Sep 24, 2016

Female Protagonists in Different Cultures: The 2016 Comics Cube Interview With Budjette Tan

This interview was conducted on June 14, 2016. I apologize for the delay in getting it onto the website.

I sat down with Budjette Tan, writer of local Philippine comic book Trese, before he left for his new job in Lego in Denmark. Budjette’s main character, Alexandra Trese, is a female protagonist. At the time, Ghostbusters was about to be released, and was the subject of much backlash throughout the internet, specifically due to its all-female cast. At the time, as well, the Philippines had elected a new president, who was also under fire for making sexist remarks.

I was very interested in seeing how differently and similarly we in the Philippines saw gender relations and how we adapted to female protagonists seemingly more readily than Western fandom. So Budjette and I talked, and, well, it was very loud, which is why this isn’t in audio. So here’s coffee with Budjette Tan, writer of Trese, on a variety of subjects.

Duy: We live in a fandom where, if you look at the news items in the States, we’re seeing a bigger female demographic and a backlash to that growing female demographic. As a fan, and as the writer of a female protagonist, how do you think the Philippines is similar and different to what we see in the U.S. in that sense?

Budjette: As far as the Philippines is concerned, I don’t think we’ve ever had a problem with having strong, female heroic leads. And just off the top of my head, there’s Darna, there’s Dyesebel, there’s even Super Inday. Most recent siguro would be the characters portrayed by Marian Rivera in GMA fantaserye—epikserye as they call it—who else…


Of course there’s Trese. We grew up seeing these really powerful characters, these really strong figures, so I don’t think it’s much of a problem as far as Pinoys are concerned. Yeah, we have our action stars in pop culture. You have your Ramon Revilla, Robin Padilla, FPJ-type characters, Bong Revilla-type characters. These strong macho men who win the girl in the end. We seem to be okay with that balance, versus the States, like now. There’s always a clamor for a Black Widow movie. They’re always saying, “Kawawa naman si Black Widow,” “They’re not giving her equal opportunity,” stuff like that. And now that Thor is a woman—

Oh no, the end of the world. 

(laughs) The new Ms. Marvel. Carol Danvers. Batwoman, and she’s also gay—

We also don’t have a problem with gay protagonists. Like Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah.

Exactly. Zsa Zsa. We have no problem in lining up to watch a movie with a gay protagonist. Whoever’s the popular gay actor at the moment, whether it’s Roderick Paulate in the Seventies and Eighties, to Vice Ganda. So now that I think about it, it seems to always be a point of controversy for US readers whenever such a shift happens. Or there’s a clamor for more of it. They don’t seem to get satisfaction out of it. Finally, there’s talk of a Captain Marvel movie, but there’s still no Black Widow movie, so yun nga, kawawa naman si Black Widow.

And on the flipside, DC only approved the Wonder Woman movie after the Captain Marvel movie was announced. That might not have been the reason, but that’s the order of things.

That’s true, for the longest time, there was no Wonder Woman movie in production, and there was the cancelled TV show. Compared to Wonder Woman, Darna has had many incarnations, most recently on TV with Angel Locsin and Marian Rivera. Now there’s going to be an Erik Matti movie from Star Cinema. …the movie producers always know that a Darna movie will bring in the money. They know it’s going to be a hit.

Do you think our acceptance of our female protagonists is reflected in our society? As an example, we just elected a president who’s okay with making rape jokes, catcalling reporters… but then again, two of our presidents have been women.

Right, exactly. I don’t think it’s a big deal as far as the Pinoys are concerned.

How do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory sentiments? You told me before that Trese took off once you turned her into a woman. Can you explain how that worked? How did that become an X-factor? In that same interview, you told me that Trese started as a proposal for the Shroud and John Constantine, and it wasn’t enough to set the story in the Philippines, you had to add its own local flavor. Would you say somehow that turning her into a woman added that Filipino flavor?

Wow, I didn’t think of that. At its most basic, the question to myself was, “What have I not seen before as far as this genre is concerned?”, this noir, detective genre. So I had in my head Fox Mulder, Gil Grissom, Batman, John Constantine. I was trying to fit Anton Trese into that mold, and it just kept coming out boring to me. So I just thought, it was a simple, “I will change Trese into a woman,” and see how that goes. And there was just something about the thought of the youngest daughter trying to live up to her father’s legacy. Maybe it was also partly all of these stories about… for the Fil-Chinese, I heard the parents will end up with six girls but they always wanted a guy, so the guy will inherit everything, because it needs to be a man who will inherit this whole thing. I just thought there was something about a girl who will fill her father’s shoes and fulfill her father’s legacy, that makes it harder, I think. But I had no idea what that back story was. It was just that simple line, “I am Alexandra Trese, but I am not my father’s daughter. I am not my father.” That was the only thing I had in my head to kick off her character. And I just started to add stuff to that starting point.  I don’t know, I guess thinking about it, it might have been influenced by all these stories by family and friends.

At its most basic, the question to myself was, “What have I not seen before as far as this genre is concerned?... I will change Trese into a woman.”

Okay, you brought up that the man has to inherit everything. We’re more female-friendly than a lot of other countries, especially in this part of the globe. We do still live in a society where the man is expected to provide for the family. So, do you find it difficult to give Trese a love life?

Why are you asking this question? (laughs)

When I was still in the Trese Facebook group, I remember someone wanting her to have a boyfriend, and one of the requirements was that the boyfriend could take Trese in a fight. Which, to me, was, what’s the point? Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t we just read about the boyfriend? But at the same time, if he can’t hold his own, then he’s not “in charge” and we’re in that kind of society. So do you find it hard to give her a love life? I know you’re teasing Maliksi. Can I just say I’m not sure you’re going anywhere with this?

(laughs) That’s nice to know.

Off the record, are you?

Budjette’s answer to this question has been removed as a result of Duy saying the words “off the record.” We now return you to your regularly scheduled interview.

I guess early on, I was just using Trese as the cipher and the vehicle for people to explore this Manila, this underworld of Manila. So to give her a love life was not important. I could have easily gone the route of, let’s make the rookie cop the—not the love interest, but there’ll be tension between them. It just didn’t feel important at the time. If she should ever have a love interest, the ones that interested me in the past are relationships like Remington Steele and Laura Holt, Moonlighting with David Addison and whoever Cybill Shepherd’s character was. They were still strong women. They were strong women who did not want a man in their life, but somehow this man came into their life and somehow made their life more interesting. They were not damsels in distress, but it worked out within this whole tandem. Same with Mulder and Scully. I love that episode of Moonlighting where they did their version of Taming of the Shrew. It might be something like that. It might be, Trese is the one who is completely not interested, but whoever is in love with her is trying so hard to impress her. As to whether that will work or not, we don’t know.

How do you avoid what I call “The Steve Trevor Syndrome,” where he’s basically the man in distress, and yet not have him overpower the title? I mean, you even kind of see it with someone like Lois Lane, where she basically becomes the co-star. I love Lois Lane, but I’m not buying it for Lois Lane, I’m buying it for Superman. Same with Spider-Man and Mary Jane. How do you avoid not making them useless but at the same time not having them take the same amount of air time as the main character?

I have no idea.

Insights from an award-winning writer, people.

I make this stuff up as I go along! What’s wrong with you?


I think, as long as they’re not used as a prop. As a prop to be saved. It can fall into that. For the longest time, if a writer uses Aunt May wrong, Aunt May becomes a prop for Peter to rush back home, to not do the fight, to go out as Spider-Man, to earn the money—she becomes a prop. But if you do it right—

That’s why no one likes her.

Well, now she’s Marisa Tomei.

