Homegrown Lore.

"Day 164: Cozied Up" by "Snugglepup"
I had no idea reading Filipino horror comics late at night was so much fun. (Photo by Snugglepup; Source: Flickr)

I wish I was exposed to different book genres early in life, and read more material from local writers. I don’t know if this is the case with most ’80s kids, but when I was growing up, I heavily leaned toward modern foreign-made/imported English books and stories, not homegrown lore. My shelves were filled with the standard tween/teen fare, particularly those from the (ghostwritten, apparentlySweet Valley series. Kids, Twins, High, University… hell, I was even hooked on those epic Magna Editions! (Remember Margo Black, the batshit-crazy murderer lady hell bent on being a Wakefield? Gaaaaawd I loved her and her drama.)

I guess the same goes for my kin. One was addicted to Danielle Steel novels, and another kept a yellowed and torn-up copy of John Grisham’s The Firm in the bathroom for at least three years. I think the entire family — and all the house guests — read all or parts of that book while on the toilet.

My point is I don’t think I ever saw any books by Filipino authors in my childhood home. Back then, the notion was that reading local books (especially with dialogue in the vernacular) was uncool, baduy. At the time my only example of local fiction books were the tacky, Filipino-language sexytime soap opera-ish books with white covers being sold in bookstore chains; even now, as an adult, I still avoid those shelves.

I don’t remember seeing comics or graphic novels around the house, either. We had Pugad Baboy and those Archie comics digests, sure, but I don’t recall my brothers being comic-book guys. Or if they actually liked to read for leisure or not.

In college, I met people who would help broaden my reading horizons. A guy friend I had an intense crush on for at least four years introduced me to Neil Gaiman‘s work, starting with American Gods and The Sandman series. A friend I’ve known since freshman year lent me her Gabriel Garcia Márquez books. A high school friend got me hooked on fiction by Chuck Palahniuk (the famously gnarly short story Guts was my formal introduction), and I also started reading Sin City and Watchmen. Even my Danielle Steel-loving blood relation branched out and got addicted to the Harry Potter series, and I read her big hardbound copies instead of reviewing for make-or-break exams.

But here’s the thing: I was still reading stories from overseas authors, still learning more about their countries, histories and myths. I had absolutely no clue about local writers, their work, or their source material.

Fast forward to more than a decade. Things have definitely changed. We see it everywhere, from businesses to design trends to ads to book-shop shelves: there’s immense pride to be felt in being a Filipino, by blood or at heart. Slap MNL and PH everywhere! This goes for Filipino literature too — I’m sure our artists and writers have delved into our rich history and culture throughout the decades, and put their own spin on things, but I think that hard work is being highlighted more, and (more importantly) adapted and learnt by new generations. One can’t discount foreign influences and current trends, but I don’t care; I’ll read whatever comes my way.

Filipino comics

I figured I should make up for lost time, and learn more about homegrown lore and graphic novels/komiks while I’m at it. So for this edition of The Reading Spree, I’m focusing on three amazing comic book titles done by Filipino writers and artists, and founded on our myths and monsters. There’s the horror/crime comics series Trese, which now has five print volumes and a sixth one on the way. Skyworld‘s another great read, and sold as two print volumes. Lastly, sections of the popular online comic Tabi Po have been translated to English and made available as two e-books.

Welcome to the Filipino underworld. I strongly suggest keeping the lights on as you read. And you better hope these creatures don’t show up in the real world. 😉

[NOTE: This blog entry may contain spoilers. You’ve been warned.]

The sixth child of the sixth child

Trese
She’s definitely not your average crime-fighter… or damsel in distress. (I also love those connected cover illustrations!)

I can’t remember how or when I first heard of the Trese comics series, but I do remember wanting to get all five volumes first before reading. It took me a while; for some strange reason, every book store I went to had Books 1-3 and 5 (which I got in one purchase), but 4 was always MIA.

I finally located Book 4 at a National Book Store branch in either Makati or Ortigas Center (can’t remember now), around a year after I began searching for it. I’d say waiting to complete the series was worth the late nights spent binge-reading.

The five Trese books — Murder on Balete Drive, Unreported Murders, Mass Murders, Last Seen After Midnight, and Midnight Tribunal — contain stories centered on Alexandra Trese, a bar owner in Malate and the designated “guardian” of Manila. As the city’s guardian, she’s tasked with keeping the peace between the humans and the creatures of the Philippine underworld. This job includes helping the Manila police department investigate and solve violent crimes suspected to be of a non-human nature.

