A century-long history of Thai cartoon

Thai cartoon art, a beautifully produced and color illustrated volume, offers an exciting and entertaining story of a century of Thai cartooning. It would work well as a compact coffee table book and would also be at home in a university library.

The author, Belgian comics specialist Nicolas Verstappen, moved to Thailand the week of the 2014 coup and soon joined the faculty of Thailand’s top university: Chulalongkorn University. In 2016, he started working on a book about the Thai comics he was most interested in, alt/indie comics. The university committee sponsoring his research asked him to add an introductory outline of the early history of Thai comic art. This introductory overview has become the bulk of this book. After Verstappen’s Thai comic book story reached 1997, Thai cartoon art focuses on its main interest – artistically ambitious, personal, small-scale, often self-published comics. The book then takes on a double task: to show that Thai comics have been more than just entertainment for children and also to introduce contemporary Thai cartoonists to their forgotten heritage.

The early history of Thai comics had been lost and forgotten for several reasons, including the difficulty of preserving prints from the ravages of Thailand’s tropical climate, floods, and bookworms. As in the United States, the preservation of significant sections of this popular art depended on the work of a few amateur collectors.

Cultural influences routinely ignore national boundaries, but Thailand’s cultural history seems to have been particularly open to such cross-fertilization. The book describes a long history of Thai cartoonists using visual language fused from many foreign sources (including comics, film and television) to tell traditional stories based on Thai epic poems, literary texts, folk tales and local history. A person deeply versed in the history of American, European and Japanese comics (and also familiar with other world famous cartoonists, such as the Chinese Zhang Leping or the Argentinian Quino) can appreciate how, on every occasion, this book lists the international stylistic influences visible in the comics of each Thai cartoonist.

Rather than leaving unanswered how Thai cartoonists might have been exposed to such a vast world of comics, Verstappen outlines several of the ways these encounters happened. For example, as a boy in the 1920s, Prayoon Chanyawongse (“The King of Thai Cartoons”) spent his lunch money at Bangkok’s historic Nang Loeng Market on old newspapers that merchants used to wrap their goods so he can study foreign comics. During the Korean War, Thai soldiers picked up American comics from Americans and brought them home, and the heavy presence of American soldiers in Thailand during the Cold War helped sustain steady imports of American comics. More importantly, a flood of cheap and pirated manga in the late 1980s all but wiped out Thailand’s comics industry (already crippled by competition from television) and erased the consciousness of a younger generation of previous local productions.

In addition to this contribution of cultural inspiration, Verstappen is also interested in the success story of Thai cartoonists abroad. In 1960, Prayoon Chanyawongse won first prize in the international Cartoon for Peace competition in New York, with an editorial cartoon “The Last Nuclear Test”, which showed an atomic explosion destroying the earth. A Thai comic was re-released in France in 2007. Another Thai comic told a story that was adapted into an American film. The strongest international ties, however, seem to be with Japan, where some Thai cartoonists have been published and won awards. Wisut Ponniminit, already a popular success in Japan and Thailand, had his book HimSheThat republished in New York in 2013.

The most circulated Thai comics include anti-communist propaganda comics sponsored by USIS, a US government agency; the cheap, mass-produced Katun Lem La Bhat genre of escapist comics in the 1970s; cartoon humor magazines KaiHuaRor and maha sanook; and Mah’s storyajanakaa comic book commissioned by the late King Bhumibol of Thailand, which sold two million copies when it was first released in black and white in 1999. An influential cartoon booklet published by students in 1973, Banthuek Lap Chak Thungyai, about an animal poaching scandal, caused a stir by selling 100,000 copies in two weeks. This comic fueled a movement that overthrew Thailand’s military dictatorship in 1974, ushering in “an exhilarating period of creative and democratic freedom”, which was interrupted in 1976 by another bloody military coup.

The small-scale, do-it-yourself comics (called dōjinshi, using the Japanese word), which first attracted Verstappen to Thai comics, sometimes reached thousands of print runs, but are now usually published in print runs of only 30 to 50 copies. Cartoonists sell these works at specialty fairs, apparently comparable to Seattle’s annual Short Run zine festival.

The book includes beautifully crafted wordless comic makeovers drawn by the book’s designer, Peeraphat Kittisuwat, to wrap up each chapter; a bibliography; chapter notes; and a clue. He could also have used a timeline to help the unfamiliar reader better understand this story of Thai comics in relation to Thailand’s political history riddled with coups.

Unlike Fred Schodt’s vintage book Manga! Manga!, which introduced English-speaking readers to the world of Japanese comics in 1982, Verstappen did not provide a section with translations of some sample works. As a result, the reader gets a broad insight into the visuals of Thai comics, but little sense of the quality of their writing. This suggests an obvious next project: a translated anthology of Thai comics!

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