Oh, right, now I love her. (laughs)

(laughs) — so maybe that will change. But even things like Doc Ock falling in love with Aunt May, what was that? (laughs) What was that? So maybe like how Aunt May was portrayed by Bendis in Ultimate Spider-Man, not just because she was physically stronger, but she felt more like a real person in how she was portrayed there than in the main Spider-Man, where she’s used as a tension point for Peter. Like do I fight this guy or do I go back to Aunt May? So that could easily become whoever the love interest is of Trese. Tied up and put on the railroads, or she has to decide, “Do I go out on a date? Or fight the aswang? Oh, my, what am I gonna do?” If it becomes that, it fails.

If Trese’s love interest fights crime with her, either he contributes and saves the day or hindi sila pantay because she’s the one saving the day. Where’s the balance?

If it’s a fellow crimefighter or aswang hunter, then it’s the same dynamic as Batman and Catwoman, I guess.

And it may or may not be Maliksi.

I can neither confirm nor deny.

Okay, next question. Scarlett Johannson just got cast as Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Ideally speaking, Kusanagi should be Japanese.  

Practically speaking, you need a big-name actress or the movie wouldn’t be made at all. If you were put in this situation—if you were in the States and you successfully pitch Trese the Movie, and the studio, be it Disney or Warner Brothers or whatever, they say that the actress absolutely cannot be Filipino. She has to be white. What do you say?

Oh wow. That’s tough. Obviously my kneejerk reaction is no. I would be more open to using an Asian actress, not necessarily a Filipina.

What if it’s someone half, like Olivia Munn?

Okay, not Olivia Munn. I think she was great in the Psylocke outfit, I loved her in Newsroom

Off topic, did you see that cosplay Jessy Mendiola did of Psylocke?


She doesn’t look any more or less Asian than Munn.

That’s a good point. We just know in the back of our heads that Jessy Mendiola is a Filipina.

Filipina actress Jessy Mendiola on the left;
Olivia Munn on the right.

In an ideal world—take a look at Star Wars. Take a look at how Lucas put that together. His focus was the story that needed to be told. He did not feel the need to put a sure-win A-list celebrity to make it work.

It was a different time.

Yeah, which is why I’m trying to figure out in my head if there’s anything that comes close to it.

Guardians of the Galaxy.

Kind of. I’m sure that was a calculated risk. I guess Marvel knew they couldn’t replicate an Avengers cast, but I’m sure that casting Batista there meant he brought his own niche fans.

Virtually every Marvel casting choice has been weird to me at first, and somehow it works. Chris Evans was the Human Torch.

Yeah, you’d think that would automatically turn him off.

Even RDJ was a weird casting choice when it happened.

Keanu Reaves as John Constantine. If you’re a die-hard fan, you immediately object over that casting. Funnily enough, I’ve met people who have never read the comic book who love the movie. Tama nga, as a movie by itself, which could have easily be called something else—you didn’t need to call it Constantine or Hellblazer, but by itself it actually worked.

So is there any situation where you would accept any non-Asian actress as Alexandra Trese? These situations don’t include “Somebody’s in the hospital and I need the money.”

This is where the advertising side of me might kick in. Keeping in mind which market you’re trying to sell it to. Again, in an ideal world, I would like the Trese movie set in the Philippines and played by Filipino actors.

Even though you wrote it in English.

Even though I wrote it in English. Yun nga e, after I read that one translation—I had Bob Ong translate it into Tagalog—it just felt more Pinoy. It suddenly made sense more. I could easily imagine Trese and even the Kambal, of course, to still do their specific dialogue. It doesn’t have to be 100% Tagalog, just conversational. And that’s why I love how Erik Matti did OTJ. It was a very conversational tone. The politicians spoke in English, the cops spoke in Tagalog. Tama lang, it makes sense. So I would do it that way. But, again, keeping in mind, you need to make it appeal to a certain market. You take a look at Sherlock versus Elementary. I am completely blown away by how Elementary is now on Season 5. You know, I try to watch it, but at the end of it, I can’t even say it’s junk food. Junk food kasi may satisfaction ka even though you know it’s empty calories. Watching Elementary makes me think… did I just eat corn flakes, did I just eat cardboard? It has drama, mystery, it has what makes Sherlock appealing, but somehow it just leaves me feeling empty and unsatisfied at the same time. But for that market, bentang-benta si Elementary.

Ano ba yung market ng Elementary?

America! (laughs)

But Sherlock is successful in America.

Oo nga, It works in terms of cable subscription, but if you try to do Sherlock in America. Tignan mo, there is no American show not set in America. Even Constantine needed to be set in America. Finally, they got a British actor, but they needed to put it in America. Unfortunately, that means the networks themselves are trying to appeal to the broader demographics. But if you’re a Netflix, then you can take more risks.

You can appeal to a different audience.

For example, Sense8 by the Wachowskis. I actually haven’t seen it, but I’ve read about it. Directed by the Wachowskis, written by Straczynski, JMS. Eight people around the world suddenly discover they’re interconnected. So there’s that moment where it’s, “Oh my God, what’s happening to me?” But at crucial moments, suddenly, a girl is about to get raped, she accesses the mind of the MMA fighter, tapos biglang astig siya. This guy is a wimp, enters a singles bar, needs information, accesses the mind of the playboy, suddenly wins the girl. The eight people are set in eight different cities: India, Shanghai, New York, California—suddenly, you have eight different markets watching your show. And suddenly, it became the perfect platform for the Wachowskis to talk about, “Is this really my sexuality?”

Ahh, that’s when they came out!

Suddenly, the guy was in the body of the girl, the girl was in the body of the guy, and he would access the brain of another guy as he was making love to another guy, so sabi ng brother ko, “It feels the Wachowskis are preaching to me.” But that’s the concept. Concept-wise, solid. Marketing-wise, solid din siya, di ba? Suddenly I can market it to wherever Netflix is accessible.

I work in market research. You work in marketing. We understand that if there’s an opportunity for a growing demographic, you take it. This whole backlash when it comes to female protagonists, how much of that do you think would end if we just told them how marketing works? You see something like female Thor, something like Carol Danvers. When Carol Danvers gets her own movie, she’s going to have the name “Marvel” in the title of her own movie. That’s going to be huge. Do you think this is a turning point in fandom?

As far as the West is concerned. In the 70s, you had Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, in the 90s you had Xena. So suddenly having Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, and you have to say “Carol Danvers Captain Marvel”—

Especially on my website. They’d get so confused.

Yeah, it’s definitely a big thing. There have been many attempts. Unfortunately, not even Lara Croft, Tomb Raider was a success to keep that franchise going.

I’m not so sure the demographic of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider was women.

Tama, oo nga. Okay, Supergirl. There you go. That’s a turning point. A rallying point as well. I’m sure that as much as it’s largely a female viewership, there’s also a strong male viewership there. And before Supergirl, I remember, when the Justice League cartoon was running, a lot of girls ended up loving it because of Hawkgirl. Aside from Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl was the interesting character for the girls. And yet there was never a Hawkgirl spinoff series or something like that. So I was thinking, would the CW ever do a female-led one? Would they ever risk a Black Canary one, or a Vixen?

You know, the interesting thing about CW is, CW started as the WB, which made its name on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then after that there was nothing.


Okay, next question. Take the pantheon of Filipino characters. Darna, Captain Barbell, Trese… and let’s say a Crisis strikes. Who leads that team?

From that entire pantheon?


From the Golden Age to the present?

Yeah. I’ll be honest with you. I think Trese leads that team.

I think she’ll be the Batman of that team. But you still need a Superman for that team, which is still probably Darna. Trese might be leading it from the back, but you need someone to lead the charge from the front.

You basically just named two females to lead that team.

(laughs) I don’t think it’s Captain Barbell!

No. (laughs) I don’t even think it’s Panday.


What role does Zsa Zsa play?

Designer. Making sure everyone looks fabulous.

We in the Philippines are politically incorrect.

Did you see the artwork I posted by Don Aguillo? He did digital art of the classics.

