In Budjette Tan’s world, the supernatural is natural

Budjette Tan was raised in a haunted house.

Though too young to remember the events first-hand, as a child, he grew up to stories of his family’s own haunting. And just like any good ghost story, it started with the little things.

“At first, it was the normal disappearing stuff, slippers began moving on their own. Then, a light bulb would suddenly unscrew itself and fall on the ground,” Budjette tells me this as if he’s recalling a happy family picnic and not their case of The Amityville Horror.

The apparitions soon came after. Their family driver reported an instance where upon looking up at their car’s rear view mirror, he saw a young woman in the back seat. The ghostly visage then stared right back and whispered “Ingat ka [take care].”

At first, his parents were dismissive. “Kulang lang kayo sa paligo (you just need to bathe more)!,” his mother would tell those who experienced the hauntings. (“Apparently this was a saying back then,” Budjette adds.) But she would soon be made a believer after she would get her first ghostly encounter through baby Budjette himself.

“One summer afternoon, I was six-months-old, she had just given me a bath. She placed me on the bed and was about to put clothes on me. She looked away just to pick up the clothes, and the moment she turned back, half of my face had wrinkled out. It looked like an old man’s face.”

“She freaks out, and what else would a loving mother do when your baby’s face suddenly changes? She slaps me! Slaps that side of the face that’s wrinkled out!” Budjette laughs. “And supposedly I didn’t cry, and I just stared at her.”

After rosaries, psychics, seances (where more weird things happened), and a grand farewell where the spirits (yes, there were two) made their “moving on” known to the house, things soon returned to normal.

(Dear reader, I’d love to tell you more, but Budjette says he plans on writing the story soon, so consider this a mere taste of things to come.)

This experience left an indelible mark on a young Budjette. The supernatural was the natural. It wasn’t just close “like family,” it was part of their family. The circles of home life and of things that go bump in the night, forever inseparable.

This would shape Budjette’s interests, leading him to gravitate towards pop culture that delved into the realms of monsters, otherly worlds, and the vulnerable humans encountering the unknown. It also directed him to look at the supernatural for answers, to imagine the what-ifs—like what if a celebrity’s dwindling stardom was because of her losing the lucky duwende she’s fabled in real life to keep as a pet, or what if the criminal underworld is called the underworld for literal reasons.

Budjette would use these as inspirations in crafting the arcs of the famed horror/crime comic book he co-created, Trese.

“These were the stories [of the supernatural] that I kept hearing as a child and accepted as the truth,” Budjette says. “Essentially, what I did with Trese was, I went back to all the questions about the stuff I grew up with and started to give them answers myself.”

First encounters

It was past midnight back in May of 2017 when I first talked to Budjette Tan.

That night, the weather — sentient enough to know that in a few minutes I would be interviewing the co-creator of arguably the Philippines’ most-known horror komiks — took the effort to set a mood.

Howling winds rasping on my balcony window, uncharacteristic chills on a summer night, that electric hum that’s more pronounced in moments you’re alone, I stared at my screen as I waited for my call to connect.

Previously a long-time executive creative director at a prestigious advertising agency in Metro Manila, Budjette has been based in Denmark since 2016. He’s been working his (and possibly every kid’s and kid-at-heart’s) dream job; he’s a creative director at LEGO.

Given the time difference, it’s only during Manila’s wee hours that he’s free to meet.

Photo from Budjette Tan's FB page

Talking about aswangs, tikbalangs, and mandirigmang babaylans at this hour. I tell myself, how fitting.

I hear a faint hello, a “can you hear me?” The video kicks in. It’s him.

With a smile capable of warming the entire room and with eyes mirroring the wide arch his mouth makes, Budjette opens the conversation with a question. “Can we keep this quick or can I call you back in 30 minutes or an hour?” He has to fetch his wife and son in a bit, he says. He doesn’t want them waiting for too long in the cold.

I switch from “oooh, scary” to “awww, family” real quick.

The casebook of Alexandra Trese

First published in 2005, Trese serves as a de facto casebook of the titular Alexandra Trese—bar owner/police consultant/peacekeeper between the world above and below. Most issues of the komiks are one-shots showcasing a crime involving the supernatural that Alexandra is inadvertently pulled in to solve (e.g., a hit-and-run case at Balete Drive where the victim is its infamous white lady).

Photo from the Trese Facebook page

“Even though I keep talking about Neil Gaiman (whom Budjette credits as having given him the idea of transposing deities and creatures of yore to present day), the other big influence as far as Trese is concerned — and I guess as far as my writing is concerned — is Warren Ellis,” Budjette tells me.

