By Rafael Besa | Banner design by Samantha Palanca

Before its Netflix debut last June 10, “Trese” was known only to a relatively few ardent fans familiar with the Filipino graphic novel landscape and to readers curious enough to wander into the Filipiniana section of bookstores and libraries. The comic, created by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, redefined the local animation industry and by extension, influenced much of how the general public viewed Filipino comics. Yet even before its transition to the moving pictures, “Trese” was already winning several literary awards, eventually earning a cult following. Published in 2005, it gave lucky readers a dark and intriguing fantastical world populated by creatures of ancient Filipino mythology that was filled with the familiar landmarks of the country. 

Despite the distinctly Filipino image it has built for itself, many would inevitably compare the show to its foreign contemporaries, and indeed, many of its inspirations did come from such sources. Yet how were the creators able to reconcile these seemingly conflicting ideas and realities? To truly understand why “Trese’s” adaptation has been such a resounding success, one must first examine the original material and how it came to be.

Birth of a Heroine

Many of the elements that  would soon characterize “Trese” were conceptualized in 2002, with a character named Anton Trese designed and written by Budjette Tan, who had been deeply immersed in animation and comic books for much of his life. In fourth grade, he was inspired to create a character named “Cosmic Man” after watching DC’s “Batman” and Hanna-Barbera’s “Space Ghost.” These would influence the character Anton Trese, who would go through various iterations from an NBI agent to a tabloid reporter. 

It was clear to Tan right from the start though that his creation was going to be a supernatural crime story with a paranormal investigator as its lead. Illustrator Kajo Baldisimo would help through the creation of a storyboard for the character, and make the idea of Anton Trese a tangible reality. Yet, another key part of the “Trese” we know now was yet to be realized. Tan was proud of his work and was more eager than ever to develop it further once Baldisimo’s first sketches for the comic came back to him. At the same time, the writer had some reservations about his lead character. “Why does it feel so typical? It’s very cliche to see another tough guy fighting monsters.’ Texting Kajo back, he said: ‘What if Trese was a woman?’ Kajo replied, ‘Oh that would make Trese more cool!” he said in an interview with GMA News.

Still, with a young intellectual property like “Trese,” Tan faced publication and distribution issues. Eventually he decided to found a dedicated publisher through Alamat Comics with the advice of his friend and Filipino-American artist Whilce Protacio, helping promote Trese alongside other independent comics. Slowly but surely, the now-beloved character of Alexandra Trese came to be, transitioning from prototypical storyboards and indie blogs to bounded books of dust jacket and hardcover.

Initially, “Trese” was distributed in 30 photocopies and sold for less than a dollar to mostly friends and family. But to the surprise of the duo, many still wished to read more of their work. After partnering up with ABLAZE Publishing, they sought to share more of “Trese’s” exploration of Filipino mythology to a greater audience. With these opportunities, “Trese” would quickly build a following and earn several accolades since its first release. For such humble beginnings, “Trese” would quickly build a following and earn several accolades since its first release. In 2009, “Trese: Mass Murders,” the third issue in the series, was officially cited in the National Book Award for Graphic Literature by the National Book Development Board and the Manila Critics Circle to be worthy of inclusion in the halls of iconic Filipino characters such as Darna, Zuma and Captain Barbell. With the help of their friends and colleagues, Tan and Baldisimo would receive ever-greater recognition, and even earn several nominations and awards including the National Book Awards in 2011 and 2012. 

In 2010, Tanya Yuson and Shanty Harmayn of the Jakarta-based film company BASE Entertainment came to the Philippines in search of new script writers and filmmakers. With the recommendation of a friend, they met with Tan who told them the story of “Trese.” According to Tan, they have been pitching “Trese” to multiple studios around the world in the past years, when, finally, Netflix picked up the comic for adaptation.

In November 2018, Netflix announced that an animated adaptation was in the works with the talented Jay Oliva (“Legend of Korra” and “Man of Steel”) set to be the executive producer and director. Baldisimo and Tan, who have long labored to open their mythos to the world, finally got their ticket to the animation industry—fulfilling their dream of having  their characters brought to life like the anime and cartoons they watched growing up.

Realities of Animation

Even before the critical acclaim it received, the buzz that counted down the days to “Trese’s” release were replete with both hyped fans who knew of the mysterious tales of the comics and eager Filipinos anticipating what the country’s first true “anime” had to offer. The 2018 announcement already spread the word about its coming and the recent ambitious marketing of graffiti and slashed billboards certainly hyped up the days to its release. On June 10, Netflix released a video of the first 4:45 minutes of the show and the “Trese Bukas Na” statement went viral on Twitter with over 12,000 tweets. The reception to this sneak peak was met with nothing but praise on news outlets and social media websites alike. Needless to say, the country eagerly awaited the release, and within 24 hours,  the long wait since its announcement almost three years ago would be over.

Perhaps what is most amazing about this breakout success is not that it was born out  of an audience hungry for local talent to satiate their hunger for that balance of easy-yet-complex media but rather in spite of it. Ask anyone of the comic-books-turned-cartoons they loved growing up or even any shows they may be binging—some mention the superheroes of DC or Marvel known the world-over, or of another surprising animated success like Image Comics’ “Invincible” that began streaming last March. Or perhaps they would answer with an anime that pretty much annually takes the country by storm with releases like “Your Name” or the latest season of “Attack on Titan.” These answers would paint a picture of the landscape “Trese” grew from and thrived in. The sheer convenience of today’s streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have expanded audiences, allowing them to be more exposed than ever not just to the works of moving modern art that exist beyond our own physical borders but to local talent shining beyond the preconceptions and neocolonial traits that (continue to) dominate contemporary media, a boon that Netflix and the creators of “Trese” wasted no time to address. 

Yet as seen in Tan’s recollections growing up until the show’s premiere, the inspiration for “Trese” did not develop solely from outside influence. It was Tan and Baldisimo’s innate creativity, and their determination to brave past the challenges that helped establish and immortalize what might be one of the most iconic pieces of media in modern Filipino history. Like a reflection of our history, “Trese” is an amalgamation of various influences that pervade contemporary society and an acknowledgement of its identity as a fusion of these very same inspirations.

“Trese” is not simply a means to explore the often ignored (and tokenized) folktales of our heritage, nor is it solely meant to evoke local familiarity or for Filipino celebrities to appear on yet another facet of media.

The adaptation from the comic to the streaming platform helped introduce the comic to a wider audience but even before this, “Trese” has already made its mark on Filipino literature as a dark yet grounded exploration of Filipino mythology. While the Netflix adaptation may eventually make Alexandra Trese a cultural icon to the wider world, it was the efforts of Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo that truly brought the heroine to life. Even in its literary form alone, Trese is a living fusion of influences and a reflection of our unique collective identity.

Disclaimer: The views shared in this article do not reflect or represent those of the National Book Development Board.