The adaptation of the komiks series “Trese” is a game-changer in more ways than one. These creatures and their stories have been around for centuries, but it was only in 2021 that we could finally see our tikbalang, manananggal, and nuno on a global streaming platform like Netflix.
“Certainly, the Netflix adaptation of ‘Trese’ is seen by many creators as a good step forward in making local komiks more well known to international audiences, as well as to Filipinos who might not have been previously familiar with local works,” says Noel Pascual, writer of komiks series “Patay Kung Patay” and “Crime-Fighting Call Center Agents.”
Despite the abundance of creative talent in the Philippines and the wealth of source material from Luzon to Mindanao, the mindset that making komiks would never be anything beyond a side gig or passion project still exists. A “real” job meant having a stable income and benefits.
“You hear all of these stories from other people, ‘They quit their day jobs to pursue their passions,’ but we weren’t like that! We still have day jobs,” shares Tan, now based in Billund, Denmark where he works for the in-house agency of LEGO. “I think for people, it’s such an eye opener for them to hear Kajo's story of spending one hour a day on the thing that you want. Or for me, at the end of your work, writing at the end of the day.”
“In reality, you really have no choice. If you really wanted to, and you only had one hour a day, use it,” says Baldisimo, still working in advertising and currently based in Davao. “Unfortunately, we’re not like Japan where manga is an industry where you make books that earn you enough to actually hire five assistants. What’s the reality in the Philippines? Follow your passion while doing your job, because your passion can’t feed your family.”
It’s been almost a month since the Netflix animated adaptation of “Trese” was released, a definitive milestone that can lead to more opportunities for people aspiring to work on a medium that has been one of the staples of storytelling through several generations (and includes two national artists: Francisco Coching and Larry Alcala).
But what is it with these stories that make creators want to explore these worlds, and draw in readers from generation to generation? CNN Philippines Life talked to fellow Filipino creators currently trudging the same path — starting from ashcans being sold in komikons and other local conventions, to developing worlds that fans have become invested in.
Noel Pascual is a mainstay in the indie circuit. Along with his frequent partner-in-crime, AJ Bernardo, they have amassed a following with their series “Crime-Fighting Call Center Agents” and “Patay Kung Patay.” When not writing comics, Pascual juggles research and writing gigs, and sometimes writes screenplays like “Citizen Jake.” This was also how he got his start for “Patay Kung Patay,” as he was originally hired by director Mike Alcazaren as screenwriter for the movie version, until it was decided to release it in its komiks version.
Meanwhile, Andrew Drilon, a writer-illustrator, rose to fame with “Kare-Kare Komiks.” Now based in New York, he also started with photocopied copies of his creations and attending komikons, eventually leading him to joining the anthology publication “SIGLO: Freedom” with Dean Alfar and Elbert Or.
His works also gained the admiration of Gerry Alanguilan and Budjette Tan, both of whom he included in “Kare-Kare’s” acknowledgments. He shares, “Gerry is a huge inspiration to me and was a big supporter of my work, and I’m still heartbroken by his passing. Budj is lovely. He messages me to check up on my comics work every so often, it’s really sweet. He’s a font of encouragement.”
After working for a local broadsheet, he dove into webcomics that he posted in Warren Ellis’ online forum, “The Engine.” Long story short, “Kare-Kare Komiks” became the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Best Graphic Literature in English.
The approach to world building is what usually sets stories apart. There’s always that sweet spot that allows these creators to dive into their created worlds, whether things are intended for the long run or it just falls into place along the way.
“One of the series that greatly influenced ‘Trese’ was Warren Ellis and John Casaday’s ‘Planetary.’ It’s really paying homage and dissecting, interpreting, and rebooting certain characters from popular culture,” shares Tan. “I guess that also became the thinking behind ‘Trese,’ it’s really taking what are the stories of the Pinoy that have lasted through these years, told from a police procedural point of view.”
“With ‘Crime-Fighting Call Center Agents (CFCCA),’ I wanted to write something in the comedy-horror genre,” says Pascual. “The comics are inspired by various elements of Pinoy culture and life from movies ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ to local mythology and showbiz, to playing DOTA in the neighborhood café.”
“For ‘Patay Kung Patay (PKP),’ Mike Alcazaren already had a complete story involving haciendas and zombies, and a revenge tale. AJ and I added to it while adapting it for the komiks medium,” he adds. “A script for the movie is also ready, if plans push through and producers are ready to back the project.”
“‘The Legend of Caraboy’ was the first comic I did for ‘Kare-Kare,’ and it came about because my writing group (The LitCritters) had a joke about how the quintessential Pinoy social-realist prose story was about ‘a boy and a carabao in the rice fields, dreaming of a better future’,” says Drilon. “I thought it’d be funny to merge the boy and the carabao and do an unapologetically non-realist story — I absolutely enjoyed the reckless abandon of drawing it, [I was] chuckling with every panel.”
