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.
Full paper is available in open access on this page of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship.
On May 14-17 2018, some 40 students at the International Program in Communication Design (CommDe, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand) attended in two groups to 4-day parallel “Open Studios” led by Belgian cartoonist and illustrator Ephameron (aka Eva Cardon) and American cartoonist and illustrator Anders Nilsen.
〈Anders Nilsen wrote his own account of the 4-day “Chulalongkorn Comics Workshop Phantasmagoria” on this blog post.〉
“It was a remarkable experience in about a hundred different ways, but in particular the students were amazing.” Anders Nilsen (blog post here)
The current post presents the two first days of the Open Studios, and a second post will soon display pics from the last two days of workshop. Students were able to experience two completely different approaches in comics composition during these Open Studios, as Ephameron focused on capturing the essence of a short story and its breakdown and visual adaptation in comics form while Anders Nilsen explored “non-standard” panel layouts and constrained comics exercises (inspired by OuBaPian experiments from the Pierre Feuille Ciseaux international comics residency-laboratory) in order to generate unexpected characters and plots. I do apologize here for the far too invasive presence of my noisy camera, and thank all participants for the patience and understanding. Nicolas
Here are the presentations of Ephameron and Anders Nilsen’s Open Studios by the CommDe program which invited the two artists and hosted the event.
“Eva Cardon leads CommDe Open Studio on Graphic Narrative. In this open studio on Graphic Narrative each student chooses one of the short stories from American author Raymond Carver collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral and turns it into a graphic narrative that explores the limits of comics, and experiments with storytelling techniques. Eva works under the pseudonym Ephameron and is based in Flanders. She publishes and exhibits internationally.”
“Anders Nilsen leads CommDe Open Studio ‘Where Do Your Ideas Come From: A Comics Workshop.’ Anders will lead students to explore their own creativity in developing characters and narratives. Anders Nilsen is the award-winning artist and author of nine books of comics and visual narrative including Big Questions, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, The End and Tongues. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Chicago Reader, Medium, Kramer’s Ergot and elsewhere. His comics have been translated into numerous languages and his artwork has been shown internationally. He lives in Portland, Oregon.”
DAY 1: MONDAY, MAY 14
Ephameron’s Open Studio; students Pear, Medfai & Noey
Anders Nilsen’s Open Studio; students Arty & Bamie
Belgian cartoonist Ephameron’s Graphic Narrative Open Studio at CommDe, Thailand
American cartoonist Anders Nilsen’s Comics Open Studio at CommDe, Thailand
DAY 1 in Ephameron’s Open Studio. Part 01: story-boarding of a Raymond Carver’s short story. The Belgian artist introduced the life and works of Raymond Carver and proposes a warm-up exercise. All students had to break down an imposed short story Why don’t you dance? (from Raymond Carver’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) into a storyboard of 10 illustrations.
Ephameron comments students’ storyboards.
“Why don’t you dance?” 10-panel storyboard by student Darnis.
“Why don’t you dance?” 10-panel storyboard by student Plue.
Ephameron comments student Darnis’ storyboard, with students Pear and Noey on the right.
DAY 1 in Anders Nilsen’s Open Studio. Part 01: the Comics Loop. Meanwhile in the classroom below, the American cartoonist proposes a first exercise to generate imaginative character designs. Each student randomly draws a name card on which a stock character is named (“beggar child”, “drug dealer”, “elephant”, etc.). Each student is then asked to divide an A4 page in four panels and is given a few minutes to create the character design of his/her assigned character in the first panel. When done, students are given a few more minutes to come up with completely different interpretation and graphic rendition of their assigned character, in order to avoid the obvious/common portrayal they might have provided in the first panel. When the second panel is completed, students must redraw their character in the two last panels but in graphic styles different from their personal style in order to leave their confort zone.
Students in Anders’ Open Studio.
Student Sam designs his character.
When done, the same exercise is repeated but with name cards of objects, then name cards of settings/sceneries. All character/object/setting designs are then separated and taped to a wall. Each student must then designates his/her 3 favorite character designs, then objects, then settings.
Anders Nilsen considers his own selection of character designs.
