Friday October 19, 2012
Worlds of Wonder: Spooky street sister
Worlds of Wonder
By Hari Kesuma
When there is something strange in Manila’s neighbourhoods, they call Trese.
Trese Vols 1-4
Writer: Budjette Tan
Artist: KaJo Baldisimo
THE name’s Trese. Alexandra Trese. She is the spook detective who protects Manila, the Philippines, from the evil and mystical monsters that roam its streets.
Her partners-in-crime are a pair of Kambal (which literally means twins in Tagalog) bodyguards – floating half-paranormal beings in theatrical masks who might remind you of the Matrix twins.
Trese’s phantasmic abilities run in the family, and she became a Pinoy ghost-hunter supremo to continue her father Anton’s fight against evil spirits after his death.
It’s not like she had a choice – the capital city of her realm is overrun by underworld creatures who have crossed the “borders” for, yup, a better life. They not only control the crime syndicates of the city, they also rule the high offices of government and business.
Luckily, Trese has the backing of the city cops who have her number on speed dial for when their case turns weird, which in this horror/crime comic series by their homegrown comic writer Budjette Tan and artist KaJo Baldisimo, seems to happen a lot.
I’ve heard a lot about the Philippines comic scene, especially those who had made their mark internationally at DC Comics and Marvel (since the 1960s!), but Trese is my first Filipino comic. And boy, am I kicking myself for not venturing there earlier.
With Trese, Tan and Baldisimo created a dark world which melds the Metro Manila vibe to a universal intrigue that channels Warren Ellis and Mike Mignola. (The two would not stop raving about them in their prologues!)
Each volume is designed as an anthology of crime horror stories that follow a certain formula – there is a mysterious crime with some kind of supernatural genesis, neighbourhood ghostbuster Trese parachutes in, nabs the ghoul and solves the case.
Quite frankly, it could have quickly descended into monotonous drudgery if not for Tan’s writing, which weaves engrossing grandmother stories that pack a surprise or two. There are inevitable traces of the X-Files, Twilight Zone and, most of all, True Singapore Ghost Stories, yet, he somehow manages to find fresh twists to the campfire tales and urban legends that we must have heard millions of times before.
Credit also goes to Baldisimo whose gloomy art manages to capture the tightly wound suspense of Tan’s plots while pumping up the action.
For those wary of taking the creatures of Philippine mythology full on, really, you have nothing to fear. You will be surprised at how familiar many of the ghoulish criminals are, some even have almost similar names to our own ghosts - Manananggal, Tiyanak and sytan. There is even one that looks like a toyol (the little boy thief ghost).
Still, you might want to have a glossary of Filipino monsters and mystical beings on hand – not that your comprehension will be hampered without it, but your appreciation of the stories will be heightened with the insight.
This is most pertinent in Our Secret Constellation, story No.4 in Volume One. On the surface, it provides a cautionary tale along the vein of Twilight Zone. A young woman’s life is destroyed after she is gang-raped, sending her brother out on a vengeance call. But as we later find out, she is attacked only because her brother had taken away her “weapon”, to stop her from going out on her own vigilante missions for justice. Only those familiar with Philippines’ legendary version of a Wonder Woman-like superhero, Darna, would catch the irony.
Darna is an alien warrior who gets her power by swallowing a stone from her home planet Marte. In Tan’s version, her brother hides the stone for her safety, but instead leaves her vulnerable to her enemies.
Knowledge of the popular Darna mythos adds poignancy to this post-feminist twist in the story, which takes more than a swipe at Asian patriarchal beliefs.
Another is the last story of Volume Four, Fight Of The Year, about the burden of a national hero, boxing champion Manuel, who literally has to box evil for the future and happiness of his countrymen. The thinly veiled homage to Philippine’s boxing hero Manny Pacquaio gives new meaning to the salutary phrase “nation’s hope”.
Amidst these two dark tales are the murkier yarns of your favourite lady-in-white accident victim ghost, suburban zombies, vampiric foetuses in the mall and an unholy conspiracy in a gated community.
Not a fan of True Singapore Ghost Stories, my main grouse with Trese is that the cases are given prominence over Trese’s own story.
Sure, her genesis, as well as that of her Kambal bodyguards, is given in Volume 3 but beyond that, the character development in the series is sorely lacking.
The crumbs offered about our kick-butt paranormal “police” – who runs a monster-friendly club, The Diabolical, when she is not ghost hunting – are barely satisfying.
As enthralling as the paranormal creatures are, Tan and Baldisimo will need to start giving some page-time to their titular character’s story if they want to get at least a quarter of the cult following of the popular Singapore series they seem to be emulating.
Trese is available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC.