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Arts

For Belgian author, Thai comics are no laughing matter

History of graphic tales honors forgotten heroes of local pop culture

“The Art of Thai Comics: A Century of Strips and Stripes,“ by Thailand-based academic Nicolas Verstappen, right, is a long-overdue tribute to a succession of dazzling yet little-known local comic artists. (Nikkei montage/Source photos by River Books and Sukanya Sompiboon, 2019)

BANGKOK -- Nicolas Verstappen is not a comical man. But he is a happy one. A sober and methodical Belgian academic, Verstappen specialized in film history and medieval art before following a childhood passion for comic books -- “they were my native language, more than French,” he observes -- by working 15 years at Multi BD, the leading Brussels bookstore for sketched strips. No mere Mickey Mouse-chaser, he also wrote articles, gave talks and hosted radio shows on the popular art form’s exceptional power to express “trauma and sexual abuse.”

Traveling to research manga stylists in Japan and South Korea, he and his wife were drawn to Thailand through a family friend who was a diving instructor. Soon the couple were making two trips each year -- fascinated at first by the underwater visuals and later by what Verstappen calls “the ‘Blade Runner’ quality” of “Bangkok’s multilevel megalopolis” and the “tension between tradition and modernity” glimpsed in “punks in black leather praying before spirit houses.”

In 2014, Verstappen and his wife decided to move to Asia, without any arranged employment. At first that seemed a bad gamble; they arrived in the midst of a Thai military coup that overthrew civilian rule. But his resume fell into the sympathetic hands of professor Jirayudh Sinthuphan, then the director of Chulalongkorn University's International Program in the faculty of communication art, who hired him as a lecturer on script writing. He quickly moved on to various forms of what he calls “imaginative media.”

Jirayudh turned out to be, in Verstappen’s assessment, "an enlightened enthusiast of comic art as a legitimate form of expression." He readily admits that “some questions [were] raised because teaching comic composition at university level remains unusual.” But he was eventually able to shift courses on creative media to graphic narratives that help students “create new ways to think about the relation of space and time, visual motifs and braiding, text spatialization” in a world where “words and pictures are more often mixed together,” he says. He also won support for research projects in the local “indie comics” tradition.

The result of his lifetime passion is “The Art of Thai Comics: A Century of Strips and Stripes.“ Just published by Bangkok-based River Books, this voluminous and exhaustive work of 288 oversize pages is magnificently illustrated, designed and conceived. But it is also a long-overdue tribute to a succession of dazzling yet little-known local practitioners of this unrecognized and underrated branch of a vibrant pop culture.

Top: A detail from "The Art of Thai Comics." (Courtesy of River Books). Bottom: An illustration from the book. (© Family of Pimon "Tookkata" Galassi)

While the works shown are in their original Thai, with both Thai and English editions of the text, Verstappen points out that anyone, not just locals who might be nostalgic for childhood favorites, should be able to “enjoy the visual medium, the quality of the drawing, the graphic aspects of ghosts and creatures.”

Explicated in fine detail, Verstappen’s good fortune and due diligence have brought belated recognition to Sawas Jutharop, creator of the Thai “Popeye,” Prayoon Chanyawongse, who popularized so-called katun likay work based on village folk tales, and Sa-Ngob Jampat, whose refined depiction of tigers or naked maidens border on fine art.

Even a passing glance at the drawings would confirm the author’s contention that these are “brilliant minds, masters of international standard, but like nowhere else. They did manga before there was manga, [America’s] Mad Magazine before Mad.”

Images from“The Art of Thai Comics." Verstappen says the artists featured in his book "did manga before there was manga, [America’s] Mad Magazine before Mad.” (Top: © Prayoon Chanyawongse Foundation 1 All Rights Reserved; Bottom: (Courtesy of River Books)

Ranging from political satire to Buddhist evocations, science fiction to the jungles, and government propaganda to realist self-confessions, all seem to reflect that elusive quality known as “Thainess” -- an eclecticism and openness to outside influences combined with a visual culture traced back to the storytelling aspects of ancient murals on temple walls.

Beyond escapism, the supernatural or hero worship, the history does not shy away from issues of widespread rape, migrant workers, shifting gender roles, harsh village life and periods of dictatorship and censorship. As such, Verstappen’s research stands out as a major contribution to shedding light on the country as a whole.

Above all, “The Art of Thai Comics” is tangible proof of a miracle of modern-day literary archaeology. At first, the author says, he felt as though he was “exploring a lost continent.” So much of the vast output of comics, especially those from the early 20th century, had been destroyed by “humidity, monsoons, floods, worms” or just thrown away. The cultural value of such works had been discounted because they were not seen as “high art” or were thought to be too foreign. “Even the newer cartoonists had no idea of what came before,” he adds.

Though diverse in style and content, all of the comics reflect that elusive quality known as “Thainess” -- an eclecticism and openness to outside influences combined with a visual culture traced back to the storytelling aspects of ancient murals on temple walls. (Top: © Banlue Publications - Art Jeeno; Bottom: © Heirs of Payut Ngaokrachang) 

He started by combing through the Thai national library’s newspaper archives and rummaging in the stalls of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market, where, he says, “I had to ask if there were any old comics in the back, as they were really disregarded; people thought no one cared.”

Eventually, word got around about a farang (foreigner) searching for strips, but with finds so scarce, Verstappen says he had to check his Facebook page every day. Still, he estimates that through six years of research, he “discovered a forgotten artist every two months.”

His quest was fulfilled by two major finds -- boxes of more than 1,700 previously lost clippings from the 1930s kept in an attic by a bookseller he befriended, and the contents of a garden shed that has been dubbed a private “Thai Comics Library” by local enthusiast Worawich Wechanukhroh. Verstappen calls this backyard archive his “treasure trove.”

Top: Verstappen poses with Worawich Wechanukhroh, owner of the “Thai Comics Library.” (Photo by Tanchanok Ruendhawil, 2019) Bottom: Comic strip clippings from the 1930s that were found in an attic in March 2020. (Photo by Nicolas Verstappen)

At the same time, he was able to meet some of his surviving idols in the flesh. Many were living in precarious conditions or had quit making comics, unaware of their success. According to Verstappen, most held other jobs, but earned more from moonlighting as artists -- one Thai soldier, for example, was responsible for ghost stories that earned far more than his pay in the 1980s.

Verstappen also encountered Chatree Sungwornsilp, a prolific comics specialist for 58 years, who still works as a motorcycle taxi driver despite sales that may have been in the millions (even as, beset with health problems, he continues creating new stories by repasting old characters and their expressions). 

Not content to collect the output of the past, Verstappen is now busy adding to the present and future of comics in Thailand by stimulating and encouraging young people and publishing them in his blog From Dusk to Drawn.

Speaking of his Chulalongkorn students, and indirectly about all the finds in his book, he says, “I really love them. They struggle with these repressed emotions; they discover a passion for drawing. They play with symbols on so many levels. It’s amazing how they can borrow elements from everywhere and create something completely new.”

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