Something Wicked This Way Comes, But Not The Way I Hoped – A Review of Trese: Midnight Tribunal by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo

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In the Philippines, the Christmas season starts early and ends late. The popular saying is that it starts as soon as the “-ber” months come in, meaning it begins in September, and continues from then all the way until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day. Others like to argue it’s technically Christmas until February 14, Valentine’s Day. This explains the puzzling phenomenon (to foreigners, anyway) of Christmas songs being played on some local radio stations or on mall sound systems as soon as September 1 rolls in, and why they sometimes continue to play for a few weeks after New Year’s. This should come as no surprise: Filipinos have a great affection for the holiday, and many sentimental memories are attached to it, too. This is especially true for overseas workers, who come home during Christmas, and not during any other time of the year, because most other cultures, even the Middle Eastern ones, understand the importance of Christmas as a holiday.

But as for myself, I don’t consider it Christmas just because September’s arrived. The days are too long still, during September, and I always associate Christmas with shorter days and longer nights. The air isn’t quite as cool, either, and Christmas is always about that little nip in the air that sends me towards a tin of tea in search of something warm to drink. Moreover, there’s one more important holiday between the first of September and Christmas, and that’s Halloween.

I suppose the reason why Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day aren’t quite so popular (unlike in Mexico) is because Filipino culture as a whole doesn’t like to put too much focus on death. The dead are dead, after all, and while they will never be forgotten, the living are still here, and still around us. But the concept of Halloween – the scary stories, the ghosts and the ghouls and other such things – are appealing to many Filipinos, and there are more than a few of us who do appreciate it if only for that. (Of course, there’s a large contingent of Filipinos who view Halloween as a chance for some costumed debauchery, but that’s their thing.) And since Komikon 2012 happened the week before the long Halloween weekend, it made perfect sense to pick up something horror-themed in time for the holiday, which meant only one thing: the latest installment in Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo’s Trese series.

Now, I’ve been following this series for a while now, since i was first introduced to them by a colleague at the university. At the time I was neck-deep in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and to read something similar to it but set in the Philippines was very exciting. That first book got me hooked, and I got the second one as soon as I could, followed by the third and fourth when they came out. Of the four, it was the third book that I felt was the best. The first two were pretty episodic in nature, and while that was acceptable, I was very happy when the third book built itself around a cohesive storyline, one that explored the Trese family’s past and laid down the groundwork for a possible future. Volume Four, titled Last Seen After Midnight, was something of a response to that, but it went back to the episodic feel of the first book, which was rather disappointing, to say the least. I had hoped for a cohesive storyline, one that felt more like a novel or a novella, creating one unified story arc that could be continued in the next volume.

That’s precisely what I got in Trese Vol. 5: Midnight Tribunal. Ever since Volume Three (Mass Murders) so many questions had been raised – some were about Trese’s family and her past; while others were about her future. Volume Four did not quite answer those questions, leaving readers eagerly awaiting the next installment. Fortunately, Midnight Tribunal does answer some of those questions. For instance, it’s become clear that, contrary to popular belief, Trese’s brothers were not all killed – if any were killed at all – in one of the central events of Mass Murders. Many of them have, instead, gone out into the world in their own way: one is a professor at the University of the Philippines; another is a priest; and yet another moves in and out of the underworld, returning every so often when he gets into too much trouble and needs help from his siblings. There’s also a peek into the interactions between the different supernatural entities. It’s easy to assume from earlier volumes that the supernatural creatures of Manila tend to keep to themselves, with Trese interceding for them as necessary, but that’s apparently not the case, since the Higante (Giants) and Tikbalang clans do come together every so often at the Manila Polo Club for friendly games of football – or sipa, the Philippine version of sepak takraw, since the ball in play looks like the woven balls used for both sports.

It is these two things, along with the fact that the entire volume is one cohesive story arc, that I loved the most about Midnight Tribunal. They help to expand the universe in a way that Last Seen After Midnight didn’t, providing insight into Trese’s personal life, as well as laying the groundwork for possible future interactions, alliances,and even potential enemies.