Yeah, that was great. And Arnold Arre did one a few years back.

The modernized version, with updated looks.

Where Darna looks like Angel Locsin and Panday looks like Manny Pacquiao.

Yeah. (laughs)

You just named two women leading a team. That would be unheard of in the West.

Well, they’re trying, like the A-Force.

That’s a team of all women. This is women leading men. Why do you think it is that they have such a hard time accepting that, and we really don’t—

But we do, at the same time.

Yes, we don’t and we do. But in fiction, if tomorrow, a TV show came out where Darna led a team of Filipino superheroes, no one would complain. Literally, no Filipino man would complain. But if Wonder Woman were to lead the Justice League in an event, there would be some backlash, or DC would be hesitant to do it. Why do they have a hard time accepting that?

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Filipino cinema nor do I have the best stock knowledge of Philippine cinema. But from the little I have seen, it is interesting to see that you have actresses like Vilma Santos, even Nora Aunor, Nida Blanca, who have portrayed very strong women. They have been known to be palaban. They have been women who fought for what they believed in what was right. Yes, of course, it would be a romance, and yes, of course, in the end they still fall in love and they get married. But they are strong pillars as far as Philippine showbiz and pop culture entertainment is concerned. It’s interesting that that is accepted by Pinoys. Darna is strong in sales today. There have always been moments where it evolves into a love team. It just always ends up that way.

Do you think that’s the reason they never make Narda a kid anymore? Aside from being cheaper, because now they’re the same person.

Yeah, it’s because they can do the love team thing. They can do the Superman bit where the guy’s in love with Darna but best friends with Narda. Even in our pop culture, we seem to have very strong female personalities. And I can’t figure out where that dates back to. I don’t know if it’s a leap if I say, is it because we’re Catholic and we look at the Virgin Mary as an important part of it? We hold Mary in high regard as a people. Maybe, in the back of our heads, nandoon yun. But there’s still the whole Filipino machismo, the whole “man is in charge of the house”. But yes, in spite of all the rape jokes and the catcalling, maybe the Pinoy holds women in a higher regard compared to the West, where it seems to always be a struggle.
"...maybe the Pinoy holds women in a higher regard compared to the West, where it seems to always be a struggle." 

You were mentioning earlier before the interview that there were many women in leadership positions.

Yes, I have attended international gatherings for the industry, and I get the feeling that as far as the Philippines is concerned, the marketing industry, the advertising industry, we have more women in power compared to the West again. And it’s normal. The glass ceiling was broken a long time ago. Maybe every now and again, it pops up. One of the award-winning campaigns that came out of BBDO was for Pantene, and it’s the one that went “How come if a woman says something, we’re biased, but when a man says something, it’s okay?” So there’s a man talking to the boardroom, being very emphatic, and  the word “Boss” appears on the screen. We then see a woman do the same thing and we see the word “Bossy” appear on the screen. Yes, it’s still present, and it resonates with the local market, but it had a bigger impact when American TV shows and news shows picked it up. One of the clips that they used in the case study video was an American news anchor saying, “I wish they aired this on American TV.” So, to the Pinoys, I don’t know if we dismissed it or if we easily accepted it. But it had a bigger impact on the West. Again, it feels like it matters a lot. There was a campaign for one of the feminine napkins, and it was the “Like a girl” campaign. It was hard-hitting in the West. I don’t know if it had as much of an impact here, although it’s a reality pa rin, di ba? Yung “Para ka namang babae.” You use it as an insult.

Women use it as an insult too.

So it’s still prevalent. But as far as accepting you have a female boss, you have a female president, there’s a female lead to this movie, that’s normal for us.

My last question on this matter, whenever, in the West, you depict a strong woman in what I can only call an objectified pose, there’s some backlash. And yes, that’s because there is a struggle there. In contrast, Darna has always been in a bikini. So, there’s been one panel where Trese’s dressed up in a sexy outfit. So my question is, have the readers clamored for more, is there more coming, and does KaJo like drawing it?

(laughs) When we did that pin-up, it obviously got a reaction from all readers, and it’s not like—

It’s a dress.

Yeah, and KaJo also did a pin-up where she’s in a bikini. But yeah, it was like it was fun to see her out of uniform, the same way we make a big deal at weddings when we all of a sudden see people in coats and barongs, and suddenly, “You look so dignified! I never knew you could clean up so well!” You all of a sudden get these comments. So I guess it’s that typical kind of reaction when they see her. Or, there was one of those moments where naka-sando lang si Trese, and the comments were “Thank you for making a hero who doesn’t have Size D breasts.”

(laughs) I remember when you did the dress, and the comments were “Oh my God, she’s so sexy!”

Funnily enough, when I wrote that script she wasn’t supposed to be in the dress. (laughs) It was KaJo who decided it.

Oh, did someone just get tired of drawing the same thing?

It made sense naman, she was attending a party. So the next time I write her at a party, expect to see another dress.

It made sense, I just think it was funny that the reaction was so loud. I don’t think you can really predict what kind of thing is going to get a reaction.

There’s one panel where Trese is wearing a ponytail, and some readers were talking about how cute she was in her ponytail.

If Trese were to be made into a movie, who’s your dream cast?

I can’t really answer because again, I don’t watch enough of the local stuff. But I would rather do a Heath Ledger and get someone who might seem unlikely but she somehow proved herself to fit the role. So yes, it might be popular, Kim Chiu or whoever. If she can prove she can do the role right, then why not? Like I said, I love what Erik Matti did with OTJ and even Honor Thy Father. I love how the setting is a character in all of his movies. After how he portrayed the slums of Manila in OTJ, I’d love to see his take on Trese’s Manila. So there, as far as someone who had a vision who can make it come true on the screen, I think Erik Matti’s one of those guys who did that right. I know Jerrold Tarog, who did Heneral Luna, will be doing Mythology Class. That’s completely different. Let’s see what he does with that. As far as a noir, or how do you portray Manila in an interesting way is concerned, I rarely see, because I rarely watch, and I can’t use teleseryes as a gauge for it.

It’s a different market.

Yeah. And as far as the commercial directors I work with, I know they can make a scene look interesting. It would be interesting to get someone with an advertising background to do something like this. But there, I would be more open to getting a popular actor or actress to play the supporting cast, but it would be best if Trese was played by a complete unknown.

Oh, the Superman approach.

Yeah, exactly. So you can still get an audience or a fanbase to look forward to watching it. For people who have never ever heard of Trese, they can still go, “Hey, that’s interesting. I want to watch that.” And if it were a foreign production, it would be great if they—

—cast Scarlett Johannson?

(laughs) Sige na nga! I mean, a cable company like Netflix or AMC, which did Walking Dead. Pag mainstream network kasi, doon pumapasok yung “Will this work in the FGD group?” I love Daredevil. Daredevil versus Supergirl, I know it’s not fair to compare.

Or Jessica Jones versus Supergirl.

The network needed to cram everything you needed to know about this show in one episode. By the pilot episode, she got the costume, she lost confidence, got it back, became the darling of the public, re-established her relationship with her sister.

The pilot made me feel they used up all their weapons in one episode.

Versus Netflix, where they used thirteen episodes to tell their story. I want that kind of freedom. Take a look at—and I digress—the trailers of all the new series coming out this season, the five-minute trailer actually tells you the entire story of the pilot. And they have designed it that way. Kung baga sinu-spoonfeed na nila sa audience. “Eto yung show namin ha. Meron siyang action, meron siyang drama, meron siyang mystery. Panoorin niyo!” (laughs) All of them already gives you the beginning, middle, tension, and end, and you know what’s going to be the recurring tension of the show. And it’s worked for shows like Blacklist, it’s worked for shows like Supergirl.

