The Art of Thai Comics, a handsomely-produced and colorfully-illustrated volume, offers an absorbing and fun history of a century of Thai cartooning. It would work well as a compact coffee-table book and would be equally at home in an academic library.
The author, Belgian comics scholar Nicolas Verstappen, settled in Thailand the week of the 2014 coup, and soon joined the faculty of Thailand’s top-ranked university: Chulalongkorn University. In 2016, he began working on a book about the Thai comics that most interested him, the alt/indie comics. The university committee that was sponsoring his research asked him to add an introductory overview of the early history of Thai comics art. That introductory overview grew into the bulk of this book. After Verstappen’s history of Thai comics reaches 1997, The Art of Thai Comics focuses on his main interest –artistically ambitious, personal, small-scale, often self-published comics. The book takes on a double task, then: to show that Thai comics have been more than just entertainment for children and also to introduce contemporary Thai cartoonists to their forgotten legacy.
The early history of Thai comics had been lost and forgotten for several reasons, including the difficulty of preserving printed matter from the ravages of Thailand’s tropical climate, floods and bookworms. As in the United States, the preservation of important chapters 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 especially open to such cross-fertilization. The book describes a long history of Thai cartoonists using a visual language amalgamated from many foreign sources (including comics, film and television) to tell traditional stories based on Thai epic poems, literary texts, folktales and local history. A person deeply versed in the histories of American, European and Japanese cartooning (and also knowledgeable about other world-famous cartoonists, such as China’s Zhang Leping or Argentina’s Quino) may appreciate how at every opportunity, this book catalogs the international stylistic influences visible in each Thai cartoonist’s comics.
Rather than leaving unanswered how Thai cartoonists could have been exposed to such a wide world of comics, Verstappen describes several of the ways that these encounters happened. For example, as a boy in the 1920s, Prayoon Chanyawongse (“The King of Thai Cartoons”) would spend his lunch money at Bangkok’s historic Nang Loeng market on the old newspapers that the stall-keepers there used to wrap their merchandise so he could study the foreign comic strips. During the Korean War, Thai soldiers picked up American comic books from the Americans there and brought some home with them, and the massive Cold War presence of American soldiers in Thailand helped to support regular imports of American comics. Most important of all, a flood of cheap, pirated, manga in the late 1980s practically wiped out the Thai comics industry (already crippled by competition from television) and erased a younger generation’s awareness of earlier local productions.
In addition to this inflow of cultural inspiration, Verstappen also pays attention to the history of Thai cartoonists’ successes abroad. In 1960, Prayoon Chanyawongse won first prize in the International Cartoon for Peace competition in New York City, with an editorial cartoon “The Last Nuclear Test,” which showed an atomic explosion destroying the earth. A Thai comic was republished in France in 2007. Another Thai comic told a story that was adapted as an American film. The strongest international connections, though, appear to be with Japan, where some Thai cartoonists have been published and won prizes. Wisut Ponniminit, already a popular success in Japan and Thailand, had his book HimHerThat republished in New York in 2013.
The Thai comics with the largest circulations have included anti-communist propaganda comics sponsored by the USIS, a U.S. government agency; the cheap, mass-produced Katun Lem La Bhat genre of escapist comics in the 1970s; cartoon humor magazines KaiHuaRor and MahaSanook; and The Story of Mahâjanaka, a comic book commissioned by Thailand’s late King Bhumibol, which sold two million copies when first released in black and white in 1999. An influential cartoon pamphlet published by students in 1973, Banthuek Lap Chak Thungyai, about an animal poaching scandal, created a sensation, selling 100,000 copies in two weeks. That comic added fuel to a movement that overthrew the Thai military dictatorship in 1974, inaugurating “an exhilarating period of creative and democratic freedom,” which was cut short in 1976 by another bloody military coup.
The small-scale, do-it-yourself comics (called dōjinshi, using the Japanese word), that first attracted Verstappen to Thai comics have sometimes reached circulations in the thousands but now are usually published in runs of only 30-50 copies. The cartoonists sell these works at special-purpose fairs, apparently comparable to Seattle’s annual Short Run zine festival.
The book includes beautifully done wordless comic metamorphoses, drawn by the book’s designer, Peeraphat Kittisuwat, to summarize each chapter; a bibliography; chapter notes; and an index. It could have also used a chronology to help the unfamiliar reader better understand this history of Thai comics in relation to Thailand’s coup-riddled political history.
Unlike Fred Schodt’s epochal book Manga! Manga!, which introduced English-speaking readers to the world of Japanese comics in 1982, Verstappen has not provided a section with translations of a few sample works. Consequently, the reader gains a wide overview of the visuals of Thai comics, but little sense of the quality of their writing. This suggests an obvious project for a sequel: a translated anthology of Thai comics!