Trese: Murder on Balete Drive

Originally posted at on Dec 20, '08

I collected comics. A lot of comics. When most people I know have a stack of them stashed away, I have four 3' long boxes filled with them in my closet, and those are just the ones I decided not to sell. Most of them are Marvel issues from from the late 80's to the 90's era when the likes of Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane were at their peak. The largest chunk is composed of X-men titles, though I had a fondness for the Incredible Hulk as well.

At one point they were all poly-bagged and boarded, cause you know that is what you do when you have a comics collection, right? You keep them in acid free bags to protect them, keep them out of sunlight so they don't yellow, only turn the pages with tweezers because your fingers have destructive oils, and never allow creases on their spines or else their secondary market value drops exponentially. Argh. Eventually I got to a point where I said, "F*ck it" and threw away all those bags and boards. I had about 10 years of X-men continuity. I hated these things. I finally allowed myself to sit down and read entire story arcs the way it was meant to be done. Pick up one issue, finish it, pick up the next. Market value be damned.

The reason I stopped was comics became less and less interesting and more and more expensive. I found that even my favorites like Chris Claremont were turning out duds. Read X-treme X-men? Don't. While things were getting less and less HUMAN on Earth 616, the characters that I loved were now appearing on the big screen and feeling more and more like the people I remembered reading about month after month. Comic titles I had never heard of like Constantine and Hellboy and 300 were poping up in the cinemas and surpassing what I was seeing on the page. I couldn't remeber why I would pay P150-250 for a 10 minute read when I could pay the same for 3 hours of Nolan's Dark Knight.

Then I remembered why.

I picked up Budjette Tan's and Ka-Jo Baldisimo's TRESE: MURDER ON BALETE DRIVE on a whim. I was at Powerbooks after an unsuccessful toy hunt and was trying to convince myself to spend P1,000 on a Hellboy trade paperback rather than saving it for when I found a Leader Class Optimus Prime. I was unsuccessful. Then I saw Trese on the racks. It was local publication, printed in black and white by Alamat, and wasn't much bigger than a high school notebook. The art on the cover was great, and featured Baldisimo's renditions of creatures from Philippine mythology, with Trese (the lead character) and her two associates, the Kambal, prominent above the title. The blurb in the back was interesting. And it was only P140.


I had heard of the comic before, since I'm on Alamat's mailing list and remember Budjette from a summer of internship at Harrison Communications. Still remember that excited feeling I got when he told me he had actually bought a comic that me and my friends had written as a course requirement. I didn't care if he liked it (he thought it was too morose if I remember correctly), it was just the fact that someone had actually read it outside of the our group. He had actually paid money for a copy of "Portfolio". Amazing.

From what I knew Trese was just as advertised, a private consultant who the police turned to when something weird happened. This edition collects four of the stories that the pair created; At the Intersection of Balete & 13th St, Rules of the Race, The Tragic Case of Dr. Burgos, and Our Secret Constellation. Each is a wonderfully stand alone tale that anyone can understand, even someone like me who has only a cursory knowledge of Philippine myths and legends.

Tan's writing is simple, embellished with big words. The four episodes read like straight-forward crime noir short films. Captain Guerrero of the Manila Police finds a case that's a little odd, calls Alexandra Trese, she investigates, she solves it, done. The set up is right there and you don't need any complications to spice that up. No boring exposition for the reader to plod through. The story, like Trese herself seems, is to the point, and that is what ultimately makes it readable.

Normally there would be a measure of disbelief in Tan's setup. However, because Trese and the people inhabiting her world aren't going out of their way to explain things to you, you accept them. You're not constantly poking holes in the plot, or over analyzing the flaws. You are there, following along like Watson after Holmes. You know you don't have the knowledge to solve these crimes, so you trust in her ability to lead you to the answer. It's just... CSI with engkantos.

Baldisimo's art complements that kind of stark writing well. He's not at all afraid of blacks, and the simple strong line art makes this darker world seem to pop. He illustrates the scenes in Tan's story so well that I find myself wondering how it could be possible t do it any better. he seems to knows the beats where a movie producer would go "trailer shot!". The introduction of the Kambal, Armanaz standing before Trese, Santelmo emerging from the flames, and the big reveal at the end of "Our Secret Constellation". What an ending! Reading Tan's afterword, I can't believe they did this all on their lunch hours (especially know the hours these guys work) and it boggles the mind to think what he's capable of completely focused on illustrating a comic.

His designs are iconic; if Hasbro ever decided to do another Legendary Comic Book Heroes, I would be first in line to buy the Marvel Legends style action figures of her and her Kambal (I am in fact considering finding two Professor Xaviers and a small female figure and customizing my own) and I'd love to own a BAF of Senor Armanaz.

My favorite of the collection is "Our Secret Constellation". I grew up on Marvel comics, so I don't hold Mars Ravelo in such high esteem as the two creators do, but reading their story gave me goosebumps. Not being familiar with the names of Ravelo's characters, I had no idea what was coming so when the end came, I was engrossed. Those final few panels were just classic. I won't reveal what it's about here; I want you buy it and experience it for yourselves. Finishing it gave me the same feeling I had when I first read the Age Of Apocalypse or Miller's Dark Knight Returns. It's worth the price of the book by itself.

So thanks, Budjette and Ka-jo. Because of Trese, I'm back into comics. I'm glad there are still some great stories to be told and I can't wait to read the rest.

Now I'm gonna sit back here and read it again.

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