I work in market research, you work in marketing. Our lives are dominated by PowerPoint. When you see something like David Aja’s Hawkeye, where you see that PowerPoint-ish style, where it’s more loose and uses more “iconic” figures, do you think that’s where comics are going to go in the future, based on the Millennial visual sense?

But Aja’s people are still very realistic people. My feeling right now is that the visuals that are more dominant now are the Adventure Time–looking artwork. Or look at Nimona, or Lumberjack Janes. I was recently looking at previews of comics from Action Lab Entertainment. I don’t know if that’s going to creep into DC or Marvel, but it’s like a Rob Cham style, a Manix Abrera style.

I think we’re past the Jim Lee Nineties stage, where it’s the super-realistic, super-detailed style. I was wondering if you think that that style’s gonna be gone for a while. Like are the George Perezes just gone?

Maybe. Somehow, I feel, and I could be completely wrong about this, it’s going to be about what the next generation sees on their screens. So they’re seeing Adventure Time, they’re about to see the new Voltron, which is a completely new style. I think the realistic style will always have its place somewhere, because the kids will always be playing video games. I am completely amazed by how an instant fanbase was generated by Overwatch simply by uploading these mini-cinemas about their characters. There’s cosplay, fan art, fan-made trailer—and the game wasn’t even released at that point. So yeah, this generation that’s growing up on Instagram, I think they just look for a trigger, then they drawn it and they upload it. Even Overwatch itself, some of the cinemas have 2D which shifts to 3D and then shifts back to 2D. I saw that clip of Voltron, where they copied a certain style from One-Punch Man, where the action scene turned black and white and then turned into speed lines, which looked like a panel from a manga. So the question is, what are they watching now, and how will they put that to paper? Jim Lee and Frank Miller were looking at Japan and Europe at the same time, and they were influenced by it. We saw the derivatives of that, and a whole generation ended up copying, which ended up becoming Rob Liefeld. (laughs) Have you picked up the new Thunderbolts with Winter Soldier as the leader? Rob Liefeld clone.

You know, I will say this about Rob Liefeld. I remember the Nineties, and as bad as he was, the worst ones were the ones who were copying him. Why are they copying this guy?

And it will always happen. It will always happen. What’s your take on how the art direction is going?

I just feel that everyone in general wants a faster intake of information. And realistic art flows more slowly. It’s faster to read Bone than it is to read something drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz.

Okay okay okay, like there’s too much information to process.

Yeah, I’m not saying we’re lazy, I’m saying attention is fragmented.

I get your point. (At this point, Budjette pulls up a website on his phone) So this is Webtoons. I get your point where the lines need to be simpler.

In that same vein, I think the Chris Claremontian, Eighties Alan Moore prose, that’s gone.

Even Gaiman.

The only one who can get away with what Gaiman does is Gaiman. That’s his brand.

(Budjette shows an example from Webtoons.) Ito nga nahihilo ako. The dialogue is very minimal because I need to flip to the next one. If you did a Claremont thing here, it would slow down. And look at this, I like how they know you’re scrolling down, so they do a long panel, and then cut back to an inset, then a long panel again later.

That means there’s no intention of publishing it in print.

Or if they do, it gives a headache to the people cutting it up. So yeah, it takes you a thumbflip to consume this information, and if it was any more detailed, you’d stop or it would get lost in the screen. Interesting. And actually, Marvel is getting into this. Marvel tied up with the most popular manhwa artist and they created a character called Silver Fox. She’s a member of the Avengers in Korea. And their comics only appear in the mobile app.

I’m just gonna ask you a couple of questions. What made you more excited to read more comics: DC Rebirth or Hail Hydra Captain America?


Is that you being more of a DC fan?

I don’t think so. I think in the Eighties I was more of a Marvel fan.

Really, Batman fan?

Yes, I’m a big Batman, Superman, Justice League fan. But in the Eighties, I was a big X-Men, Spider-Man, GI Joe, ROM fan.



With his mittens?

And he’s making a comeback. And he’s in the same shared universe as the Micronauts, MASK, and GI Joe. (laughs) I don’t know how they’re going to pull that off, but they will.

The reaction to Hydra Captain America made me feel like it was everyone’s first comic. How did that happen.

(laughs) Talagang rabid, no? “You ruined my childhood!” It’s like whenever a character dies, akala mo end of the world, your childhood was ruined.

It’s been 20 years since Heroes Reborn and Kingdom Come. Which event do you think had more of an impact in the history of comics?

Why should it be Heroes Reborn? Isn’t it Kingdom Come?

Without Heroes Reborn, Marvel Knights doesn’t happen. That’s the model they used.

Well, if you put it that way…

And I think Heroes Reborn led to Jim Lee taking over DC, because he showed he could handle that job, and I think without Marvel Knights, Joe Quesada doesn’t take over Marvel.

And you’re attributing it to Heroes Reborn? Because at that point, wala pang nangyayari na ganun.

Well, other than that, I can’t think of what Kingdom Come’s impact is.

You think it doesn’t have the impact of Watchmen coming up.

I remember in 1996, Wizard asked what the greatest comic of all time is, and Watchmen was number 3. Dark Knight Returns was number 1. And Kingdom Come was number 2. There’s no way it even makes that now.

Okay, well, to answer your question, if we’re talking about impact, not greatest comic— I still can’t say Heroes Reborn. I’ve been meaning to post—as if it will change the world, “I’ve been meaning to post,”—the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe probably owes their whole existence to Mark Millar.

Because of the Ultimates.

And, do we dare say, Bill Jemas. And if you think about it, Warren Ellis, because of Iron Man. Even Falcon, it was Warren Ellis who introduced the Ultimate model. And he was kick-ass. It helped sell to the dinosaurs of Hollywood, “This is how it should be done.”

Especially for Nick Fury.

Thank you, Brian Hitch, or else we’d have ended up with David Hasselhoff. (laughs)

I’ll give you an easier question. It’s been 30 years since The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Which story has aged better?

Wow. Probably (pause). I’m torn! You said it would be easier. (pause) Even though, in my heart, feeling ko Watchmen. The pocket universe created by Moore is so solid. I don’t know if it’s worth nitpicking about, but two little things that make me say it didn’t age well are the Ronald Reagan reference and the David Letterman reference. It’s just weird that for example when they adapted the cartoon, they used Conan O’Brien, but you still had a Ronald Reagan impersonator. You can take it as an artifact of the Eighties. But yeah, Watchmen is still the comic book to throw at someone who says comics are just for kids.

Which of the two are you more influenced by?

Knee-jerk reaction would still be Dark Knight, I guess. It was… (pause) I’m torn! I say Dark Knight because, at the time, in the Eighties, when Dark Knight came out, for me as a kid, it was a new way of portraying those characters. At that time, they were the first to do it, and then everyone else started to do it. As a kid, I grew up with either Adam West or the cartoon Batman with Bat-Mite.


Same with the Superman cartoon, with the very Curt Swan influence, where Superman had a Super-ship, with mechanical arms.
"I'd like to seeTrese versus Catwoman or Trese versus Ra’s Al Ghul. Also, Trese versus Lex Luthor... "

That punch. To protect him from Kryptonite.

So even if the Batman comics were slowly shifting to that, like with The Laughing Fish, by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, shifting away from the campy stuff, Dark Knight was still the biggest leap. For me to see childhood characters portrayed in a mature way, for me, it resonates more. But definitely Watchmen still blew me away. It was a completely new world, you kind of get a reference to who they were.

Do you think Watchmen could maybe be too technical? Because I think Dark Knight has more heart.

Yeah, at a certain point I think so. I mean, Watchmen is a novel. Multilayered novel. I guess, yun nga, as a kid, your whole “This is what Batman and Superman mean to you.” And then it just gets flipped over.

If you could have Trese fight any iconic Trese villain that’s not the Joker, who would it be?

If it’s physical combat, then I’d like to see Trese versus Catwoman or Trese versus Ra’s Al Ghul. Also, Trese versus Lex Luthor, see how she goes up against science-based threats.