For both her day and night job, Trese’s aided by the Kambal (the Twins), her suave male bodyguards with supernatural powers and a mysterious background; and known for their love of gunfights, women, and bickering with each other. The trio regularly interact with Captain Guerrero of the MPD and his officers to get the job done — which they do, most of the time.

Obviously, the cases won’t be complete without the myriad modernized mythical creatures that make up the Manila underworld. Who/What made the list of allies and baddies? Aswang, manananggaltikbalang, wind creatures, tiyanaks, a raging fireball summoned via phone call, bangungotnuno or duwende, a lightning god, a datu of war, and a former Philippine First Lady.

Yep. A former First Lady called “Madame”, and patterned after a young Imelda Marcos. Iiiiiiinteresting.

There are also references to well-known Filipino clans and personalities, trends, and urban legends. Aside from Mrs. Marcos, it was fun spotting cheeky nods to the Ayalas and Gokongweis; actors Edu Manzano, Richard Gomez, and Herbert Bautista; and even pambansang kamao (national fist)/Congressman/basketball coach and player Manny Pacquiao. The old urban legend of the monster kidnapping women from mall dressing rooms? That was mentioned in a Trese case. How about the famous White Lady of Balete Drive? It has the honor of being the basis for Trese‘s very first case.

One particular case paid tribute to Mars Ravelo, one of the creators of Darna. A case heavily referenced the Eraserheads‘ classic song Ang Huling El Bimbo. Another went into street racing — this was frequently (and illegally) done in sections of major Manila thoroughfares like C5 and Macapagal Boulevard, especially in the early ’00s, when The Fast and the Furious was a blockbuster and everyone wanted NOS in their cars. And another case is reminiscent of the zombie hordes in movies and TV shows past and present (or a Magandang Gabi, Bayan Halloween special episode)

As for the stories’ pace… well, you can expect that it sets a quick one, and not just because it’s in komiks form. The cases (particularly those in early volumes), are begun and wrapped up pretty quickly. Characters are introduced and withdrawn from the story in just a few panels; readers quickly move on to the next cases with little or no carry-overs from the previous one. It’s efficient story-telling, and it ensures you’ll be done with one Book in an hour or so.

Books 3 and 5 are the exceptions to this quick pace. For these volumes, Tan and Baldisimo did Book-long arcs instead of doing three or four unrelated cases. Mass Murders (a 2010 National Book Awards winner!) tackled Trese’s history and familial ties, and the origins of the Kambal. Midnight Tribunal, in turn, had Trese deal with vigilantes, and meet her possible romantic and political/tactical matches.

I love the way the supernaturals are integrated into modern life, and how they interact with Trese and her “tribe”. I never thought of these creatures disguised as street racers, fangirls, bodyguards, meat butchers, video game players and characters, hungry residents of a mall parking lot, electrical suppliers for an entire subdivision, boxing fans, or even warchildren. The images of tikbalangs and higantes (giants) playing sipa at Manila Polo Club is also awesome on paper, but undoubtedly fucking terrifying in real life. It does make you think of what lurks behind every corner, and if some people morph into scary creatures by nightfall.

Trese’s portrayal as a strong, independent woman who’s always ready to tussle is also awesome to see (whether in local or foreign comics). I’m interested in seeing her softer side, but I’m also OK with seeing just ass-kicker Trese. The Kambal are always adorable and entertaining, warchild masks on or off — they remind me of my guy friends and their siblings, minus the whole “supernatural gunslingers” part.

It was also nice to see massive changes in the noir-ish artwork throughout the years. A good example would be the depiction of Maliksi the stubborn tikbalang: the way he’s drawn in tikbalang form in Book 1 is very, very different from what he looks like in Book 5. As you proceed with each book, the black-and-white illustrations become more detailed and expressive.

For people like me who have little to no idea of Philippine mythology, the Trese comics series is a good place to start. Stories may progress quickly, but there will be enough mysteries and questions at the end to get you to buy the next installments. I’m excited to see the coming showdown between Trese and Madame, the developments with Trese and Maliksi, the ongoing battle between the Trese brothers vs. the aswang clans, and if Trese will take on more supernatural cases outside Manila.

This fifth child of the eighth child can’t wait for Book 6!

Trese, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo

  • Book 1: Murder on Balete Drive
  • Book 2: Unreported Murders
  • Book 3: Mass Murders
  • Book 4: Last Seen After Midnight
  • Book 5: Midnight Tribunal

Trade paperback, Visprint
Buy: National Book Store | Fully Booked (Books 1, 2 and 3 only) | Comic Odyssey (Books 3 and 5 only)

(Next: “The Monster vs. the Maharlika”: Skyworld by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria)