“The Art of Thai Comics: A Century of Strips and Stripes” by Nicolas Verstappen

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Comics in Thailand have enjoyed a long and rich history and have been enjoyed by people of all socio-economic classes, even though they’ve had a reputation as a form of “low culture”. In The Art of Thai Comics: A Century of Strips and Stripes, Nicolas Verstappen goes back even further than a hundred years to show just how long comics have been embedded in Thai culture.

It wasn’t just that comics were seen as lowbrow in Thailand when Verstappen set out to research his beloved art form, but pre-1980s comics were all but unknown to those in Thailand who were interested in this genre.

 

Due to the humid tropical climate of Thailand, monsoons and their unforgiving floods, voracious bookworms and a lack of consideration and archival endeavors, most of the pre-1980s comics production has been wiped out. Roaming markets, libraries, antiquarian bookstores and online groups, I struggled to find the seminal comics works that had been cited in the literature.

 

He hit the jackpot in early 2020 when more than a thousand comics from the 1930s were discovered in an attic—cut out, curated, and bound into volumes. These comics were not included in the national archives, so they were indeed a great find.

 

The Art of Thai Comics: A Century of Strips and Stripes, Nicolas Verstappen (River Books, April 2021)
The Art of Thai Comics: A Century of Strips and Stripes, Nicolas Verstappen (River Books, April 2021)

Verstappen is a Belgian professor in the department of Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and has arranged his book according to historical period, but also breaks most of the chapters into chronological profiles of almost two dozen comic writers and illustrators. He begins, however, with some context.

Verstappen goes as far back as the origins of the Thai language in southwestern China and the earliest known illustrated art appeared in Thailand in the 14th century, depicting stories of Gautama Buddha in stone reliefs.

Chulalongkorn University is named for King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) whose son Vajiravudh, later Rama VI, was educated in Britain at the turn of the century, where he learned to enjoy political satire cartoons. He even drew his own caricatures of corrupt officials to expose their vices. Rama VI also wrote crime serials along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and Guy de Maupassant. His most significant contribution to comics, however, was establishing the  Poh-Chang Academy of Arts in 1913, where many of the artists profiled in this book studied.

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Sawas Jutharop was a Poh-Chang graduate and the first artist in Thailand to have a serialized comic strip in 1932. One of King Rama VI’s unfortunate legacies was an article he penned in 1914 titled “The Jews of the East”, which combined anti-Semitic tropes from Europe with anti-Chinese sentiment. Sawas Juthrop included in his comics derogatory characterizations of Chinese migrants in Thailand. He also drew a comic inspired by the American character, Popeye.

Thai culture has always been a blend of influences, so it’s not surprising to find this reflected in comics. Another illustrator of that time, Witt Sutthastien, who used the pen name Wittamin and was only seventeen at the time, combined Popeye and Mickey Mouse into a character named Ling Gee.

 

From the sailor, Wittamin keeps the elongated body shape with over-developed calves and forearms, the ears, the rolled-up sleeves and the famous pipe. From Disney’s mouse, Wittamn borrows the dark skin, the white hands (or gloves) and face, the prominent black nose, the oval eyes with each pupil reduced by a quarter, and the famous pair of shorts with two buttons in the front.

 

In another instance of blended cultures, Verstappen portrays the cartoonist Tookkata, born Pimon Galassi. The grandson of an Italian government official in Thailand during the reign of King Rama V in the early 20th century, Tookkata was also a graduate of Poh-Chang. He often wrote strong female characters and was a popular cartoonist in the four decades following World War II.

As the Cold War descended on much of the world, these fears and worries were depicted in Thai comics.

 

For the insurgents and soldiers in the jungle, the petrified students, the disfranchised farmers and the alienated migrants, the muted traumatic experiences of the previous decades seem to have found a derivative—and maybe cathartic—expression in the ‘silent’ and unbridled comics form.

 

The evolution of Thai comics and the stories they tell show the way in which Thailand changed through the decades. Verstappen has provided a comprehensive narrative to go along with the comics published in this book and displays a variety of illustration styles that range from black and white figures to those that resemble manga in vibrant colors. In the foreword, renowned cartoonist Sonny Liew writes that comics are traditionally seen as American-Anglican, Belgian-French, and Japanese. With this new book from Verstappen, Liew writes that

 

The work of excavation, exploration and scholarship done here opens up rich new spaces for readers to appreciate and ponder—to empower us, perhaps, to make up our own minds about what an alternative history of the medium might look like.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.