Did you ever get into how much money Trese actually has? Or are you just keeping that vague in case you need stuff?

(laughs) Kumikita naman yata yung clubs niya. Sumabog tapos napatayo naman niya uli. Baka naman siguro the duwende gives her a bunch of gold every once in a while.

I like how you’re the writer of Trese and your answer is “baka”.

Again, I think that’s the secret of how you keep moving forward. Just make it up as you go along. If this were David Hontiveros, he’d have figured out the whole back story already. So yeah, sometimes I paint myself into a corner and I have to figure it out and I give myself a no-prize and go “It’s right! It’s in continuity!”

You can purchase Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo's TRESE in any bookstore or comics shop in the Philippines. Digitally speaking, there are the Buqo eBooks, and of course there's always Amazon:

Sep 20, 2016

The Power of Ambiguity, as Demonstrated by Mary Jane Watson

This made the rounds on social media recently. Here's the last page of Amazing Spider-Man #122, "The Goblin's Last Stand," from 1973. It was written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane.

This is the ending to one of the seminal Spider-Man stories, "The Night Gwen Stacy Died." After taking down the Green Goblin (who accidentally kills himself), Peter goes back to his apartment to see Mary Jane Watson. MJ at this point had been portrayed pretty one-dimensionally, always looking for a party and treating her friends as not much more than collateral to having a good time. I believe that up to this point, though I could be wrong, she had had all of one thought balloon throughout her appearances. So even Peter, her friend who's grieving, thinks she's this thoughtless, uncaring individual. That slight pause before she closes the door makes the final panel all the more powerful, used by Peter/MJ 'shippers as a moment that encapsulates their whole relationship. Certainly, it started a whole development of MJ's character that didn't stop, regardless of whether or not you believed said development was for better or worse.

Which is what makes this next bit so fascinating to me. Here are the original layouts, before Gerry Conway asked John Romita (then Marvel's art director), to change it to the final published sequence.

Now, that's interesting. The first five panels would have been exactly the same, but instead of almost walking out the door and changing her mind, she goes to visibly hug Peter, with the final panel being the two of them hugging through his apartment window. It's completely different. This being a 70s comic, there probably would have been huge blocks of text as well explaining how she's wrong about him, that she's there for him, and all that whatnot. (That's another thing that makes the final published piece huge for its time — silent sequences were rare).

I agree with Karl Kesel when he says that the final published page added ambiguity to the mix:
Whoever made this choice made a GREAT choice. MUCH more powerful than in the original layout. Peter's anger, and MJ closing the door, staying with him yet keeping her distance, respecting his grief, added layers to both characters. Yet there's a hint of ambiguity: is MJ doing this to honestly help Peter, or simply to prove him wrong? (That's the question that went through my head at least, even when I read it all those many years ago.) But that's what makes the moment interesting...
It was a more effective transition into adding layers to the one-dimensional Mary Jane Watson than, I believe, the original layout would have been. Her defensive mechanisms go up, but she doesn't give into it, and yeah, maybe a part of it is just to prove Peter wrong. And maybe she doesn't hug him when she closes that door. Maybe she holds his hand. Maybe she sits beside him for hours. We don't know. Sometimes not showing us is better than showing us and telling us. Sometimes not showing us is what makes these things work.

Sep 18, 2016

Face It, Tiger: The Most Iconic Quotes in Comics

Face It, Tiger: The Most Iconic Quotes in Comics
Ben Smith

I love a good line of dialogue. Combined with a key moment and a striking visual, it can become something legendary. My goal today is to provide to you with just a few of the quotes that have become so memorable, that most long-term comic fans can visualize the moment just from hearing the line of dialogue. In other words, moments so iconic, they can be referenced in that one sentence.

I didn’t do an extensive amount of research, because that’s not my thing, so I won’t pretend this is a comprehensive, all-encompassing list. If you want something like that, please feel free to hit the donate button on the right side of this webpage. Also, this isn’t meant to imply that if you don’t recognize these quotes immediately, that you are not as good a fan as anyone else. I know how comic fans get about having their comic trivia chops challenged.

For the purposes of this list, I’m going for specific moments, so famous comic book quotes like “with great power, must also come great responsibility” or “I shall become a bat” will not be included, as they are used far too often to represent any singular moment. Similarly, no origins, as they are inherently more memorable and reprinted more often.

Justice League #5 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire

Guy Gardner’s braggadocio and ambition to lead the team was finally snuffed out in one quick stroke by Batman. Arguably the most famous moment from one of the most beloved Justice League runs.

Watchmen #11 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

At the time, one of the most shocking cliffhangers in comics history, and a clever subversion of superhero adventure tropes.

Uncanny X-Men #168 by Chris Claremont, Paul Smith, and Bob Wiacek

The story behind this quote isn’t as memorable as the image itself. It’s a memorable full-page image on page one of the comic. The first image in the first issue of what would be a long and celebrated run by artist Paul Smith.

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland

The Killing Joke is simultaneously one of the most popular and most controversial Batman stories ever, but the central theme behind the Joker’s actions in the story is that anyone can go crazy after one bad day.

Amazing Spider-Man #121 by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and John Romita

This one may be a bit subjective, as I and other big Spider-Man fans will probably know exactly what you’re talking about with that one sound effect, but might not be as obvious to a wider demographic. Regardless, it’s one of the most iconic single pages in the history of comics.

House of M #7 by Brian Michael Bendis, Olivier Coipel, and John Dell/Scott Hanna/Tim Townsend

These three words impacted almost a decade of X-Men storytelling, from what is arguably the best event comic of the modern era.

Ultimates #12 by Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, and Paul Neary

Outrageous, insulting, and instantly recognizable.

Infinite Crisis #1 by Geoff Johns, Phil Jimenez, and Andy Lanning

As Michael Kelso would say, “burn!”

Uncanny X-Men #132 by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin

Wolverine’s rise to stardom was a slow burn, but it’s undeniable that this panel, and the issue that follows, were a breakthrough moment for the character.

Daredevil #229 by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

The best quote from what is undeniably the best Daredevil story ever written.

Watchmen #6 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Arguably the most memorable Rorschach quote of many, but oddly doesn’t match up with the image of him in the prison cafeteria.

X-Men #10 by Jim Lee, Scott Lobdell, and Scott Williams

Not very famous, but it’s a personal favorite and it’s my list.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley

Frank Miller is known for his gruff Clint Eastwood tough guy dialogue, and this is the grimiest of them all.

Avengers #22 by Kurt Busiek, George Perez, and Al Vey

A well-remembered storyline from a beloved run, and a pitch perfect quote that has transcended both.

All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder #2 by Frank Miller, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams

One of the most highly anticipated projects in recent memory, was initially met with disappointment for being too over the top, which is perfectly encapsulated in this one line of dialogue. Instantly mocked by a legion of fans to the point it’s ironically become probably the most iconic quote of the past 10 years.

Amazing Spider-Man #42 by Stan Lee and John Romita

If there’s a more iconic quote for a single moment in the history of comics, I can’t think of it. One of the most dynamic debuts of a character that had been teased, hidden in shadows, for years. Mary Jane would go on to become one of the most beloved supporting characters in all of comics, and with a quote and artwork like this, it’s not hard to figure out why.

Sep 15, 2016

Gemma’s Panties: A Brief Consideration of Briefs in a Panel of an Issue of Hellblazer

Gemma’s Panties:
A Brief Consideration of Briefs in a Panel of an Issue of Hellblazer
Travis Hedge Coke

Mike Carey and Marcelo Frusin’s Staring at the Wall is a fantastic John Constantine story from his then serial, Hellblazer, which brings round lots of earlier characters and plot points into something both a celebration of the nearly two decades of comics in which John and his cast had been appearing, and a thrilling, nasty horror adventure of its own standing. It’s brutal and smart, the art is evocative and surreal, the dialogue crisp and emotive, paced amazingly, so that, even knowing what’s coming, I get chills.