“Planetary, Global Frequency, The Authority, I like how he makes stand-alone issues that build up to a bigger story arc.”

Once a young fanboy himself who would send story pitches to Marvel, Budjette giddily shares, “I read this article that he [Ellis] wrote back in 2000, I cut and pasted it, and then kept a copy of it...He came up with a term: 'pop comics.' He said a comic book is like a grenade. You need to throw it at someone and make their mind explode! And if they never ever pick up another comic book, you should leave that impression with them that their mind just exploded because of that one issue that they read. And I guess, that’s what I’ve been trying to do with Trese.”

I ask Budjette why he chose to distill his love for the supernatural via the crime genre — even employing the case-of-the-week, Sherlockian police consultant approach. “It was because I wanted to be a detective growing up,” he answers. He tells me that he dreamt of roaming streets as a boy—busting bad guys, uncovering mysteries.

I remember how I too had this dream. What sets Budjette and me apart though is that, with him working in LEGO and him creating Trese, he never learned how to get over his childhood dreams.

It’s never putting away your toys, but done right.

For members of the geek community (like me), a conversation with Budjette plays out like fandom’s version of a meet-cute. There are moments where you finish each other’s sentences (Budjette says “Richard Matheson’s The Omega Man was remade into…” you say with “I AM LEGEND!”).

The question-and-answer tango is at times cut by bouts of “no way, me too!” (or some permutation of it), whenever one would reference pop culture which the other turns out to be a fan of. And being the wide-read writer that he is, whatever you bring up, he could latch onto and enrich with more facts.

On the surface, Budjette is easily a counterargument to the notion of “never meeting your heroes” (he could be, but the point is beyond that). But more than thinking that Budjette gets me and people like me, I’d like to believe that the ease to which Budjette connects with others is a testament to a skill of his — his ability to listen.

Having been in advertising almost his entire career, he sees the industry as having trained in the skill of creative collaboration. “In advertising we have clients, and if you actually listen, not only will you be able to address things in more different ways, but they will listen to you too.”

He says that he and his Trese co-creator Kajo Baldisimo, having similar backgrounds, carried this same discipline in creating komiks.

After years of collaboration, I get the impression that they’ve formed some of sort silent synchronicity — telepathically able to work apart but still produce output that blend and elevate each other’s ideas.

“It’s very rare that Kajo and I disagree on things. And if we do disagree on things, we talk about it,” Budjette says.

The Netflix news

It’s November of 2018. Netflix just announced that they’ve greenlit an animated adaptation of Trese.

Photo from the Trese Facebook page

A month later I’m sitting down with Budjette once again. As he had before, he opens our conversation with the same joviality and a “can we keep this quick or can I call you back in 30 minutes or an hour?” This time, he has to cook breakfast for his family. I hear the voice of his two-year-old son Seraph in the background.

I ask him what will happen to that sweet work dynamic he and Kajo have developed over the years now that more people are entering their circle of creation. “For now at least, for this series, we take the backseat and act more as a guiding voice to the team [producers Shanty Harmayn and Tanya Yuson of BASE Entertainment, and director Jay Oliva],” he answers.

There’s a sincerity in how he says he looks forward to being a viewer this time. It’s a case of the creator finally being able to admire his work. Though he and Kajo have experience in production—specifically doing TV commercials—he admits that he is anxious when when it comes to doing a TV series. An anime, nonetheless.

“It’s a completely different field. So we will be working as far as to make sure that they are staying true to what the book is about, agreeing with them to how far they stretch this adaptation of Trese.”

I flashback to our first sit down. I had asked him then about working on Trese full-time. “That would be the dream,” he had muttered. I bring it up. “Isn’t this the opportunity to do just that?,” I say.

“We have day jobs, and because we are in different parts of the world, If everything had to go through us, it would definitely just delay it [Trese]!” Budjette jokes.

“Make no mistakes, that’s still the goal. I am at a very strange place where I am very happy at the job I’m doing—making commercials for LEGO. But you never know. Let’s talk again next year, or in two years!”

It’s a promise I look forward to.

Industry introspection

Comparing 2017 and 2018, the komiks landscape has dramatically changed. Between those 12 months, I tell Budjette how TBA Studio’s big-screen adaptation of The Mythology Class has been announced, a Tabi Po TV series has also premiered, and, of course, Trese is now being launched globally via Netflix.