And while the theme of these stories are familiar, it may not exactly be what readers get hooked on. Publisher Nida Ramirez, from the now-retired Visprint, and the new publisher of “Trese,” Avenida Books shares, “Filipino folklore and mythology has a strong pull with the reading market because we grew up with these stories. They provide some sense of identity, because these characters are ours.” But she is quick to point out that aside from the theme, the quality of the story is just as important.
“These are stories that are told to us by our elders since childhood, it’s quite natural for creators to want to explore these ideas by having a more modern take on them or have them be starting points for their own spin of these tales,” says Pascual.
Art imitating the horrors of life
It need not be deliberate nor explicitly expressed, but the worlds they create would always be reflective of society in one way or another.
“All of the stories of ‘Trese’ are based on life experiences and what’s [in the] headlines,” says Tan. “Or they have happened so many times, it just makes sense to the story.” He then shares that when the third book “Mass Murders” was released, the Ampatuan massacres just happened. While people were asking if it was based on these incidents, it was easy to explain that it was written beforehand. “Historically, it has happened a lot of times. I just make that connection that you take from the headlines, and then try to figure out which supernatural or mythical character to use,” he says.
Both “Crime Fighting Call Center Agents” and “Patay Kung Patay” present the slice-of-life stories in the Philippines, in the eyes of call center agents and showbiz reporters. But the depth comes in the social commentary. “We would regularly talk about the plot and add details piece-by-piece to the surreal version of the Philippines that’s in the komiks,” shares Pascual.
As he was only carrying a student visa, the social-realist scene Drilon conceptualized became all too real. “The year after I arrived in New York, Trump won the presidency. It cast a shadow over my daily life. I heard horror stories of people being sent away with very little justification, and I knew I had to watch my step,” he shares. “The fear was that if I so much breathed in the wrong direction, I could be deported. So I was extra careful to stay within the lines of my visa agreement.”
“Filipino folklore and mythology has a strong pull with the reading market because we grew up with these stories. They provide some sense of identity, because these characters are ours.”
The situation prevented him from doing dedicated comics work, so aside from working on webcomics, he was also juggling odd jobs. “Even then, there were scary moments like last year, at the height of the pandemic, when they made institutional moves against international students that put us all in a difficult position; some really vicious, targeted policies that felt aimed at mowing us down. Thankfully, the schools pushed back with lawsuits and most of us made it through,” he shares.
Writing the Next Chapters
In 2010, Drilon teamed up with Joaquin Valdes, Misha Lecaros, and Mark Dantes for the film “Dagim.” “The supernatural aspects of the story really spoke to me, and I was excited to do something in the realm of ‘Trese’ but different,” he says. “I pulled a lot of research and fleshed out the entire tribe depicted in the film, assigning a mythological creature to each actor and taking care to balance out the big icons (manananggal, tikbalang, and tianak), with more obscure ones (baras, segben, danag.)”
Slated to be released alongside its graphic novel, “Black Clouds” ballooned in the planning stage, leaving him unable to finish it before the movie release. His move to the U.S. led him to pursue a four-year course in painting with a special focus on figurative oils, a stark contrast to how he became a digital artist without having any formal arts training or education.
“I’m just spelunking for cool techniques and ideas to fold back into my chosen medium,” Drilon says. “It’s one of the youngest art forms, and I feel like there’s more we can do to expand our creative toolbox. That only happens if you look outside of the medium. I’m a different artist now, so maybe I’ll rethink the whole book. I want to flense off a lot of the narrative fat and execute it differently. Whatever happens, I think it will be better for the wait.”
If Drilon had “The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology,” Tan had “The Soul Book.”
“It was a little footnote on the margins, and it was a short section and description of the Talagbusao,” Tan says about the Big Bad of the Netflix adaptation. “When we had reached Book 3, Alexandra had already gone through most of the usual suspects, so I thought maybe she goes up against a god this time. She kind of did it with Bagyon, since elementals and gods are under the same classification. I thought since I couldn’t find any other writings about them, we can take creative freedom.”
“When I write ‘Trese,’ it’s pulling from many different sources. It’s always at the back of my head, ‘I wanna do my own Batman story, John Constantine, ‘American Gods;’ but how do you make it as Pinoy as possible?’ It's really wanting to do and getting all of these influences and finding plotting out the right ingredients that you want to tell your own story,” says Tan.
“It’s really just taking things from headlines and then trying to figure out if behind the scenes, there might be an aswang, engkanto, who knows what it might be,” he adds. “In general, we’ve heard of stories of certain political figures, so mostly, when there’s a Mayor character, it’s like three different mayors that we’ve heard of!”
The main plot of “Patay Kung Patay” is executed in a similar fashion. “It’s inspired by many different events, people, and political families. With its amalgam of personalities and events, we’re hoping that the readers can recognize the types of villains in the story who are all too common in Philippine society,” says Pascual. The series has won plenty of awards in the local circuit, particularly with its profoundly executed covers that in itself spoke of the main themes in the story.
