Creating a Netflix-worthy comic book on top of a demanding day job - Issue #000001

Budjette Tan on getting Trese into the world. We get to know each other.

Welcome to our inaugural issue. 

This is for you, the people who were told, “You should get a more sensible career,” then ignored that advice to pursue a creative career instead. 

What you won’t get: Generic advice to “follow your bliss.” I like bliss as much as the next person. I just don’t think it’s useful career or business advice. More about why here.

Thank you for the messages of support, they mean a lot. My inbox and social feeds have gone nuts in the last 48 hours. With each ping delivering a new subscriber, it’s clear that you are a diverse set.

If you’re not a subscriber, you have great timing! I’d love for you to be an early reader. Consider subscribing, it’s free.👇

And if you’re up for it, introduce yourself on this thread. Many creators have already introduced themselves! You are writers, filmmakers, journalists, photographers, fictionists, musicians, designers, artists, copywriters, marketers, advertising people. Folks in the culinary arts. Owners of creative businesses. Educators. Coaches and mentors. A bunch of you have podcasts (of course). We have a researcher of Chinese science fiction and two creators who also work with bikes. Who knew these ven diagrams overlapped? The common denominator: nobody does just one thing. Your turn!

Have a read, then hit reply and tell me what you think. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Timi


INTERVIEW: How an ad executive wrote a comic book on his coffee break, then sold it to Netflix 

While working long hours at an ad agency in Manila, Budjette Tan and his co-creator, artist Kajo Baldisimo, started writing the graphic novel Trese, featuring detective Alexandra Trese who solves crimes with the help of Filipino mythical creatures.

From its first print run of 30 copies, Trese found a fan base. Budjette and Kajo became fixtures at Komikon Philippines and Trese broke convention as the first graphic novel to win the country’s prestigious National Book Award.

Netflix acquired Trese in 2018, which led to the real dream fulfilled: the comic book now has an American publisher and is available to a US audience.

All this took “only” 15 years.  

In this interview, we learn about the attitudes and systems Budjette and Kajo devised so they could make time for creative work. Budjette also shares tactics for balancing creative work with a thriving advertising career as Executive Creative Director at MRM/McCann and now as Senior Brand Creative at LEGO. 

During our interview, Budjette’s generous nature and sense of humour came through. Listen to Budjette tell his story here 🎧  or search for Foolish Careers on your favorite podcast app.

9 tactics to keep a creative project alive despite a demanding day job

1. One creative project, one hour a day, for one month.

If it’s unrealistic to block out big chunks of time, find shorter, more manageable blocks. Budjette’s collaborator, Kajo Baldisimo, figured he could draw one page in one hour, so he blocked out his lunch breaks for a month. That’s 20 days to draw the story plus 10 days to add the word bubbles. The first Alexandra Trese detective case was completed a month later. 

At Komikon Philippines 2020, Kajo cheekily admitted, “I just promised I’d finish the pages, I didn’t promise the quality.” This willingness to avoid perfection also helped them get their first issue out. 

2. Budjette’s back-to-back notebook.

This sounds basic, but pen and paper remain a great tool for capturing ideas before they flit away. Budjette has a “back-to-back” notebook: he uses the front for campaign ideas and the back for Trese plots. He brought this notebook on coffee breaks. “If I’m writing an idea for an ad and I get stuck, sometimes my mind wanders and figures out the solution to the comic book.  So I go and fix that. And by the time I fixed the plot problem, I would have figured out how to fix the [ad].” 

3. Find your early distribution channels, no matter how small, and test interest.

Trese’s first publishing run was 30 copies, priced at thirty pesos (less than US$1) and displayed at a cash register of a single comic book store in Manila. “I was just thinking, maybe no one's going to buy this so let's make it really cheap, and people will feel okay if they didn't like it. But the amazing thing was, a week later I get a call from their store clerk who said, ‘We've run out of copies. Can you deliver more?’ And that started to happen week after week.”

At Komikon Philippines 2010, Budjette grabbed the opportunity to show the comic book to Neil Gaiman. Getting on Mr. Gaiman’s radar as a creator would unexpectedly prove helpful down the road.

In 2018, Budjette and Kajo ran an Indiegogo campaign, raising US$12,900 from 200 readers around the world. The readership was small, but it proved there was an international audience willing to pay for Trese. 

Seth Godin calls this your minimum viable audience

Stake out the smallest market you can imagine. The smallest market that can sustain you, the smallest market you can adequately serve. This goes against everything you learned in capitalism school, but in fact, it’s the simplest way to matter.

When you have your eyes firmly focused on the minimum viable audience, you will double down on all the changes you seek to make. Your quality, your story and your impact will all get better.

And then, ironically enough, the word will spread.