Before, Budjette had lamented on the struggling komiks industry. “How can we get people with money to bankroll our books?!?” It was a rare moment where for a split second Budjette got seemingly agitated. He even told me how his friend put it best: “We don’t have a comic book industry, but we have a lively comic book scene.”

I understood the frustration then. Budjette had told me about the disconnect between how fans can always fill out convention centers, but still, no creator can make a living out of writing komiks. There’s yet to be a viable distribution model for the Philippine comic book industry, he had said.

(And proving his point, just a few days before the publishing of this article, Trese’s publisher, Visprint, announced it would be closing shop in 2021.)

I remind Budjette of this conversation.

“It’s exciting that TV and movies are once again looking at komiks for inspiration. Exciting times, but also a time to be cautious for comic book creators. With all this attention, studios are looking for great ideas to adapt. But creators should be cautious of their rights. Their creations should belong to them.”

From all these accumulated of hours talking to Budjette, I begin to understand how Budjette sees things, how he makes things work.

Budjette is optimistic, but never naive. Just like what he does with his books, he’s perfected how to get all of his childhood fantasies and translate them for the real world. In a way, it’s still about making the supernatural the natural. For some reason, I get into K-pop.

“Do you think Filipino mythology and folklore can be our K-pop?”

He gets the question easily. “That’s not a bad way of putting it. I suppose so,” he says.

“The marketing term for that is Korea made K-pop their soft power.” I’m not surprised Budjette can go all textbook on this as well. “It’s just like how manga is a very powerful soft power of Japan, where it’s not a hard good but more of a cultural good.”

He goes on. “Definitely, our history, our Philippine myth and folklore, can be packaged to appeal to an international audience with that kind of experimentation being done with the batibat in Sabrina, the aswang in Grimm, and a couple of shows that have started to use engkantos and mangkukulams. But I guess it would need a big effort, it requires a ton of work to be produced, for it to be actually noticed.”

Budjette tells me that K-pop and manga got to where they are now because they had government support, an industry, a workforce.

“By churning out on a weekly basis hundreds of stories, the best ones rose to the top. Astro Boy, Gigantor, Those don’t come out of a one-off. It’s hard if we don’t release stuff on a regular basis and at such scale...” It won’t be easy, he surmises.

I tell him that at least he’s in the forefront of the movement, with Trese as one of the first global breakthroughs for Filipino komiks.

“But for that to be great, we need to find a way for that to feed back to the komiks scene.” Still with the pragmatic optimism.

I ask him what’s next.

“Reality is making some of my storylines not realistic anymore.” He is referring to the Philippines’ current political climate. “Something, of course, that has been rolling around my head but I still haven’t figured out what to do with yet is all the extra-judicial killings that have been happening.”

“Before, there were already EJKs happening in Metro Manila, except they were happening once a quarter or every six months. But then it started happening every day. It became something you can’t ignore. I once had a story then about tandem killings, but now, I told myself, with a death toll of a war, that kind of changes the script. And I don’t know where to take it now. But it’s something I would definitely want to go back to one of these days.”

Budjette goes quiet for a moment. He tells me how more importantly, his most immediate task is to get back into writing. 

“I feel really horrible that I haven’t written a new story for over four years already. I miss these characters, but life gets you busy sometimes. Moving to a different country, adjusting to a new culture, it takes a lot of energy.” 

Trese indeed hasn’t released a new volume for quite some time now.

I think about how we had the same conversation in 2017. “I should have written more,” Budjette told me then. Etched in my mind was how he said these five words after stopping himself midway through a list of reasons which he quickly took back and concluded were not enough a reason for Trese’s hiatus.

Something could get Budjette down after all.

I return to the current conversation. Budjette picks himself up as I ask him for his parting thoughts. He shares with me his dream.

“We always praise #PinoyPride every time a Filipino works at Pixar or Disney, but part of me asks what can be done if these great talents would make Filipino creations of their own? I can be misquoting someone, I don’t know if it was Jack Kirby or a line from Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay: ‘The best way to pay tribute to me is to stop copying what I did and start making your own story.’ Can it be done? I think we will have more pride if we can say: hey you see that character, that kid’s action figure, that was made by a Pinoy.”

Budjette Tan has made it his career to realize dreams and fantasies. And with that earnestness, that gleam in his eyes whenever he talks, if have a feeling that if Budjette can believe in these things, we can as well. – Rappler.com

Tristan Zinampan

Tristan is Rappler’s resident pop culture vulture. He leads Rappler’s youth culture section, Hustle.

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