He adds, “We also want the readers to be able to relate to various characters in the story and see some of their own struggles, great and small, mirrored in it. We also hope our stories function as an interesting, scary, and sometimes funny revenge tale on these various powers-that-be.”
Opening doors for Filipino komiks and stories
According to FlixPatrol, “Trese” spent 19 days on Netflix’ Top 10 list for the Philippines. It also made it into the Top 10 in 18 other countries, like Qatar (10 days), United Arab Emirates (eight days), Nigeria (six days), Jamaica, Kuwait, Bulgaria (five days).
This has also greatly factored in with the sales of the books currently being distributed by Avenida Books. While it may take a couple more months to see the effects of the adaptation in book sales, they have released a total of 13,000 copies (“Murder on Balete Drive” - 5,000; “Unreported Murders” - 4,000, “Mass Murders” - 4,000) since taking over publishing.
“Don’t panic buy. We have more than enough stocks on hand for each volume,” Ramirez says. Restocks get sold out quickly, as with the case of stores on Shopee and Lazada that lead to astronomically repriced copies from scalpers. “That just means their allocation is used up and they are waiting for the next delivery. That usually takes around two weeks.”
Avenida sells its books through their distributors: the physical and online stores of Mt. Cloud Bookshop (Baguio), Pandayan Bookshop, National Book Store, Fully Booked, Comic Odyssey, and Filbar’s Online, Secret HQ, and Komiket.
Ramirez shares that the Book Development Association of the Philippines (BDAP) held an online book fair last year called “Aklatan.” Through the help of Shopee and Lazada, publisher members were able to start their online shops. Last year’s Manila International Book Fair was only held online.
Despite these, she shares that the business still faces a lot of challenges. “In most businesses, when your product sells, you keep your profit. In publishing, whatever you earn goes back in. You need funds for the reprints, because the more hot-selling the title is, the more reprints you need,” Ramirez says. “You need more funds for the next new titles, and you can only publish “passion projects,” the untested or those who have a niche market, when you have a stable of titles that consistently sell out.”
For these, creators turn to Secret HQ and Komiket, the shop built by the same organizers of the regular conventions. “Before the pandemic, local indie komiks could be mainly bought through these conventions, in bookstores, and comic book stores,” says Pascual. “Since there hasn’t been a convention since early last year, a lot of indie komiks creators have placed their comics online through local platforms such as Penlab, and sometimes through international platforms such as tapas and webtoons.com.”
Penlab also links readers to the respective sites or pages of komiks they currently have, so that fans can find physical copies. There are other publishers like Mervstore and Haliya Publishing, whose website looks exactly how you’d find him during local conventions, and a pandemic-inspired twist.
But for creators and stories to further succeed, there are more things that Pascual feels could be improved. “Hopefully, there would be venues online where readers can discuss komiks with each other similar to webcomics and manga and Western comics,” he says.
There has been much discourse about “Trese,” from why it became the one being adapted into an animé series, particularly because of its being a “copaganda,” issues about pacing, dubbing, and whether or not it’s something to celebrate. For creators who revolve in the same industry, it’s but a precursor for things to come. After all, it was a short order of six episodes — much more could be done to address and improve if more opportunities arise from its reception.
“When I was growing up, I was inundated with books and comics and shows from the U.S., U.K., and Japan — it dominated so much of my imaginative life. Because of that, there was always this feeling that my own culture was marginalized in the international exchange of stories,” says Drilon.
“It’s instances like these that afford our stories to be seen on a larger scale. Hoping more come out into the mainstream,” says Filipino-American novelist Jason Tanamor, whose book “Vampires of Portlandia” became his means of embracing his identity and heritage.
Tanamor was born and raised in the US, as his parents fled the Marcos dictatorship in 1974. It wasn’t until decades later when an aswang was depicted in the T.V. show “Grimm,” that he learned of the lore. “All my culture growing up was American. I wanted to introduce Filipino culture to the mainstream. The book may not seem authentic; rather an Americanized version of a culture born in the Philippines,” he says.
It took him nine months of extensive research to write the novel, his first of many that aims to support #OwnVoices, a movement started by Corinne Duyvis for “an author from a marginalized or underrepresented group writing about their own experiences/from their own perspective, rather than someone from an outside perspective writing as a character from an underrepresented group.”
“If we can get more stories and people who can make differences, such as authors writing OwnVoices stories, I think we’ll begin to see a shift in industries that can depict people of color in a more positive light,” says Tanamor.
“I find ‘Trese’ on Netflix to be inspiring because, it’s ‘the komik that could,’ in the sense that I know it was a labor of love between Budj and Kajo, committed to doing single issues on top of their families and day jobs,” Drilon says. “I like how it’s a sign of increasing global interest in Philippine culture. I hope it inspires more Filipinos to get their stories out into the world.”