[Outside the Frame] Trese: Supernaturual Noir Komiks Done Right

In 2005, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo published the first Trese comic. Not a cop, but working with them, Alexandra Trese and her faithful assistants solve the crimes that can’t be brought before a judge. Manila is her city, left to her by her father and his father before him, and she’s going to protect the people in it by whatever means necessary. When you live in a Manila where all of the old Filipino folklore is true, that involves making deals with some monsters, and destroying others.

Originally the Trese komiks were photocopied ashcans, passed around through fans and sold whenever you could find the author or artist to buy one. The graphic novels are published by Visual Print Enteprises, a small press in the Philippines. Their financial success, popularity, and awards led Tan and Baldisimo to sign with Flipside Publishing Services Inc., which is currently releasing the individual issues as eBooks. But even now, as huge as the komik’s creators are at home, they’re still considered outsiders, unknown by most US readers.

Those of you who are just hearing about Trese for the first time have been missing out on something amazing.

The first 8 cases (compiled in Book 1: Murder on Balete Drive and Book 2: Unreported Murders) are stand alone shorts, episodic flash fiction tales. Book 3 (Mass Murders) gives us five interconnected tales that weave flashbacks together with current events, giving us more of the back story while making sense of the crimes in the first eight cases. That book won the 2010 Philippines National Book Awards for Best Graphic Literature. They won Best Graphic Literature again in 2011 with Book 4: Last Seen After Midnight. We’re back to the individual cases here, ramping up for Book 5: Midnight Tribunal, which pits Trese and her crew against mysterious vigilantes trying to do her job for her.

What makes this series so special? Five things:

First, it’s set in world where the supernatural is a part of every day life. Though the local police chief doesn’t know all of the details, he’s never surprised when a case ends up having magical elements, and has Trese’s number on speed dial. Human informants point the way toward back-alley shops run by aswang, and regular people often make deals or trade favors with elementals and demons. Tikbalang run through the streets, duwende take human familiars, and anting-anting actually work. Trese rarely has to explain that monsters are involved in the crimes she investigates, and only a few object when they find out the truth.

Part of Tan’s brilliance as a writer is that he uses the Filipino words for these creatures, telling (without telling) the audience immediately that these are not the white-washed, worn out monsters we find in European mythology. They aren’t dressed up for a Disney movie. The Underworld denizens are violent, dark, needy, and sexy. They still have their teeth, and don’t imagine for a second that they’ve been Westernized to make it easier for non-native readers to understand.

Second, Alexandra is a strong female lead who doesn’t rely on sex appeal to save the day. She’s embraced her family’s legacy as those who work with the Underworld, but she’s modernized it to keep up with the times.  When Trese isn’t saving the city, she is the owner of The Diabolical, a nightclub she opened in the spot where her grandfather once ran a coffee shop. She still helps out the police, as her father and grandfather did, but carries a gun along with her magical kris knife, and summons spirits with her cell phone. Her loyal bodyguards, the very masculine Kambal (twins), flirt with giggly amihan, but don’t make a pass at their “bossing”. She’s boyish and favors black clothes, a long coat, and boots – useful, not seductive.

Third, Trese hits all of the right noir elements, and references classic horror works. Noir worlds are dark and the hero knows he can’t save everyone. Noir stories focus on saving the one person, or fixing the one situation, while the rest of the universe staggers forward in ignorance or shame. The “bad guys”, whoever they are, can never be wiped out, but if you’re very skilled and very lucky, you can keep them at bay for a little while. This is Trese’s Manila, and she doesn’t complain, doesn’t fight against the unfairness of it all. She does her job, solves her crimes, and goes back to her bar to wait for the next case. You can also see Tan’s literary influences, like the Shirley Jackson homage in “The Association Dues of Livewell Village”.

I also love the dark humor. I actually laughed aloud when a young dragon protested that he’d changed from his previous maiden-stealing ways by insisting that he never actually hurt any of the girls, and that one of them still emails him. His puppy-dog face and the laptop open to a picture of his email made the scene so earnest and yet so comical.

Lastly, Kajo Baldisimo’s art is strong and gritty, with deep blacks and wonderful highlights. It suits the world, rigid but sometimes funny, dark with occasional splashes of light.

All together there are 21 cases collected into the graphic novels, and an additional ten stories split between Stories from the Diabolica (an online collection of Trese-related fiction and comic panels) and Precinto 13 (related comics). So far, Amazon has the first two single-issues available as eBooks. Pick up Trese 1: At the Intersection of Balete and 13th Street and Trese 2: Rules of the Race now.

Next week: Richard S. Carbonneau’s The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons

Want me to review your work? I’m primarily looking for comics with a speculative fiction element, in keeping with the theme of SF Signal, but if your comic is fantasy, science fiction, horror, weird, magic realism, or some other style of “strange”, let me know! You can reach me at carriecuinn@gmail.com, or leave a comment below.

3 thoughts on “[Outside the Frame] Trese: Supernaturual Noir Komiks Done Right”

  1. Hi, I’m from the Philippines, and I love Trese. :D

    Just wanted to add, about the little dragon… he’s a reference to an Filipino urban legend that some mall owners were born with a snake twin, which are a sort of lucky charm, and that there are secret passages behind the dressing rooms and comfort rooms of their malls where the snake lurks in order to steal girls and eat them.

    1. haha yeah was about to comment the same thing. that legend is about the mall owner’s daughter..i just saw a photo of her in fb with a fake snake ‘twin’ poking fun on the legend. funny.

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