you're doing your first draft. That's a mistake, which some of my friends do, and that's why they haven't finished their comic book. I'd also advise not to start working on a computer. I'd advise to still work with a notepad or a notebook and just doodle and sketch the whole thing out. And if it doesn't feel like you're committed to the whole thing, you're free to change it as you go along. Those are the things that worked for me. A deadline is nice. And the whole don't wait for inspiration thing.
Do you have a self-imposed punishment if you go with your self-imposed deadline?
No. But I have a lot of rewards for myself! The Internet is the biggest distraction, but it's like a drug! "Ay natapos ko na yung scene! (Oh, I finished the scene!) I can see what's on Twitter!" And then one hour later, I'm still on Twitter.
You have a lot of historical stuff in TRESE. It makes me think that you have a binder full of news articles. How much research do you do?
Not a lot. It's a mix. Some of the stuff there are stuff I just read through the years. Some other stuff, like the Talagbusao, for example. I've said it before, but the Talagbusao was just one little paragraph of this book called The Soul Book, and it just intrigued me that we had a god of war and he was described in this manner and he could possess people, and I just found it interesting that no one's ever written about him. So those are the things that interest me. Then there are things that I would write into the story, know nothing about it, and then just backtrack later on, just so I can fill in whatever those gaps may be.
I guess the other tip is to keep reading, because you never know when it might come in handy.
Will Kwentillion have a regular schedule?
No, it wasn't retained by Summit. It didn't sell enough. But we are free to pitch to other publishers. We told our contributors the day we found out, but there, we're looking for a new publisher. They're keeping it in stores for another month or so. I don't know what they're going to do with that, but we did ask them to make it available at the Komikon in October.
Between TRESE, SKYWORLD, and other komiks, are you afraid that the whole "modernizing Filipino myths" thing is going to become a cliche?
I think it would be great if it did, because I think that would just force you to do better stuff. Maybe we'll just say, "Let's bring them back to the province!" If you think about it, maybe that's what got Stan Lee to do the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, because they were surrounded by guys who were all capes and high and mighty and didn't have problems and just came in and solved your problems. So if that's something that new writers and artists will want to do, if that's something that encourages them to write, then let that be the process for them to figure out what they like and what they don't like.
Take a look at Mervin Malonzo's TABI PO. He didn't go down that road road of doing a modernized take on the aswang. He decided to tell his little story about an aswang being given brith by the world and what happens afterwards and it all happens in a provincial setting, so why not, di ba? He decided to tell his little story about an aswang giving birth to the world, so why not, di ba? If it saturates the market, I'm sure the rest of us will figure out where to take it.
When is Trese Book 5 out?
We're targeting October at the Komikon.
And finally, if you have a chance to write one licensed character in the world, who would it be and what would your pitch be?
Batman comes to Manila!
That's good enough for me. Thanks a lot, Budj!
|You can buy TRESE online through National Book Store.|