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.
What’s been the most memorable thing a Trese fan has done to show their love for the series?
KAJO: Nothing stands out for me that much because most were equally very very awesome and very very flattering. I wish I could thank [all the fans] personally for riding with us aboard the crazy Trese train.
BUDJETTE: Mica Chua cosplayed Trese during the 2008 Komikon. [It] feels strange and exciting to stand beside your own creation.
Photographer Melvin Arciaga has staged and photographed entire scenes from the comic book and we even collaborated on a four-page photo-comic.
That reminds me: another way that Trese distinguishes itself from other komiks properties is that it seems to have made some attempt at a transmedia approach–aside from the graphic novels, you have illustrated short stories in Stories from the Diabolical, the aforementioned photo comic (Devil’s Playground), a komik that came out in Rogue magazine (“Masquerade“), a slide show story for Pecha Kucha night… Alexandra Trese even has an in-character Twitter account. (Never mind the fact that Trese has its origins in a radio show.) Why did you make the decision to pursue other avenues of storytelling, above and beyond the komik/graphic novel proper?
KAJO: Budj is a very prolific writer, and I’m a very slow artist, so the math here is obvious. It’s a perfect strategy to explore other means for him to tell his stories (he’s got lots) without being limited by one medium.
BUDJETTE: Me and my brother Brandie both work in advertising, and when I was starting Trese, he was telling me that I should tell Trese’s stories in other mediums. We would see how foreign ad agencies would create campaigns that were transmedia or how movies, like the Matrix, told side stories/ introduced new characters through the Animatrix, and got you involved in another chapter of the story by playing the video game. So, I wanted to do something like that.
Since we can’t release a Trese comic book every month (and how I wish that were possible), I thought that using other mediums would be a way to show more of Trese’s universe.
On Trese’s Facebook page, I see people post about an incident in their neighborhood or they hear news about a strange death somewhere and they link it to a character from the comic book. It’s great to see the comic book come alive for the readers.
Do the two of you still collaborate on these other narratives, even on the occasions where there is no art, or when Kajo isn’t handling the art?
BUDJETTE: Me and Kajo have a very nice and neat division of labor. I write. He draws. Seems to work well for us. Occasionally, Kajo will text or email me a little idea that just becomes the next Trese story. We usually only get to meet up during Komikons and that’s when we get to talk about what we’ll do next for Trese.
KAJO: As Budj said, it’s a very simple relationship. He writes what he likes, I draw what I like. If some words bother me, I tell him and he accepts it if it’s valid. If some pictures don’t fit in his plan, he asks me to alter or remove them and I do so. Simple and easy.
Other Trese stories that I don’t draw don’t necessarily need to pass through me. I love the creative freedom Budj allowed me and I’d like to pass that attitude along to other artists.
Moving back to the award, Budjette, in your acceptance speech for the National Book Award, you called upon Philippine publishers to “publish one graphic novel a year.” What do you two think is the role that Philippine publishers can (or should) play in the komiks industry?
BUDJETTE: Like I said in my speech, I think the age of the ten-peso komiks magazine sold on the street corner is over. I’m sure I can still be proven wrong, but the last attempt to do komiks like that didn’t do so well. We heard reports of the Carlo J. Caparas komiks getting sold out and that sounded like good news. But for whatever reason, they stopped publishing. I don’t know why that happened. So, maybe the future of Philippine comics has a better chance if we put them on the shelves of bookstores or maybe in the magazine stands.
Book publishers and magazine publishers already have a good business relationship with bookstores nationwide. Publishers already have a distribution system in place. These are the two things that a self-publisher/indie comics creator needs to establish and it requires a whole lot of work to do so. If comic book creators can provide the content, then the publishers can provide the logistics and machinery to get the comic books in stores all over the country.
We’ve got dozens of Filipino artists working for foreign comic book companies and foreign animation studios. It would be great if local publishers could provide work for all these talents.
On the other hand, what do you think komiks creators need to do, in order to attract the attention of publishers?
BUDJETTE: First of all, comic book creators need to start writing and drawing their stories. And then, they need to finish [the stories]. It’s hard to pitch an idea to publishers. It’s hard to pitch a half-finished story. It’s better to pitch a finished book.
They also need to learn how to pitch it properly, learn how to send a formal proposal to publishers. They can easily take a look at the website of local publishers to see how they’d like to receive pitches. They should also read up on the submission guidelines of foreign comic book companies, just to get an idea on the different ways of pitching to publishers.
