For fans of komiks, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo need no introduction, and neither does Trese, their komiks collaboration, now published by Visprint, which is one of the most popular and most successful komik series’ in recent memory. While komiks still remains, at this point, a niche market, Trese continues to make inroads into mainstream consciousness, its most recent success being recognition in the National Book Awards in the category of Graphic Literature. In what I think is their first post-award interview, Kajo and Budjette talk about the success of Trese, the importance of their fans, transmedia storytelling, and the future of Philippine komiks:
ROCKET KAPRE: First of all, congratulations to you both for winning the National Book Award for Graphic Literature. Is it somehow sweeter to win it this year, when you were up against such strong competition, in Francisco Coching’s “El Indio”? (I remember that in his introduction to the first Trese collection, Gerry Alanguilan mentions Coching, so it seems a weird symmetry for Trese to win the award this way.)
KAJO: Thank you. It feels great to be recognized. Good to have additional gallons of inspiration to do more work like TRESE (or in our case, more ‘play’).
BUDJETTE: Of course, it feels great to finally win! How I wish we could’ve been there to accept the award. Last year, me, Kajo, and Nida (our publisher) were all dressed up at the awards and my jaw just dropped when they announced that there was no winner in the category. You’d think that if you’re the only finalist in the category, then your chances for winning are pretty high. But, as it turned out, TRESE: UNREPORTED MURDERS didn’t get the unanimous vote of the judges and that’s why it didn’t win.
So, when I found out that we were up against “El Indio” this year, I didn’t want to get my hopes too high. I was happy we got in finalist status again and I just hoped for the best.
I still remember the early days when Trese came out as individual photocopied issues, each resolving a single case. Do you still remember your initial print runs for the early issues? How many times did you have to reprint/go back to press before the first collection came out from Visprint?
BUDJETTE: When we were just photocopying TRESE in 2005, the only place you could get [the komik] was at Comic Quest. So, we probably just made 30 copies and made more whenever we’d get sold out. And we’d get a call from Comic Quest every couple of weeks that people were looking for Trese.
During the Komikon of 2005, I only had 50 copies made, thinking we wouldn’t sell a lot.
We were sold out before 3pm. I was so happy that we sold 50 copies!
KAJO: During our ‘photocopied Trese’ days, Budj was technically the publisher, so he’s the one who kept track of the copies being made and copies being sold. I rarely cared how many people were buying [the komiks] because for me, the only loyal customers we needed to maintain were Budj and Kaj. It appeared that many people were like Budj and Kaj, ‘specially when Visprint appeared and gave us a giant hand regarding distribution.
Do you remember when it was that you first realized that you had a hit on your hands? That this was going to go beyond the convention circuit?
BUDJETTE: I’m not sure of the exact tipping point of Trese. I was getting an inkling of it when I would spot the occasional review online. (Yes, yes, I Google “Trese” once in awhile.) It amazed me that people took the time to write reviews that read like someone’s thesis report. These were very detailed and passionate reviews about the stories. It was also great to get feedback from guys like Gerry Alanguilan and Marco Dimaano about the book early on.
And then, when we released TRESE: MURDER ON BALETE DRIVE, me and Kajo were invited guests at the Mangaholix Con in SMX, where we sold 100+ copies. By that time, we knew that people really liked our stories.
KAJO: Honestly, I knew we had a hit when I first read Budj’s script ‘At the Intersection of Balete and 13th Street’. I knew that this would be a story that Budj and I were going to love reading, so making it was pretty easy. [Budj and Kaj] are easy customers, you see. It’s a little different now, but I still try and please those two and hope that many others are just as willing to ride along.
You two have always seemed to value Trese fandom, featuring fan created artwork in your collections and online. What role has fandom, in particular online fandom, played in the success of Trese? Has any feedback changed how the story was told, or presented?
KAJO: The fandom is very important to the success of Trese. They are the big, smiling reflections in our mirrors that tell us ‘you’re looking good, keep it up’ or ‘you look like crap, don’t go out’. The feedback they share with us is as valuable as a steering wheel in a car, IMHO.
BUDJETTE: I think the biggest change that affected Trese’s storyline was the feedback about the Kambal. More often than not, people would ask, “Who are the Kambal? What are they? Where did they come from?”
Like I mentioned in the afterword of Book 3, the original “secret origin” of the Kambal was just supposed to be mentioned in passing in the very first Trese story. I just wanted to get that out of the way and focus on the mysteries that Trese had to solve. But Kajo deleted those captions and told me that he’d like to do a whole story that just focused on how Trese met the Kambal. I said okay and thought that it was going to be a simple 20-page story where Trese rescues the Kambal and I was going to write that sometime in the future.
More people asked about the Kambal’s origin after Book 2 came out. So, I thought, I might as well tell it in Book3. I was trying to tell it in the usual 20-page structure, but the story just wouldn’t cooperate and it became the 100-page book that was MASS MURDERS.