Alexandra Trese began as an impossibility. She is one of the most identifiable and popular characters in contemporary Filipino comics, but she was born partly out of what couldn’t be done.
Weaned on an infinite diet of DC and Marvel comics, Ferdinand Benedict “Budjette” Tan spent his young life dreaming of creating his own comic book, but this simply was not possible back then. Then it was.
In 1994, as he was beginning his ascent in the Philippine advertising industry, Tan was one of the founders of the iconic Alamat Comics imprint, which gathered like-minded Filipino writers and artists who sought to turn their comic book imagination into printed reality.
In 2005, basically on a whim, Tan was challenged by his friend, the talented artist Jonathan “Kajo” Baldisimo, to put together a comic book on the fly, in 20 days; Tan would write it, Baldisimo would illustrate it. They did it.
The resulting comic book, TRESE, was unlike anything that came before it. Unfolding in Baldisimo’s moody black-and-white panels, the first issue, photocopied and released under the Alamat imprint, had a story arc called “Murder on Balete Drive.” It begins with a police detective named Capt. Guerrero finding a white lady—yes, the ghost known to haunt Balete Drive—dead at the said area. When faced with such bizarre cases, Guerrero knows what to do. He calls for backup.
She is Alexandra Trese. Ostensibly the proprietor of a bar called the Diabolical, Trese is a paranormal investigator from a family with a long history with the supernatural. Accompanied by her pistol-wielding, mask-wearing bodyguards the Kambal, Crispin and Basilio, Trese aids the police when it comes to supernatural happenings.
Mixing a police procedural with urban fantasy, TRESE also sleekly mixed Filipino mythology and folklore with a modern noirish setting. After dealing with the white lady, Trese would deal with issues like a tikbalang drag-racing in the streets of Metro Manila. TRESE built a cult following with every issue. As its title implies, the original series was supposed to be 13 issues long, representing 13 cases (it has since gone twice that number).
The cult following became a commercial success when TRESE was picked up by publisher Visprint, Inc., which collected the individual issues in paperback format. After the first collection, TRESE Book 1: Murder on Balete, Tan and Baldisimo had released more or less a new volume every year. TRESE had since moved on from its original monster-of-the-issue format to a saga, featuring more allies and enemies and revealing more about Trese’s family history. Along the way, TRESE has been released in hardcover omnibus form, colored Filipino individual issues and spinoff anthology, while also selling merchandise like plushies, T-shirts, keychains and magnets. It won several awards including the National Book Award. It seemed like nothing could stop TRESE. Then, the books stopped coming.
The last TRESE volume was Trese Book 6: High Tide at Midnight, which Visprint released in 2014.
“I do have to pause and acknowledge that we’ve done so much,” Tan said. “But at one point, we did ask ourselves, ‘Is this it? Or is there more to this?’ And maybe part of me feels that we could’ve done more and we could be much further down the road that where we are now, if we just kept up our pace of work.”
“A lot of things happened and a lot of nothing happened,” Tan explained. “There was no big reason for the delay and there were also a lot of other reasons why we didn’t get to focus on the book. Yeah, maybe that’s it—focus. We were pretty busy with some projects these past years, but we never got to just focus on just working and finish Book 7.”
The world had changed for Tan when he moved to Billund, Denmark, in 2016 to work for Lego. He wrote Super from there for this article. “I moved to Denmark three years ago, which was also the same year my son was born. It might sound weird, but learning how to live in a new country and learning how to be a dad took some time—not that I’m an expert in both things—but just trying to find a new rhythm to things and finding the time to write took some time to figure out.”
Then, the world changed for Alexandra Trese.
In order to fulfill a lifelong wish to introduce Trese to a worldwide audience, Tan and Baldisimo decided to do TRESE Comics #1: Global Edition, which would be an all-English, mostly redrawn version of the first issue that would be distributed to foreign readers. To accomplish this, Tan and Baldisimo went the crowd-funding route with Indiegogo—Sandman creator Neil Gaiman tweeted his support by boosting the project’s link. The project more than doubled its crowd-funding goal with over 200 backers. “It was an interesting experiment that thankfully succeeded,” Tan said. “We’re now discovering the realities of trying to juggle the creative side and the business side of things. Since I’m now based abroad, Kajo is the one-man team handling the packing and shipping of all the orders. If ever do this again, we’ll probably need extra hands to make sure we ship out the comic books on time.”
Then, Trese really went big-time. Later that year, streaming giant Netflix announced that TRESE would become one of the company’s Original Animé series, with Jay Oliva as executive producer. Oliva had previously been the storyboard artist on “Wonder Woman” and “Deadpool”; he directed the animated film “Justice League: Dark.” Tan noted that Oliva had recently attended an animé panel in the US, where he said: ‘I wanted to push the horror, supernatural side so I’m going full on dark. It’s based on mythology stories from Manila. ‘TRESE is still in production and is very close and dear to me.’ We hope to give more updates early next year.”
And now, TRESE comes fantastically full circle as Tan and Baldisimo are continuing the big story they started 14 years ago. TRESE Book 7: Shadow Witness will be available at the Visprint booth at the Manila International Book Fair at the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia, Pasay City starting Sept. 11.
“In Book 7, we’re introducing Trese’s two other brothers: Fr. Matthias Trese, the demon hunter, and Jimmy Trese, the art collector/thief,” Tan said. “And maybe in Book 8 and onwards, we’ll continue to dig into Trese’s past (like what happened to her in the Great Balete Tree) as well as her family’s past, while we see her go up against some new and old enemies.”
Yes, you heard him right. TRESE 8? We hope to finish that and release it in 2020. Yes, we hope that get back into the groove and release a new TRESE book every year.”
Nida Ramirez of Visprint confirmed that TRESE is one of the company’s best-selling franchises ever, with an extraordinary 86,000 copies sold. And it is surely going to sell more.
TRESE broke the mold for Filipino comic books. Just as Trese moved from the mundane to the supernatural, TRESE moved from the imagined to the real, from the cult to the commercial, from local to global, from print to digital and soon from page to screen. Alexandra Trese turned into the most powerful of possibilities, one of the most important Filipino comic books ever, redefining what could be done.
“I guess, TRESE shows that ‘it can be done,’ Tan said, “which can be interpreted in many ways: that you can do a semi-regular series and find a good readership for your story, that you can crossover and find new readers who’ve never read comics and invite them to check out your work, that you can find the right partners who will find the best way to adapt your work and maybe even get it on Netflix.”