Halfway into the fourth chapter, originally printed in Hellblazer #192, John has committed suicide with a razor blade, trying to force a terrible monster thing to deal with him, as it doesn't want him to die until everyone else in the world has. His niece, Gemma Constantine, arrives at his flat just in time to try to save him, via magic, not knowing that he and she are both being played. She does up a potion, drinks it, and falls over, unconscious and communing with the barley living spirit of her uncle and a big, horrible dream monster.

So far, so good.

And, just as a man intones, “We’re fucked! We’re bloody fucked!” with his head in hand, the lumbering Swamp Thing kneels beside her, and we have Gemma’s skirt up around her hips, so we can see her pink undies riding up a bit between her cheeks.

This is on a page where we see her walk, in silhouette towards something like a cavernous human mouth, as if she is inside a giant, deformed head. She is greeted by a giant’s ax, swinging in the air, blood or muck across the blade. This is all good, frightening, odd stuff. And, then there’s her little pink panties.

Because, what, exactly?

Exactly how does this heighten the seriousness, enhance to gruesome horror? Does it, in some way, communicate more efficaciously that she’s unconscious? That she’s performing magic? I don’t remember having to see John’s y-fronts too often, to know he’s working spells. Does the Phantom Stranger drop his pants when we saw him in the previous issue, and I just missed it?

I don’t think so.

And, before you tell me it’s no big deal, it’s just a little thing, let me preemptively say, I know it’s a little thing. That’s why it bugs me. It’s a thing that stands out for having no clear point to it, at contrast with the tone and tenor of the rest of this comic, this issue, this story, even the rest of the panels on the same page.

It only lasts the one panel. Nothing like that occurs before or happens again. So, why? Marc Frusin chose to draw it, or he was told to by Carey’s script.

And, why are we inured to it? Why is it, for some artists, practically a reflex? Chris Bachalo does it in an X-Men comic, from a couple years ago, out of nowhere. There’s just a big upskirt during a fight scene from a young, otherwise not prominently sexualized character. There’s a Mojo special starring a fifteen year old Kitty Pryde where she has no less than three or four different pairs of underwear in one adventure and we get to keep seeing them. I don’t think it’s intentional, but that doesn’t mean it was not a choice.

Frusin is a good artist. He’s talented and capable and he rocks his story. It looks good. I honestly want to know why he thought we needed to see Gemma’s butt cheeks and briefs. It’s not a raunchy page, or a risqué comic. It’s not about embarrassing her, or how unembarrassed she is. No one really responds to it at all. It’s just there, and all I can figure is that it is there because Frusin, like too many comics artists, is just used to doing it sometimes.

If it’s something better than that, I want to know. If it isn’t, I’d still like to know.

Sep 14, 2016

He Gets It Now: Ten Year Anniversary of Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic

He Gets It Now:
Ten Year Anniversary of Grant Morrison’s Batman Epic
Travis Hedge Coke

“I can tell you exactly where Batman is. Batman is everywhere.” 
“A myth where Ultimate Evil turns its gaze on humanity and humanity gazes right back and says… Gotcha.”

Ten years ago (give or take a couple months), the first issue was released, of what became an epic story of Batman by Grant Morrison and many, many divers hands. Serialized, in several titles, over quite a few years, every time it seemed near a culmination, it surged forward, not so much recreated as reiterated, restated. We were looking at facets of the same jewel, sometimes under new light, from a new angle, or, sometimes, simply with new appreciation.

Morrison deliberately tried to let Batman and Batman comics shine with the best roles, the best characters in entertainment, the best tales out there. He compares him, within the comics, to Hamlet, to Willie Loman. I love the references to old Batman comics, but also the shoutouts to Buddhist parables and Greek myths, to Modernist literature and magical realist games of the early 20th Century. Batman came on the heels of Modernism, in a very Modernist city, an unintentionally Modernist first comics story, even. It’s only fair that we get a lighthouse and a Dedalus in. That Borges, that Stendhal are thrown in the game of Batman. The game of Gotham and the bat-world.

He, and the artists he worked with, the pencilers, inkers, colorists, co-plotters, letterers, and other collaborators, they were trying to make something to stay in print, something to be reread and shared. If Morrison’s epic does not convince you that Batman is important, at least, maybe, it will make it more agreeable to believe that Batman can be important.

Classes are starting, and I’m swamped with work, but I don’t care. This is important! It could be important! This is Batman! This is Grant Morrison! This is… okeh, to be honest, this is fun and that’s that. Rereading this is, for me, a vacation. Halfway through it will feel like pulling out my own tooth, but it’ll start fun, and two weeks after release, I’ll like it again.

I know why people move to Gotham. I know why people take vacation there. And, that’s not even taking into consideration that, statistically, there probably is less crime in Gotham than in real life New York City, and that, for me, naturally, it isn’t even real life. The Joker can’t hurt me. Penguin can’t cheat me. Hurt probably could get in my head, but Batman won’t let him.


“Mother. I want a batmobile.”

The first thing I noticed, this time around, is just how much vehicles get shown off, and certain unusual types keep returning. There are helicopters all over the section serialized in Batman from issue #655 to 683 (or Batman and Son to Batman RIP), always with villains. When we meet the Club of Heroes, aka the Batmen of Many Nations, they almost all have special planes. Batman has a rocket. He and Talia both have submarines. There are upwards of five different batmobiles showcased over the entire story. Tank batmobile, sportscar batmobile, flying…

When I was a kid, there was never any chance I was going to have a complete set of any action figure line, even if there were only eight figures, there’d be one we couldn’t afford or couldn’t find. And, vehicles? Vehicles that your toys could actually get in, or straddle a seat on? I had a couple Cobra vehicles from one birthday party, and my brother and I had the same Star Wars speeder bike and Stormtrooper set, each, from one post-Christmas sale.

So, I have, somewhere in my head, a very immature fascination with high concept, weaponized, tricked out adventure vehicles. And, this bat-epic pays out big.

Some of Morrison’s earliest comics work was in toy tie-in comics, and it’s easy to get caught up in the mystique he sells and forget that he is one of the most commercially-minded successful writers in comics. Or, at least, he’s one of the best at being commercially-minded. Batman, already, is toyetic as all get out; bat-stuff makes for good toys. But, Morrison ups the game and really does make a toy display out of Batman, out of Gotham and this world. These are showpieces and toys. The batplane! The whirlybat! The Leviathan!


“Who but the daughter of the ultimate international criminal would have her own secret lair in London’s Sewers?”

The Leviathan is huge, for me, because it isn’t just a vehicle, it’s a vehicle that’s also a playset. The best of two worlds! A massive ship that is also the enemy base, that is also a submarine of death, plunging below into the deep ocean depths! There are secret rooms! Traps! Command center! This is good stuff!

Morrison has always been fond of using place to establish character. If we see a character’s apartment or office cubicle, it probably reveals a lot about them, and suggests even more. Yanick Paquette redrew a couple pages for a recent collection of the Batman Incorporated chapters of this epic, in which El Gaucho’s version of a batcave is revealed, because the previous work by a pinch-hitting artist of this magnificent garage and rec room wasn’t fleshed out as well as it could be. It had all the right pieces, but no flair. It lacked personality.

Under Morrison, stately and familiar Wayne Manor became big and strange again, as he brought in additions of earlier bat-authors, from the elevator to the batcave to the subway system running away from the manor and the row of patriarch portraits down a long hall, but also added in hidden rooms, boobytraps, and deliberately uncompleted plans that, when factored altogether, create a batsignal through time.

