Thai Autobiographical Comics (feature)

Le Dessableur #2, CBBD. Cover art by Thai cartoonist Sa-ard (pic by Greg Shaw)

The second issue of the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée [Comics Art Museum – Brussels] magazine Le Dessableur has been released on June 2021, with a 10-page special feature on “Thai Autobiographical Comics” (composed by yours truly). Autobiographical graphic narratives are almost absent from the Thai comics production -even from its alternative scene- for various cultural and political motives. The feature -in French with Dutch translation- explores these constraints through the rare, remarkable and counter-cultural examples of Thai autobiographical comics. It spans from Sem Sumanan’s first self-representation in a 1924 Siamese comic strip and Isaan cartoonists’ regionalist memoirs, up to the contemporary zine scene and Sa-ard‘s 2020 daring and brilliant self-published graphic novel “Kan Sueksa Khong Krapong Mi Fa” (The Education of a Tin Can who had a Dream). Thanks Sa-ard for the cover art and the enlightening interview! And thanks Greg Shaw for the invitation; it was a pleasure! N.

Order information on:

1924 comic strip by Sem Sumanan and paintings by Preecha Raksorn. In: Le Dessableur #2, CBBD.
Pages by Triam Chachumporn, Songwit ‘Seng’ Seakitikul and Wisut Ponnimit. In: Le Dessableur #2, CBBD.
Artworks by Tookkata, Prayoon Chanyawongse and Guinfalls. In: Le Dessableur #2, CBBD.

Ongoing Research: Jamnong Rodari [จำนงค์ รอดอริ], the forgotten Siamese comics master

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“Raden Lundai” [ระเด่นลันได] tier by Siamese artist Jamnong Rodari [จำนงค์ รอดอริ] , c. late 1932

Kingdom of Siam, 1932. If the pre-1960s Thai Comics production is a lost continent, some artists -such as Prayoon Chanyawongse, Sawas Jutharop or Hem Vejakorn– are well-known from local aficionados. To the best of my knowledge and in the literature I’ve been able to access over the past 5 years, only two lines are mentioning Jamnong Rodari (จำนงค์ รอดอริ; brother of best-known illustrator Fuen Rodari), hailed as one of the greatest cartoonists of the 1930s. Not much more on his art; I only saw a fragment of a comics strip at the National Library of Thailand, and two series of beautiful book illustrations. So I was thrilled to get my hands on a collection of comic strips cut from 1932 Siamese newspapers [miraculously unearthed in an attic], and discover his stunning long-form comics which are said to have influenced prominent cartoonists of the late 1930s. Here are two excerpts. First is the upper-tier of his 48(?)-page comics adaptation of then-famous play Raden Lundai; or the Pauper Prince (ระเด่นลันได; a parody of the classic “Inao” play), with additional captions in Klon-16 versification below the panels, probably from late 1932 [there’s an ad for Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights at the back, and American films were usually screened in Siam one year after the US release]. Character design and gestures might be informed by the traditional Nang Talung (หนังตะลุง) shadow puppetry [as was suggested to me by my kick-@ssistant Bird]. Second excerpt [which I edited as I wanted to show the three-panel dance sequence which is allocated over two tiers in the original] is even more interesting as it unveils an example of realist-art long-form comics seven years before Hem Vejakorn’s Sri Thanonchai. Also unusual; the story is set in contemporary Siam -and is a “migrant” narrative- under the title KatunNaiBoPhachoenChok (การ์ตูนนายโบ้เผชิญโชค; The Comics of Mr. Bo who seeks his fortune [in Bangkok]). Drawn in late 1932 [as the newspaper banner was not cut from the first comics installment]. It appears that these two comic strips series -with two different styles and genres- were drawn by Jamnong Rodari in late 1932 or early 1933.

One question is left unanswered. Why was Jamnong Rodari forgotten from Thai Comics History while being hailed as “one of the greatest Siamese cartoonists.” I would venture that, unlike contemporary artists such as Sawas Jutharop and slightly later Prayoon Chanyawongse, Jamnong Rodari didn’t collect his serialized stories in comic book format. Sawas and Prayoon’s comic strips collections are known, and might have helped their names and works to be remembered in the following decades. No trace, so far, of any collected works of Jamnong. Might be a lead. [EDIT: a collection of Raden Lundai was recently sold on internet, so at least one collection of newspaper strips in comic book format was released]. Nicolas Verstappen

PS: These are not my favorite excerpts from the series; the most stunning pieces will come later, in another format [if current COVID-crisis doesn’t shatter this research project].