Each student designates his/her three favorite character/setting/object designs, .
Each student designates his/her three favorite character designs. With students Arty, Winnie, Tonkla and Champ.
Anders Nilsen considers the resulting character designs.
After voting, the three favorite character designs, objects and settings are brought together.
As the three selected objects (like the fish can or the anthropomorphic chair) could be turned into characters and would be redundant with the initially selected characters, Anders and I decided to substitute them for a meteorite (which could also be used as a setting), a “bone trapped in a crystal”. The “top of a building” setting was discarded in favor a snow globe, being an object and holding a potential setting. The 9 definitive elements were then used as references, and limitations to maintain coherence, for a collective comics composition assignment -in the form of anexquisite corpse– based on the constrained exercise La Boucle/The Loop developed by the ChiFouMi Association. This exercise had been already implemented at the Faculty of Communication Arts in 2015 with 17 participants, whether professional Thai cartoonists or enthusiasts (more info on this dedicated post). Here is the “protocol” of the constrained exercise. Let’s note here that the story remains “wordless” to facilitate the development of the narrative, as the presence of dialogues might complicate the action of linking the first and last panels together.
Step one: defining 9 elements (3 characters/ 3 objects/ 3 settings). See above.
Step two: each student draws a 6-panel regular grid on an A4 page. Every student must start the action of his/her story in the sixth (and last) panel using one or several of the 9 imposed elements. When done, he/she gives his/her page to the artist on his/her left. Time limit: 15′.
Step three: in the first panel of the page he/she got from his/her seatmate, the artist must continue the action he/she started on the previous page. Time limit: 15′.
Step four: all pages, with only the first panel filled by an artist and the sixth panel filled by another artist, are gathered together. Each student randomly draws a number and -following order of the numbers- can select a page on which he/she will have to fill the four remaining panels (or panels 2 to 5), and link panels 1 and 6 into a somehow coherent narrative.
Step 4: discovering the pages with only panels 1 and 6 filled. From left to right: students Winnie Rit, Bamie, Sam, Kade and Vee.
Step 4: discovering the pages with only panels 1 and 6 filled. From left to right: Anders Nilsen and students Winnie, Piraya, Champ, Uang and Punn.
Step five: each student must now fill the four empty panels (or panels 2 to 5) on the page he/she picked, and link panels 1 and 6 (each drawn by another student) into a somehow coherent narrative.
The Final Story:As presented by the Association ChiFouMi, “the story that is made through all these joints makes an infinite loop, where all the elements that were produced before gives some kind of common road where each author can intend its own singularities and its own imagination, while following a protocol nearly invisible.”
It is interesting to note that a series of recurring motifs appeared throughout the narrative, without any consultation among the students. If “transformations” are obviously to be expected in order to link two disparate panels together, the frequency of “transformations by digestion” was here quite remarkable. Recurring motifs include ingestion, swallowing, vomiting, excretion (maybe in connection with the importance of food in Thai culture, or with gluttonous Brahmin Chuchok whose belly would burst in the Vessantara Jataka, or Krasue spirit with their internal organs hanging down from the neck?), and some related scatological elements, to which -and quite logically in a Buddhist culture- the recurring lotus flower raising from mud would balance. Karmic retribution, and Inception-like worlds inside worlds, were quite present too. The resulting comics was wild, and hilarious at times, as the following pictures show.
Collective reading of the resulting collaborative comics loop. From left to right: students Arty, Piraya, Rit, Bamie and Punn, with Anders Nilsen
Collective reading of the resulting collaborative comics loop:, with Anders Nilsen.
Collective reading of the resulting collaborative comics loop: student Uang explains her plot to Anders and her classmates.
Collective reading of the resulting collaborative comics loop. With students Sam, Winnie, Arty, Aim, Bamie and Tung.
Collective reading of the resulting collaborative comics loop, with student Arty.
Collective reading of the resulting collaborative comics loop. With student Bamie.
DAY 1 in Anders Nilsen’s Open Studio. Part 02: the comics “scrabble/domino”. Anders Nilsen proposed another exercise to which the students were invited to participate whenever they wanted during the 4-day Open Studio. The American artist scattered some illustrations on different walls and asked the students to add new illustrations after, before, above or below his own in order to generate strips, and narratives which would slowly spread across the walls.