But those things, unfortunately, are possibly the only things I found positive about Midnight Tribunal. It’s clear to see that the whole thing had potential, that it was a great way to expand the Trese universe and lay the groundwork for something bigger down the line, but there was something lacking in execution.

My first issue is with the narration. There is a lot of “telling, not showing” going on throughout the issue, such as when Trese uses a small plastic bag showing the logo of a very well-known drugstore in this country as a focus to channel healing energies into another important character – something she’d already done in a previous issue, and which had already been explained. Also notable – and rather irritating – were the frequent explanations of the action “onscreen,” as it were, such as when Trese pays a visit to the Manila Polo Club to speak to the Tikbalang and Higante. The art already shows what’ going on quite clearly; there’s no need for a mysterious narrator to inform the reader what’s going on. It doesn’t help that sometimes the narrator appears to sound like Trese herself is narrating – which would be okay, if the scenario called for it, but more often than not the art was good enough to do the speaking on its own.

My second issue is with the dialogue: something was off with it, especially when characters were code-switching. Most of the characters speak English, but occasionally a Filipino word will slip in there from time to time – and no, Trese’s spell-casting doesn’t count. Unfortunately, the code-switching tends to feel very awkward, something made obvious if one reads it aloud to oneself, or can actually “hear” it being read in one’s head. This is especially true in one particular conversation between the Kambal, when they’re calling each other gago, or stupid (though “stupid” doesn’t quite encompass the nuance behind the word gago, truth be told). For some odd reason, the use of gago doesn’t ring true through the entirety of the conversation – and the use of “gago-er”, to indicate greater stupidity, made me cringe. I’m not entirely sure if there was a specific reason for this effect; if there was, I’m not quite seeing the point of it (or maybe I am and I’m not sure I like it); if there was no specific reason for that effect, then there’s definitely something wrong with the dialogue, and that code-switching needs to be ironed-out. Sometimes it feels like the Filipino words (again, outside of Trese’s spell-casting) merely serve a decorative purpose, placed there as a reminder to the reader of where the action is taking place and who these characters are. I’m not opposed to the incorporation of Filipino in a work that’s mostly written in English, but I feel there should be a reason for that word to be there – such as when one single word can succinctly describe a concept that would, in English, take an entire paragraph to explain; or which has no equivalent concept in English; or whose nuances are better encompassed by the use of a Filipino word compared to the English equivalent.

My third issue isn’t really an issue per se, but simply something that had me raising my eyebrow when it was first put out in the course of the story. For all this time Trese has been single – something that comes as no surprise, given the nature of her job. But in Midnight Tribunal, it’s implied that Maliksi, a Tikbalang known from previous volumes, may – or rather does – outright have a crush on her, likely acquired after she busted his chops on illegal street racing some volumes back. While I have nothing against Trese being romantically involved with any other characters, human or otherwise, I just found it odd that this element to the plot should be introduced now. To be fair, it’s early days yet in this new, developing storyline introduced in Midnight Tribunal (which includes a possible arch-nemesis for Trese), but I’m not entirely sure. Of course this could just be me, reacting to the way the concept was introduced in this particular volume, with minimal set-up from previous issues. Honestly, if I was asked to talk pairings and ships here I would say that there’s far more evidence for Trese being paired up with one of the Kambal, but that’s only because I’ve seen them work and grow together as characters for the last four volumes. Given time, perhaps, Maliksi’s interest in Trese will be integrated more smoothly into the storyline in future volumes.

Overall, Trese Vol. 5: Midnight Tribunal, is a so-so addition to the Trese series. It does expand the universe some, and it does add more depth to Trese’s personal history, but other issues, mostly pertaining to dialogue and narration may hamper personal enjoyment of the story. If approached with caution, and by a loyal fan, this may prove an enjoyable read, but it’s not quite the best in the series so far, either. Hopefully, though, that will change with Volume Six.

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