Thirteen years ago, I saw this book for the first time (in an earlier edition). I was fairly late: it was published in comics form several years before that, but I did have the slight disadvantage of being on the other side of the world.
I was impressed then; I’m equally impressed now. The Trese stories are great urban fantasy in comics form: taking a lot of the standard furniture of the genre (attractive young female protagonist with a mysterious past, powerful protectors, and a complicated relationship with the local supernatural powers, plus a lot of the mystery-plot aspects) and using them well, while also centering on very specific supernatural elements that we non-Filipinos are unfamiliar with. (See also my post on the third volume ; that’s as far as I’ve seen so far.)
It didn’t have to be Philippine mythology: there are probably dozens of places in the world that could support a similarly new and energetic series, from Vietnam to Nigeria to Chile to Nunavut. (Not the Lake District or Transylvania or Bavaria.) But these creators were Filipino, so that was the world they knew, and they have been making great use of it.
The good news is that you can find Trese now, which you mostly couldn’t for the last decade. (After I lost my copies in the flood of 2011, I didn’t have them, either.) The American comics company Ablaze published an edition of this first collection, Murder on Balete Drive , late last year, and the second one is scheduled for June. There’s an animated series on Netflix, though some googling hasn’t gotten me to any solid information on the date it will be (or was?) released. With any luck, the rest of the eight books published in the Philippines will come here (and the rest of the world) as well, and creators Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo can spend more time making these stories and less time being high-powered global advertising guys.
Balete Drive collects what were the original first four issues, all standalone stories. Baldisimo has redrawn the art, so it’s even stronger than it originally was: stunningly inky and atmospheric, in a style immediately accessible to Americans but still inherently Filipino. (Remembering how many Filipinos have done great work in American comics for the past six or seven decades, this should not be a surprise.) Tan has added short sections after each story to give a little more background on the supernatural entities in each section – these aren’t necessary, but they’re useful for us non-Filipinos. So this is the best possible edition of these stories: possibly annoying to Filipinos who have been supporting it for a decade, but gratifying to those of us elsewhere in the world who finally get to see it for ourselves.
All of the stories are about Alexandra Trese. She’s young, she’s called in when the Manila police have a weird case that they don’t know what to do with, she has skills and knowledge and contacts that can solve those problems – usually in ways that at least do not add more violence. But the supernatural is a dark and dangerous place, for anyone caught up in it and and possibly even for Trese. Her father, Anton, was respected and powerful but does not seem to be around now – and she’s very clear she is not her father. So there are story hooks for later, set carefully and with skill.
These are the first four cases of hers we know about. They clearly were not the first cases of her life: Tan and Baldisimo may some day go back and tell those stories. (They may already have.) They are dark and dangerous cases, with various monsters causing trouble and relationships that need to be carefully talked back into place. Luckily, Manila has Alexandra Trese to do that for them.
And, luckily, you have the stories of Alexandra Trese to look forward to.