Collective and improvised “scrabble/domino” comics.
Student Rit enjoys Bamie’s idea.
Collective and improvised “scrabble/domino” comics.
DAY 1 in Ephameron’s Open Studio. Part 02: figure drawing. Meanwhile Belgian artist Ephameron lets her students release some steam, after a challenging and focused day of short story analysis and story-boarding, by proposing a “figure drawing” session. Each student was invited to draw one of his/her classmates, respecting proportions and attitudes, and exploring various facial expressions.
Student Darnis by his classmate Pin.
First year student Plye strikes a pose to help her classmate capture some facial expressions.
DAY 2 in Ephameron’s Open Studio. Part 01: comicsadaptation of various Raymond Carver’s short stories. At the end of previous day, Ephameron provided each of her students with a different short story written by American author Raymond Carver and mainly taken from the collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral. Each student has the three remaining days to adapt his/her assigned short story into a comics.
DAY 2 in Anders Nilsen’s Open Studio. Part 01: Taming the Beast. As the Comics Loop resulted in a wilder-than-expected exhilarating narrative, the American cartoonist decided to go for an additional exercise in order to “tame the Beast” and channel the energy.
Anders Nilsen presented the students with Daniel Clowes‘ comics page “What Is the Most Important Invention of the 20th Century?” published on October 1989 in the first issue of his comics series Eightball. The page is a visual adaptation of “the work of David Greenberger, who asked questions of nursing home residents and transcribed their answers in his zine The Duplex Planet.” Other Duplex Planet-inspired comics -with each story’s title is the question Greenberger asked, e.g., “Where Do Wiseguys Come From?”- appeared in Eightball #2 to 4, and 6 (see below for pics).
Daniel Clowes’ comics page published on February 1990 in the second issue of his comics series Eightball. The page is a visual adaptation of “the work of David Greenberger, who asked questions of nursing home residents and transcribed their answers in his zine The Duplex Planet.”
Daniel Clowes’ comics page published on June 1990 in the third issue of his comics series Eightball. The page is a visual adaptation of “the work of David Greenberger, who asked questions of nursing home residents and transcribed their answers in his zine The Duplex Planet.”
Daniel Clowes’ comics page published on October 1990 in the fourth issue of his comics series Eightball. The page is a visual adaptation of “the work of David Greenberger, who asked questions of nursing home residents and transcribed their answers in his zine The Duplex Planet.”
Daniel Clowes’ comics page published on June 1991 in the sixth issue of his comics series Eightball. The page is a visual adaptation of “the work of David Greenberger, who asked questions of nursing home residents and transcribed their answers in his zine The Duplex Planet.”
Before. Students Bamie (left) and Arty (right), with students Punn, Aim, Winnie and Kade.
During. Arty’s portrait by Bamie?
After. Discovering the “What happened?” comics pages.
Here are some results from the “What Happened? – Clowes/Greenberger” assignment by the students.
And an extra constrained comics assignment:
Extra assignment: create the speech ballon with text first, then add an image and the text of next panel, etc.
Extra assignment: create the speech ballon with text first, then add an image and the text of next panel, etc.
DAY 2 in Anders Nilsen’s Open Studio. Part 02: Finding Anders Nilsen. The American cartoonist did a short presentation of his journey as an artist, with the various defining steps and realizations mapping out his career path, such as stressing the importance of his sketchbooks in all aspects of his numerous projects. Some 25 of his books (from zines to graphic novels or collaborative productions) were on display in the classroom for the students to consult.
Anders Nilsen shortly presents his journey as an artist, here with the path-defining short story he wrote for his little sister.
Cover of the second issue of Anders Nilsen’s zine series “Big Questions”.
DAY 2 in Anders Nilsen’s Open Studio. Part 03: “I Almost Died!” assignment. After a lot of fun, students were asked to work on a more dramatic and/or intimate (or humorous if preferred) 8-panel comics page starring two characters. The first character would talk about a time that they almost died. The other character only speaks once, to ask a question. Seven panels show the two characters, and one panel (selected by the student) shows something else.