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“KatunNaiBoPhachoenChok” [การ์ตูนนายโบ้เผชิญโชค] edited tier by Siamese artist Jamnong Rodari [จำนงค์ รอดอริ] , late 1932. Two opium traffickers want to take revenge on Mr. Bo who lost their opium load by accident. As Mr. Bo is in a dance club, they approach him by dancing together but Mr. Bo is saved by the club dancer in a bold move.

“Prayoon Chanyawongse’s Cartoon Likay: Amalgamating Likay Theatrical Form and Comics into a Unique Thai Genre” Scholarly Paper

Figure 1 (New)
Inaugural strip of the Cartoon Likay adaptation of Chanthakorop by Thai cartoonist Prayoon Chanyawongse, published in late 1938 in the newspaper Suphapburut. Reproduced from the 1940 collection Katun Likay Rueang Chanthakorop Phak 1, Samnak Ngan Nai Metta, Bangkok. Illustration provided to the author by Soodrak Chanyavongs. © Prayoon Chanyawongse Foundation.

On June 1, 2018, The Comics Grid published my first open-access scholarly paper dedicated to a lost chapter in the History of Comics Art; the creation in 1938 -and 30-year development- of the Cartoon Likay signature comics genre by Thai Comics master khun Prayoon Chanyawongse.

Paper abstract: “By launching in 1938 a series of adaptations of folktales in comics form, Thai cartoonist Prayoon Chanyawongse established the Cartoon Likay genre which places the reader as a member of an audience attending a Likay performance. The local theatrical form frames his graphic narratives where scenes of a play performed on a stage continuously alternate with sequences taking place in the vast realms of epics set in the Ayutthaya period. By introducing key Likay conventions such as recurring humorous interruptions and asides, Chanyawongse could effectively address contemporary social issues and political topics within traditional folktales. This paper explores several Cartoon Likay narratives in the context of the Likay theatrical form and the local folktale repertoire to discuss the nature and development of Chanyawongse’s signature comics genre.”

If I had to compare Prayoon’s Cartoon Likay comics to a better-known comics, it would be to René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo‘s Franco-Belgian series The Adventures of Asterix for their shared humor centered on puns, caricatures, anachronisms and modern-day allusions in period adventurous tales. If Cartoon Likay predates Asterix for about 20 years and if Prayoon’s social & political criticism and aesthetic of disruption (through fascinating fourth-wall breaks yet to be fully explored) are more apparent, Prayoon Chanyawongse and René Goscinny do share a love of language, of often-disregarded ‘common folks’, and such a playful & witty (and kindred) spirit. So much more is to say about the Cartoon Likay comics genre (and about the “Lost Continent” of Thai Comics), as a complete exploration of sophisticated Likay rhymes and play of words is yet to be undertaken, not to mention the dozens of other folktales adapted in comics form by Prayoon Chanyawongse.

My thanks go to The Comics Grid, and the Research Funding  Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University. I would also like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to my former and wonderful research assistants mesdemoiselles Tanchanok Ruendhawil & Suttiarpa Koomkrong for their invaluable help and commitment, to Dr. Sukanya Sompiboon for introducing me to Likay, to p’Soodrak Chanyavongs for her time and insights, and to my better-half. My thanks also go to Colin Cheney & Dr. Jirayudh Sinthuphan for suggestions to the content of this paper.

Nicolas Verstappen

Full paper is available in open access on this page of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship.

Figure copyright 02
The twenty-fifth strip of the Cartoon Likay adaptation of Chanthakorop by Thai cartoonist Prayoon Chanyawongse, published in the late 1938 in the newspaper Suphapburut. Reproduced from Sooklek/Prayoon Chanyawongse (Chanyavongs and Chanyavongse, 2015). © Prayoon Chanyawongse Foundation.