As with vehicles, everyone worth anything has cool bases here. Places become palpable and exciting. Abandoned mines, repurposed theaters, underground lairs on the London docks, caves, shrines, hidden cities! Space stations! “Time’s last chance saloon” at the edge of eternity! Horrible, crime-ridden abandoned theme parks that they can’t seem to get demolished.

The kid inside me, who never got these playsets, is seriously thrilled by this. And, the adult who can see how each place echoes characters, reaffirms themes, reveals interests, habits, and fears, is equally rewarded.


“I watch him go through cycles.”

Dick Grayson stands clutching Batman's cape and cowl, fearing him lost forever to an ocean. On other waters, some time before, Batman stood clutching his son’s cape and cowl, fearing him lost forever. They’re both wrong. This cowl-clutching returns a few other times, spaced out enough it never feels repetitious, but the repetition is deliberate. And, each time builds on the last and strengthens those earlier occurrences.

Morrison knows there is strength in repetition.

There’s a secret origin to Talia’s secret London lair, unveiled in issues far apart from one another, only coming together if one reads it all close together or has an astonishingly good memory. She has a lair in London she got for a birthday present. Then Dr Hurt goes to London, with a tophat and bloodlust, in time to probably be Jack the Ripper. And, then, even later, we learn the lair once belonged to a “devil doctor” from that same era as Hurt’s visit. Now, the Limehouse devil doctor is, most generally, a reference to Fu Manchu, but there isn’t a Fu Manchu in Batman, in the DC Universe. There is, however, as we’ve seen, Hurt, a literal devil doctor. And there the gears lock together and make a new picture for us.

Morrison has been commercializing this technique since, at least, the opening “so we begin again” in The Invisibles, that has been inviting and encouraging rereads of that comic since day one. He really ups it with his bat-epic, working wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds. Under Morrison, certain motifs become touchstones, or perhaps pylons embedded in a sheer cliff, to which we can cling securely if things seem to perilous. It is too his credit, too, that things can seem perilous.

There is something amazing in RIP’s ability to get otherwise jaded comics fans worried that Bruce could be insane, or evil, that Alfred could be a criminal imposter, that Dr Thomas Wayne and his wife might have been drug fiend satanists. RIP ends without really explaining much of anything, which to many has and does feel like a cliffside in a storm. Falling into a lack of answers is as frightening to some bat-readers as it is to Batman, himself. And, so, the pylons are embedded for us. “Batman and Robin will never die!” is a flash forward that opens RIP. From moment one, we are reassured, even if we forget we were reassured, and this scene returns in the opening arc of Batman and Robin, and later on, at the end of Morrison’s run on that title, with Dick Grayson, having taken on the identity of Batman, telling his Robin, Bruce’s son, Damian Wayne, “Batman and Robin will never die.”

The last chapter of RIP features a quote from the I Ching, but there’s also a character in this run named I Ching, who quotes from the same. So it a quote from I Ching the book or I Ching, the man, quoting the book?

In the epic, we see Bruce, as Batman, of course, but also his father wore a bat-costume, before him, and his adopted son, Dick Grayson will be Batman in the run for over a year, realtime. Damian, his biological son, is Batman in a distant future they all hope to avoid. Another former Robin is alluded to having made a go at being a new Batman, even though the story itself happened in someone else’s comics (Battle for the Cowl). And, of course, there are two Batwomans, three Batgirls (two former, one current), multiple Robins (past and present), The Knight we are introduced to took over from his father, and he is honored, after his death, by his Squire taking on the role. There are something like six or seven iterations of the Joker are covered (the Thin White Duke of Death, the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker of “the satire years,” New Homicidal, et al). Batman franchises the bat-signal and bat brand. The original Batwoman dresses troops in a death’s head parody of her old costume.

All the way back to vehicles, we see repetition in the simple elegance of villains and helicopters all the way through, from beginning to end.

There are three roses representing Orion’s belt, rare Pennyworth Blue roses, a rose garden, a rose on the floor that opens up a la the gate in Revolutionary Girl Utena. A pirate ship called The Black Rose. Rose wreaths poisoned and provided by the Joker. Falling rose petals to show the last vestiges of love withering away into betrayal.

We see the infamous dead man’s hand laid out in playing cards twice, in completely different eras. Batman, Doctor Hurt, and Talia descend the stairs to the batcave in remarkably similar fashion. Putting Batman in boxes, physical and metaphorical becomes a special pastime of villains. Talia spends the last couple years worth of this lengthy run playing up recurring motifs in Batman comics, in Batman’s life, that she assumes he must enjoy, and perhaps enjoys more than he likes her.

These lists can start to look stilted and heavy here, abstracted from over fifty individual issues. This is the problem with pulling this stuff out for the autopsy. Autopsied organs don’t beat with life and move the body around the way they can if you leave them inside a living form.

The murderer of Batman’s parents lost his own boy. Batman inadvertently saves his ancestor from committing suicide and simultaneously introduces him to the woman who will become his wife. Dick’s parents are dead. Bruce’s parents, dead. Ra’s is dead and then not. The Heretic murders Damian. Damian kills and then swears off killing, but breaks the oath to save lives. Heretic is murdered by his own mother. Batman unable to make a killing stroke, Talia is taken off the board by Kathy and a golden gun.

More than the “red and black” theme that plays out over more than a dozen issues, or the chess motif, the dominos game and allusions, the cycles of proteges and masters, the echoes of lineages and basic “Batman appropriate” storylines, Bruce Wayne dying becomes a connective tissue to everything, that is still somehow both underscored and quietly played.


“The dark ain’t so bad when you learn how to make friends with it.”

It is often a point of superiority with certain fans, to scoff at those who say Batman died in RIP or died in Final Crisis. Hahaha. He didn’t die.

Ah, but he did die just before RIP. He has a heart attack and experiences clinical death immediately before, a fact alluded to by Robin in the first chapter of RIP. And, he experienced death, metaphorically, and perhaps religiously, going through a specialized buddhist ritual, prior to that, in which he experiences flashbacks and flash forwards in time, with remarkable accuracy. Then, too, he goes through a series of bizarre, fantastical deaths in a comic not written by Morrison, but folded into his epic after the fact, during the period he is experiencing “the death that is life,” the omega sanction, in this bat-epic. Bruce is shot, beaten, poisoned, and set on fire in The Return of Bruce Wayne, resurrected the next issue, in which he also is killed so fundamentally that the universe, itself, acknowledges his death, only for Superman, Wonder Woman, and a former Robin to resuscitate him.

Grant Morrison has said, in interviews, that “Batman fights death.” And, to be massively reductive: that is this epic story. It is Batman over Death, Batman beside Death, Batman as friend with and constant critic to Death. BatJesus who, at the end of all time and history, racing to save the universe, takes time to lament the passing of a woman he barely knew, murdered by police in the 17th Century.

The bat-epic at hand begins with Joker killing a Batman and crowing about it. His declaration was premature, however, and that Batman shoots Joker in the face, then does die. The “real” Batman is, of course, alive. And, the Joker continues to live. But, there is, by the final issues of Batman Incorporated, a serious chance that Batman dies every time he goes out at night. As valid as the pop psych assertion that Bruce died as a child and Batman is something else is the notion that Bruce lives every day because he has Batman in him. Batman is a saving angel he made up for himself and all the rest of us. Batman can survive, and at this point mostly has survived everything. Anything.

But, Batman knows death on a basic level. He would if he is, in fact, an eidolon. A haunting, visiting shade from beyond the grave. But, he’d know it to, just being a perceptive adult who has seen his parents go too early, too violently, and many a friend and occasionally an enemy fall seemingly forever, while other people get to bounce back from anything. Batman has a respect for death that is further entrenched, more palpable than anything comparable from most superheroes.