4. Give your work away.

As an experiment, Budjette uploaded the entire first issue of Trese to his blog and promoted it on the message boards of PinoyExchange. Friends said he would get pirated or lose sales. “But the complete opposite happened. I started to get emails from people saying, ‘I read your comic book, where can I buy it?’ There is a benefit to sharing your story and not be afraid of somebody stealing your idea. What makes you think your idea's worth stealing anyway? If you're really creative, you will come up with a better one.”

5. Use social media to engage with the community you choose to serve.

Budjette is on Twitter (@budjette), where he has 6,000 followers. It’s not a massive group, but it’s the right group of comic book lovers. Budjette is constantly spreading the word about new writers and responding to fans. So when someone tweeted author Neil Gaiman about writing a story featuring Filipino myths, everyone tagged Budjette and the Indiegogo campaign, which in turn got a boost from Neil himself.

6. Think with intention about what skills you can hone in your day job.

Aside from the practical need to earn a living, Budjette credits several aspects of his work ethic to his experience in advertising. 

Respect for the deadline: “The wonderful thing advertising taught me was to respect the deadline. There’s the typical mistaken notion of a newbie who says, ‘I am going to write the best comic book story ever, and I'm going to take my time perfecting it. And of course, that got me nowhere. When Kajo said, ‘Give me the script at the beginning of every month so that by the end of the month we'd have a comic book, that became a deadline to follow.” 

Compressing storylines: ”Writing a TV commercial is 30 seconds long. Break it down in terms of frames, that's actually like a 12-page comic book. Thinking in 30 seconds helped me to start editing storylines so by the time Kajo said, ‘Give me a 20-page comic book,’ it was already built-in.”

Telling a story that resonates universally: “Since LEGO is a global brand, there is now a big need to tell your story with fewer words. Of course, you can translate all of the dialogue and all your taglines, but to translate your campaign into 80 languages is an expense. So the challenge is: How can I come up with a story that addresses different needs without having to come up with 20 different variations of the storyline?”

7. Choose a partner who shares your vision.

As they pitched studios, many suggested giving Alexandra Trese a romantic leading man 🙄  Production partners Tanya Yuson and Shanty Harmayn of BASE Entertainment helped Budjette and Kajo say no to offers that weren’t right. “BASE would say, ‘If they will only invest so much, it's not going to be the best way to bring your vision to life. We have to wait for the right blend.’ And when the right door opened we were ready for it.”

8. Get into a collaborative mindset...

“There are many talented people out there who are not persistent enough and do not collaborate enough and are not problem solvers. You might be the most talented person in the room. But if you don't follow up, if you don't submit on time, if you don't know how to collaborate with your artist, writer, editor, publisher, then eventually people would rather not work with you.”

9. ...then simplify collaboration itself.

Text messaging is the main way Budjette and Kajo communicate. “I know some people who love sitting in front of each other. They're going to have beer or coffee and talk about things together. But for me and Kajo, it's always been mostly through email or messages. When I was in Manila the times we’d be in front of each other was at Komikon. While we're there signing or waiting for people to come by our desk, he just throws something up and says, ‘What do you think if we do this?’ And I'd say, ‘Okay, okay, I'll take note of it, I'll write that down.’ And eventually, those ideas would filter into the story.”

Budjette is on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Kajo is on Instagram where he posts redrawn panels of early Trese stories. The new redrawn edition of Trese Volume 1 is available where all good comic books are sold. 

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Context: Why did Netflix acquire a graphic novel from Southeast Asia? 

In short, the streaming wars. Netflix and Disney are competing for your household’s subscription dollars. From this CNBC report: “One of Netflix’s best bets in animation is not going straight at a competitor like Disney, but hitting Disney where the House of Mouse is weaker, and where there is high global demand. That leads to Japanese anime.” Netflix has 16 anime projects in the pipeline. Most of them, including Trese, come out in 2021.


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Where we highlight the things creatives say and do. We want to feature as many of you as possible, so introduce yourself in this thread, pepper it with links to your work so we can check them out, or just tell us what’s on your mind.

While figuring out what Foolish Careers should be about, I spoke with many creative pros, and this thoughtful response from Eve Aw stood out. Eve flexes her considerable copywriter chops as Associate Creative Director at VaynerMedia and is the author of the children’s book Grandma and The Things That Stay The Same

Hi, Eve. What is the biggest career challenge you face as a creator?

Standing out. Because there’s so much work out there that’s so brilliant that it seems easier to just consume rather than create. Every time I want to make something, I find that it’s already done. And when I’m just spinning off it, it makes me feel unoriginal. And when I want to be original, I’m absolutely paralysed by other people’s genius.

So these days, I just Vonnegut – “I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and they all teach you things and make you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them” – because we’ll never create anything if we fear brilliance.


Thanks for reading our first issue. Send unfiltered thoughts and suggestions to timi@foolishcareers.asia. If you know of a colleague or collaborator who will find this useful, please forward this along. Till next week, just Vonnegut.

-Timi

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