Getting serious, or trying. Student Winnie.
Getting serious, or trying. Student Kade working on her “I Almost Died!” constrained comics assignment.
Anders comments student Punn’s on his “I Almost Died!” constrained comics assignment.
Students Piraya, Wawa and Mae at work on their “I Almost Died!” constrained comics assignment.
Student Punn at work on his “Deadly Situation Survival” story.
Getting serious, or trying. Student Bamie working on her “I Almost Died!” constrained comics assignment.
Getting serious, or trying. Students Punn and Uang, and Anders Nilsen introducing the “I Almost Died!” constrained comics assignment.
On the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Friendship between Belgium and Thailand and after introducing the Belgo-Palombian character Marsupilami in graphic narratives to denounce a case of black panther poaching in Thailand (see students’ comics HERE), students were invited to revisit another famous -and much scrutinized- Belgian comics character: Smurfette(or Schtroumpfette in the original version)!
Thai (and foreign) Chulalongkorn students from the two courses mentioned above were asked to create short graphic narratives (2 to 4 pages) on imposed topics related to the Critical Tradition which challenges “the control of language to perpetuate power imbalances by exploring the way communication establishes, reinforces and maintains power structures in society” (see Denis McQuail, McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, Sage Publishing, 2002). With a vast majority of Asian and female students in my courses, the Smurfette Principle and Whitewashing in Film topics seemed to be appropriate and meaningful choices. The latter topic addresses the under-representation of minorities in the media, and more specifically the Hollywoodian habit of casting white actors to play non-white characters while disregarding the -mostly comics- source material (see articles by Steve Rose and Keith Chow). Infamous recent examples include Tilda Swinton casted as a Himalayan mystic in Doctor Strange, Emma Stone casted as a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese cyborg in the live-action feature Ghost in the Shell, or British actor Ed Skrein who decided to step down from his (half-Japanese) Ben Daimio’s role in the upcoming reboot of Hellboy. Criticism on cultural appropriation and whitewashing has also been raised towards Wes Anderson’s latest feature Isle of Dogs (see here).
“In its original sense, ‘whitewashing’ meant covering or cleaning something up. In today’s cultural landscape, it is a stain that won’t rub off. Now, ‘whitewashing’ describes the habit of casting white actors to play non-white characters, often to shoehorn in a star, sometimes out of racial insensitivity, invariably to the detriment of people (and especially actors) of colour.” Steve Rose in ‘“The idea that it’s good business is a myth’ – why Hollywood whitewashing has become toxic”, The Guardian (source), 2017.
In line with the Feminist Critical Tradition which criticizes communication content and practices that perpetuate patriarchal hierarchies and ideologies, The Smurfette Principle was coined and defined by poet and essayist Katha Pollitt in 1991 in the New York Times as a practice in fiction to include only one stereotypicalfemale character in an otherwise all-male cast (see quote below).
“The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.” Katha Pollitt in “Hers; The Smurfette Principle”, The New York Times (source), 1991.