Throughout the epic, we have a variety of immortals, of kinds of immortality, from Vandal Savage, a caveman seemingly cursed by gods who became a pirate, a general, and eventually a supervillain. Dr Hurt, aka Thomas Wayne, a man eaten from the inside out by a devil he thought he consumed, living decadent and self-flagellating lives of crime and cruelty. Ra’s al Ghul, possessing lazarus pits, submerged in which he can return to life, also escapes having no body to return to in the middle of Morrison’s epic. Ra’s’ grandson, the son of Bruce Wayne, is a genetically and surgically modified wonder whose spine can be replaced, whose wounds can be stitched, and who can always be replaced by a clone or a brother. The Batman, who as an identity and not a man, can never die, but also as a most famous creature of entertainment possesses a special immortality. Bruce, himself, receives injections of the miraculous fluid of the lazarus pits.

Batman knows death is unfair. That death is inexplicable. Death is weird. And, death is lonely.

Batman, in this epic, is keenly conscious at all times how much death can make both sides feel or seem forgotten. He memorializes the fallen with fetishes, gravemarkers, journals, commemorative displays, and with his everyday actions. He tries to honor and to remember those who have passed on. And, he knows, too, what it felt like to have his parents go irrevocably away at a young age, to feel abandoned, cut off and blocked out. Lost down a well, sent away to school, alone in a cave, to be on his knees in blood-stained gravel beside two corpses who once loved him.


“One of man’s primitive fears is loneliness.”

Just prior to the beginning of the epic, Batman has undergone a seven-week isolated meditation on death in a cave, in the dark. Just prior to the beginning of this epic, Batman has undergone an isolated meditation on death in a dark cave since the creation of the batcave. He discovers in this ritual a hole or a scar in his spirit, a lesion in his thoughts, a hole in his heart. Apropos for a man who saw his parents shot down, Batman has a bulletwound in his soul. A cave he can’t ever fill. A well he won’t stop falling down. A big, lonely house just outside town. The Dzogchen ritual he undergoes is, like the wholly fictional ceremony wherein his soul is carved up by ten-eyed tribesmen who tattoo eyes on their seeing fingers, is a smaller recapitulation of the time in loneliness that is at the sad, brave center of Morrison’s Batman.

Batman does not just sit in the Batcave and sulk. He fills the cave. He puts treasures, toys, memorials in there. He sets up track lighting and a garage. There is a staircase, an elevator, two bat-poles to slide down, access by subterranean river, by other caves, by an abandoned underground railroad path, by a secret subway train system. For a hidden place, Batman makes sure people can get there if they need to. Like he wants visitors.

In many stories, including the ones that make up this epic, Batman feels lonely, he feels a great emptiness. But, it is really more received wisdom and comedy memes to post on Tumblr that Batman’s entire life is taken up by feeling lonely, abandoned, and “Waaaah! My parents are dead!” There has never been a serial Batman with no friends, no allies, no people and no stuff. Batman is a billionaire. He’s a superhero. He’s been a father or father figure since the 1940s.

The first truth of Batman, we are told at the end of Return of Bruce Wayne, is that - appearances and received wisdom aside, he was never alone.

This is true for everyone, honestly. None of us make it alone. The totally self-made man, the myth of the self-made man is solely that. A myth. Pernicious myth. But, to be lonely is not to be alone. To be empty, to feel emptiness, is not the same as having nothing or there being nothing. This is the silly nihilism of cranky teenagers, for when your lover has packed their bags and moved on and you’re still standing there frozen. It is transitional.


“I trade in drugs, weapons, human lives, mind control - and I already rule the world.”
“I intend to beat the devil… for all of us.” 
“But it’s only a hole.”

Loneliness is probably the first crime Batman fights. His first story is him chatting with a friend, after all. Bruce Wayne and James Gordon, shooting the breeze.

Crime, when Batman says he’s fighting crime, is not to be understood as a set of things explicitly punishable by law or prosecutable by the state. Batman sees Catwoman break into places and steal all the time, and mostly, as long as she returns the items taken or loses hold of them, he looks the other way while she escapes. We see him do this in Batman Inc, as we see him also ignore the crimes of various superheroes, the world over, and the illegal drug use and other violations of actual law by singer, Lumina Lux. Batman tolerates certain neighborhood dealers and pimps. He is, in this epic, notably kind and understanding of prostitutes, getting one young girl out of that market and into a job as a receptionist for one of his buildings, but he doesn’t preach to the other hookers. He doesn’t bust them, either. But, when the police are sacrificing prostitutes to a murderous, rapist cop gone bad on drugs and fantasies of being Batman, our hero does bust the cops’ heads and he does shake down the pimp for information, while, again, being civil to the prostitutes.

Some of this folds into the unavoidable fact that canon comics Batman, main universe Batman, however you want to say it, is a man who deals with women differently than he does men. Batman cannot really grasp women as fully human, fully autonomous people, and especially not as horrible criminals. Criminals are men. Criminals are Joe Chill or a nameless dude with a gun mugging families. He’s not only far easier on Catwoman and Talia than he would be any male career thief or lifelong terrorist who deals in slaves and chemical weapons, he’s often unable to see when he is being played by women, manipulated into harm’s way, until it’s too late or nearly so. He really did fall for Jezebel Jet, for a moment there, and he does miss her when it’s over. Maybe it’s because Marsha Lamarr is dressing up like his mother, but Bruce can’t see her lead him around by the nose until she’s poisoned him, hit him with a shovel, and lights him on fire. Annie’s a killer and a witch (and a thief), and of course Batman falls for her.

Morrison regularly reminds us that Batman does not care much about actual law, nor about police or government as stations or authorities. He’s down on crooked cops continuously. He helps Gordon nail a criminal mayor. Engages in violent and “criminal” behavior in many countries all over the world. He deputizes Commissioner Gordon as a kind of Batman, part of Batman Inc, the team and brand.

What Batman really fights is people being hurt. He, paraphrasing his journal entry from the epic, prevents people from being hurt by getting into fights on their behalf. He hits people who are trying to hit other people, to put it simplest and nicest. But, he does not just fight this kind of crime by punching or kicking. He adopts kids. He redirects lives fallen on hard times. He takes money out of the batmobile dash and gives it over to a homeless guy who just almost got hit by a road-ragey villain. The epic introduces Batman Inc, a venture of establishing the bat-brand and protection worldwide, but it also reintroduces Victims Inc, an earlier ill-named attempt by Bruce Wayne and his corporation to protect and care for the victims of crimes.

This is why Batman, violating this, brings him his lowest. Jezebel Jet suggesting he’s wasting his fortune on toys and playsets when he could be funding humanitarian aid and food drives. Talia making it all seem childish and petty. Talia creating a child army to mock his Robins and tagalongs. Batman is virtually traumatized by Hurt faking trash about his dead parents, even though he knows it is untrue, Alfred reassures him it’s untrue. It’s besmirched their memory. He failed to protect the memory.

And, Batman brutalizes a kid and sends him to his mom to die.

That happens.

The Heretic is like nine feet tall and armored and pompous, but he’s also about five months old. He’s got a big round baby face to show it, too, once the mask is gone. An oversized, infantile, desperate child. And, Batman pounds the tar out of him. His kid, actually. His son. He electrifies him. He punches him. Kicks him. Humiliates him.

That isn’t Batman victorious. That’s Batman at his lowest. That is a Batman who lost. And, he lost two sons. One he knew, one he tried to educate and save, to care for, the other he did not know, was never close to, never invited in despite him having killed and being a pompous villain. Batman, traumatized and terrorized, grieving and exhausted, destroyed a kid who was already having a monumentally unpleasant life.

The Morrison epic ends in tragedy, but it’s tragedy with promise. With aspirations. Batman can succeed and Batman can fail, but ultimately there will be another chance, there will be another Wednesday release of new issues, another movie, another new trade or oneshot special. There’s going to be more Batman. And, in the world of Batman, there are always more victories than losses.