I also think putting your work online will eventually help you sell your comic book to a publisher. By maintaining a blog or any kind of site that has your comic book, you’ll be able to get feedback from readers and maybe even monitor the traffic to your site. You can then include these items in your pitch, show the publisher some fan mail, reviews from other sites, and how many hundreds / thousands visit your site on a daily / monthly basis. This will help show that your book has an audience and a ready-market.
What is it about the komiks medium that you think distinguishes it from other modes of storytelling/literature?
KAJO: This is a complicated question that’s yearning for a simple answer. I can’t do it without confusing you. I’d rather recommend Scott Mc Cloud’s “Understanding Comics”. The simplicity and the complexity of this medium is entertainingly dissected right there.
BUDJETTE: I’ve never really thought about this. Telling stories through comics has always been a childhood love of mine, so I just get into it without thinking about it.
As a writer, it means I can use less words. HAHAHA! If I were writing a novel or short story and if I have a scene with Trese and a tikbalang, I’d have to describe to you what that tikbalang looks like. In a comic book, I can just write, AND TRESE FINALLY MEETS THE GREAT STALLION, THE DATU OF ALL TIKBALANG and let Kajo draw a full-page, showing you how awesome this tikbalang looks like.
In the way the reader consumes the story, I think Neil Gaiman said, you can control the time a reader spends on a page. By having less words and more pictures, you can speed up the pace of the readers. By having more words on a page, you can slow down his pace. You can also time a big surprise or reveal to the reader by placing that scene on an even-numbered page, meaning the reader will only see it when he turns to the next page.
You can put a big surprise in a movie, but if the viewer blinks, sneezes, or closes his eyes at that specific moment, then he doesn’t see your big surprise. A reader of a novel can skip paragraphs and intentionally or inadvertently read “the identity of the killer” which you placed at the bottom of the page.
If you were a local publisher, which komiks creators would you be paying close attention to?
BUDJETTE: Andrew Drilon, has done a couple of online comic book stories for Top Shelf, received rave reviews from Matt Fraction and Warren Ellis for his Kare-Kare Komiks (which I’m hoping will find a publisher soon), and that’s why I’m looking forward to his horror graphic novel “Black Clouds”.
Mervin Malonzo is another writer/artist who’s starting out on the net with his webcomic TABI PO. Its watercolor-like artwork is beautiful and haunting and it’s one of the few comics now that’s written in Filipino. He’s still at the stage of setting up the characters and their universe, but I am definitely hooked and waiting for more.
Macoy, writer / artist of ANG MASKOT, which is Elmer meets Wasted and all told in one issue. Well, nobody dies in this story, but it’s one of those personal, day-in-a-life stories where you can easily identify with and empathize with the main character – a mascot! Macoy has also done these simple one-shot stories, which are always fun to read.
Tepai Pascual’s MACTAN 1521. I’ve only read the first few chapters of it, but I did get to see the complete, fully-painted version (which was her college thesis) and I think it would be a shame if this graphic novel did not get printed in full color and placed in the hands of Pinoy readers everywhere! Mactan 1521 is about the life of Lapu-Lapu and covers the events that lead up to his battle with Magellan.
Of course, I have to mention Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta Maria’s SKYWORLD (which I’m editing). They’ve taken what we think we know about our myths and legends and have revealed the big conspiracy behind it all.
Paolo Fabregas’ FILIPINO HEROES LEAGUE has already been picked up by Visprint, but in case he’s got another story up his sleeve, I’d line up and see what his next book will be.
What’s next for Trese at this point?
BUDJETTE: We’re really delayed with Book 4. We really wanted to launch it this year, but got sidetracked with other projects. So, we should finish Book 4 and get it out by early next year.
Kajo just started his TRESE: NIGHT GALLERY, which will be a series of prints featuring different characters from the Trese universe. Each signed and numbered print will limited to 1300 copies.
And if we can get our groove back, then we hope to also finish Trese Book5 and release it towards the end of next year.
Finally, how many copies of Trese would need to be sold for the two of you to forego the day jobs and spend every working hour producing more komiks for us?
BUDJETTE: By my rough calculation (and take note, I’m really bad at math—that’s why I became a writer), if we can sell 15,000 copies of Trese a month, we can quit our day jobs and just focus on comics.
KAJO: I’ll start practicing living on just oxygen next year to totally let go of any kind of work. We’ll see if my fingers can still hold any kind of writing implements by then. Thank you.
Our thanks to Kajo and Budjette for taking time out from their busy schedules to speak to us. Congratulations once again on the well deserved victory!