If Katha Pollitt bases her criticism on the Smurfs animated TV series, the Smurfette character was first introduced in Peyo’s A Smurf Adventure: The Smurfette serialized in Spirou magazine (Dupuis, Belgium) in 1966 and written by Yvan Delporte [1928-2007] and Peyo [Pierre Culliford; 1928-1992]. The Smurfette was created from clay by evil wizard Gargamel in order to launch a feud in the all-male Smurf village. The recipe’s ingredients (see Fig. 2; “Sugar and spice, but nothing nice… A dram of crocodile tears… A peck of bird brain…”, etc.) used by the wizard present themselves as an appalling and misogynistic list of personalilty traits. Let’s point here that the recipe is accompanied by an asterisk leading to a footnote (see Fig.1 ). In the French edition (but I don’t know if the footnote was already in the first serialized publication), the footnote reads “This text only represents the views of the author of the grimoire ‘Magicae Formulae’, Beelzebub Publishing” (my translation). The 1976 English further relieves Delporte and Peyo of any responsibilities which are rejected on the “Male Chauvinist Pig Wizards” Incorporation…
Nevertheless, the Smurfette’s origin story raises more criticism. Smurfette first appears with unruly black hair, a large nose, basic dress and slippers (see Fig. 3). Feeling miserable because of her physical appearance and lack of attractiveness, she undergoes an “operation of plastic smurfery ” [sic] at the hands of Papa Smurf to become a blonde Smurfette -inspired by French actress Brigitte Bardot- with shortened nose, curled eyelashes, gown and high heels; she is now “one of a kind, full of feminine grace and frivolous. She can also be very much a woman, playing with the feelings of her sweethearts” (from Smurfette’s official bio quoted in Jason Richards’ The Problem With Smurfette). Turned into an “object of desire” and with stereotypical feminine personality traits, Smurfette -and the male Smurfs themselves by competing for her attention- will bring even more trouble in the village soon to be flooded. Let’s add, to be fair, that Delporte and Peyo do not depict the male Smurfs from their best angle either; they do not save the day (except for the more tempered Papa Smurf) and are made laughable -and “identical”- by their hazardous and idiotic behaviour.
The character of Smurfette evolved positively -albeit quite slowly- over the past decade; becoming the leader of the Smurf village in the 2010 adventure La Grande Schtroumpfette, or an airplane pilot on the outside paint job of some Brussels Airlines’ Airbus A320.
The imposed format was “knowledge (or educational) comics” in order to explore the ability of text/image (multimodal) narratives to condense and convey a large amount of information in a limited space of only a few pages. See quote below.
“Just like diagrams, info-graphics, and other forms of science visualizations, comics use words and pictures to convey information, however they also divide the information into panels [McCloud, 1994] which can facilitate the reading experience and highlight important information, such as parts and processes [Mayer and Gallini, 1990]. Furthermore, comics not only break down the information into more digestible units but can also reassemble them into meaningful compositions […]. As summarized by comic scholar and educator Nick Sousanis: “the spatial interplay of sequential and simultaneous, imbues comics with a dual nature — both tree-like, hierarchical and rhizomatic, interwoven in a single form” [Sousanis, 2015]. In other words, comics can be read linearly, panel by panel, but also lend themselves to non-linear explanations, encouraging the reader to constantly reassess earlier panels in the light of new information. Similarly, science often requires readers to make connections between multiple scales and domains of knowledge, not necessarily arranged in a hierarchical, linear order. In conclusion, while comics are often perceived as an easy and playful format, they may be exquisitely suited at presenting complex information in a rigorous yet accessible way.” Matteo Farinella, “The Potential of Comics in Science Communication”, in JCom Journal of Science Communication 17/1 (source), 2018.
Examples of “knowledge comics” provided to the students included the excellent series La Petite Bédéthèque des Savoirs (Le Lombard, Belgium) which presents itself as “pocket-sized hardcover educational books on subjects as varied as artificial intelligence, sharks, heavy metal, and the history of prostitution. Each volume in the series is written and drawn by a different writer and artist pair. Internationally-renowned experts in the fields work with comics luminaries for a unique alchemy every time” (source). Some volumes are available in English by IDW Publishing under the series title “The Little Book of Knowledge”. Other references were Nick Sousanis’ doctoral dissertation in comics form Unflattening, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing by Elizabeth Losh, Jonathan Alexander, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon.
Page from “The Little Book of Knowledge: Tattoos” by Jérôme Pierrat (author) and Alfred (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from “The Little Book of Knowledge: Heavy Metal” by Jacques de Pierpont (author) and Hervé Bourhis (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from (upcoming in English) “The Little Book of Knowledge: Sharks” by Bernard Séret (author) and Julien Solé (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from “La Petite Bédéthèque des Savoirs #18: Le conflit israélo-palestinien” by Vladimir Grigorieff (author) and Abdel de Bruxelles (artist), Le Lombard.
The Smurfette Principle and Whitewashing in Film Knowledge Comics by Chula students
The Smurfette origin (exploring elements from the Semiotics lessons: symbol, icon, connotation…).
A satirical take on the Smurfette Principle starring Pepper Potts and Tony Stark (aka Iron Man).