Murder on Balete Drive

Budjette Tan

Book cover

Recently, I got interested in learning more about Filipino folklore and mythology, mostly due to a podcast episode of This Filipino American Life where they talked about Dungeons and Dragons. I am a huge D&D fan but I think it would benefit immensely from an expansion away from a very Eurocentric fantasy world. (I am in the midst of a project to develop D&D stat blocks for a bunch of creatures from Filipino folklore!) Anyway, in going through a bunch of internet rabbit-holes, I learned about Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo’s “Trese” series.

Shout-out to Arkipelago Books in San Francisco for being the only place in the US I could find the books (they are printed in the Philippines, although the authors have a current Indiegogo campaign to create a “global edition” of volume 1–which I backed and you should too!). I was able to pick up five of the six volumes from them on a recent trip to SF, and #2 is on order from an online reseller.

I have almost all good things to say about the series. Baldisimo’s art is really awesome. I think the books were probably done in black & white to save on cost, but I actually felt it really added to the “noir” aesthetic and I wouldn’t want it in color. I love the ghostly Manila street maps that separate the different “cases,” too. The incorporation of creatures from Filipino mythology into a modern urban setting is extremely well done–tikbalang, santelmo, aswang, manananggal, duwende, and so on–all are rendered with a lot of personality. It’s clear that Tan gives a lot of thought into how such creatures would fit into modern Manila, rather than just positing them as bizarre exogenous phenomena.

Alexandra Trese is also a very compelling main character. For me as a reader, she has just the right balance of human frailty and cool powers. (In fact, I’ve added to my D&D project developing an NPC stat block for her!) Alongside this, I find the books to target just the right amount of darkness for my personal taste–for example, the way Trese uses the eyeballs of dead people (or alive people!) to cast a spell to see into the recent past–without going into gratuitous or overly disturbing places. There’s also a good balancing amount of humor (the duwende’s preferences for chocolates from duty-free, Trese’s use of the Mercuro Drug logo in healing spells).

Also, although this comes out more in the later books, I think Tan does a great job of slowly letting us in on more information about Trese’s history, relationships, and personality. She is definitely a bit of a classic emo-y noir character, but her personality doesn’t stop there. Finally, I think it is awesome that Trese, as a female lead character in a comic book, is not (in my view) sexualized.

My one substantive gripe about the books is that, for all that they are about Filipino people living in Manila, the characters don’t look very phenotypically Filipino, and (to my eye) basically look white. This is probably a little bit due to the books being printed in black and white, but I don’t think that is the whole story. Here is a fairly representative image of Alexandra Trese:

Overall, as a not-super-informed consumer of comics and graphic novels, my read is that Baldisimo’s drawing style is influenced by anime, which generally features characters who appear white or East Asian. I do think that, in the context of a Filipino society that often valorizes whiteness, it would be awesome if the characters in these books, and Alexandra Trese in particular, bucked that trend.

Having read the later books (although not #2 yet!), the stories in “Murder on Balete Drive” are not in the top tier, and it’s clear that the creators are still finding their voices. I really enjoy the Afterwords in these volumes where they reflect on some of their choices or experiences in writing the books, which help a lot in understanding that evolution. In this volume, I liked “Rules of the Race” best, not least because it introduces Maliksi the tikbalang, who is a good recurring character in the series.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars