Iris, by Thé Tjong-Khing

Thé Tjong-Khing is one of the Netherlands' best-known illustrators of children's books, but he has also left his mark on Dutch comic history. His most notable comics were made in cooperation with scriptwriter Lo Hartog van Banda, such as the philosophical newspaper comic 'Student Tijloos' (1960), the pop art inspired graphic novel 'Iris' (1968) and the futuristic saga 'Arman en Ilva' (1969-1975). He has illustrated books for Dolf Verroen, Miep Diekmann, Els Pelgrom, Tim Maran, Simone Schell and Sylvia Vanden Heede. He is praised for his virtuosity, clarity and simplicity. For every assignment he tries to find a fitting drawing style and technique, with a focus on atmosphere instead of action. He regularly models his characters after movie stars, especially the women, although the illustrator mostly acts as his own mirror model for positions and expressions.

Early years and influences
Thé was born in 1933 in Purworejo, Central Java, in the former Dutch Indies (nowadays Indonesia). The family later relocated to the West-Java capital Bandung. Although he grew up into a Chinese family (the family name is Thé), the spoken language in his home was predominantly Dutch and his upbringing was Occidental. Because of his oriental roots, his wartime years were relatively carefree. Thé's father was a salesman, who also managed an open air cinema, where young Khing developed his passion for American films. He also drew for hours on end on a drawing board in the family home. Comics weren't his foremost passion, but he did find inspiration in the Walt Disney characters and Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon'. Later in his career, he has expressed his admiration for Stan Drake's 'The Heart of Juliet Jones', Milton Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates' and the pin-ups of Alberto Vargas. For his illustration work, Thé's early influences were Rie Cramer and Arthur Rackham, as well as impressionist painters. He was furthermore fascinated by the lightning and camera angles of Hitchcock films.

Strip 101 of 'Martin Evans - Het Venuskruid' by Thé Tjong-Khing and Dick Vlottes (De Stem, 1958)
Strip 101 of 'Martin Evans - Het Venuskruid' by an unknown artist ('t Kapoentje, 1955).

Strip 101 of 'Martin Evans - Het Venuskruid' by Thé Tjong-Khing and Dick Vlottes (De Stem, 1958)
Strip 101 of 'Martin Evans - Het Venuskruid' by Thé Tjong-Khing and Dick Vlottes (De Stem, 1958).

He attended the Seniriupa Art Academy in Bandung for three years, and then headed to the Netherlands by boat with the prospect of more job opportunities. He arrived on Dutch soil in October 1956 with a student visum. He took evening courses in advertising art from the Amsterdam-based Kunstnijverheidsschool (the future Rietveld Academy). The program didn't suit him, and about a year later he was hired by Cees van de Weert of the Toonder Studio's. Since he wasn't studying anymore, the immigration police threatened to send him back to Indonesia, but the Toonder Studio's managed to intervene and obtain him a Dutch passport.

Toonder Studios
Thé's first assignments for the studios were drawing comic stories for British romance magazines like Boyfriend and Valentine, published by Fleetway. In 1958 he also pencilled the final four strips of 'Het Venuskruid', the first episode of the science fiction newspaper comic 'Martin Evans'. The story was originally drawn by Ben Abas and finished by an unknown studio co-worker during its initial publication in Scandinavian newspapers in 1955. The story was reprinted in Dutch newspaper De Stem in 1958 with Thé's contribution. The panels were inked by Dick Vlottes, who would also draw the sequel story in 1959.

'Het dagboek van Marion - Fraude van een compagnon' (1961) by Thé Tjong-Khing and Jan Wesseling.

Also in 1958, Thé became Jan Wesseling's assistant on the newspaper comic 'Uit het Dagboek van Marion', which appeared in De Telegraaf until February 1962. The strip can be seen as the Dutch answer to Stan Drake's 'The Heart of Juliet Jones', with its diary-format, fashion theme and frivolous locations. The plots were written by Lo Hartog van Banda or Harry van den Eerenbeemt, and the final episode by Joop van den Broek. Thé also worked with Wesseling on illustrations for the women's magazine Rosita. Signing with the joint pen name "Khiwes" (from "Khing" and "Wesseling"), the two men alternated on the art duties, with Thé mostly doing characters and Wesseling the backgrounds.

First episode of 'Ridder Leo van Zuylenburg' in the balloon comic format (Vrije Geluiden, 10 December 1960).

Ridder Leo van Zuylenburg
Between 1959 and at least 1961, Thé Tjong-Khing and scriptwriter Lo Hartog van Banda also made a weekly children's comic strip for Vrije Geluiden, the magazine of broadcasting corporation VPRO. The funny animal strip took off on 28 November 1959 and starred 'Ridder Leo van Zuylenburg', a lion knight described as a "brave fighter against injustice" in the kingdom of Laegland ("Lowland", referring to the "Low Countries" to which the Netherlands belong). The started out as a typical text comic, with text and dialogues underneath the images, but on 10 December 1960 it changed to the more modern balloon comic format.

Student Tijloos
Since Marten Toonder lived in Ireland during those years, Thé Tjong-Khing didn't meet him until he was drawing 'Student Tijloos' in 1962. The legendary artist's praise was a huge ego boost for the young artist, who basically worked from intuition. Toonder and Jan Kruis had developed the initial concept of 'Tijloos' in 1959, but the project was shelved. Lo Hartog van Banda had reworked it into a philosophically oriented newspaper strip about a student who changes disciplines in every story.

Student Tijloos by Thé Tjong-Khing
Student Tijloos - 'Het spiegelpaleis'.

Banda wrote six stories with the character, which were published in Algemeen Dagblad between October 1961 and June 1963. Most of these episodes were illustrated by Gerrit Stapel, except the third, 'Het Spiegeldoolhof' (1962). It was also the most notable installment in the series, largely due to Thé's film noir influenced artwork and clever camera angles. In this story, the young student studies architecture. He meets a girl who lives in a mysterious house which influences the personality of its inhabitants. The story was a true showcase of Thé's talent for depicting human emotions through the many transformations of the girl. The exhausting workload eventually wore out the perfectionist artist, and Stapel resumed his role as the strip's artist. 'Het Spiegeldoolhof' however marked the beginning of Thé's fruitful collaboration with Hartog van Banda.

Arendsoog by Thé Tjong-Khing
'Arendsoog' (Pep #50, 1967).

Thé Tjong-Khing left the studios and became a freelance artist. Around this time, he began to expand his activities as an illustrator, but he returned to comics on several occasions. Between 1964 and 1972 he illustrated over 25 text stories by authors like Tim Maran (Anton Schilling) and Quint (Anton Quintana) for comic magazine Pep, as well as a text comic based on 'Arendsoog'. Four episodes of this Far West book series by Paul Nowee had been serialized in Pep as text stories between 1965 and 1967 with illustrations by Hans G. Kresse. 'De Wraak van Grissom' (1967-1968) was an original story by the series' author Paul Nowee, with sequential illustrations by Thé. It was later published as the 45th installment in the book series.

Return to Toonder
In 1969 he returned to the Toonder Studios, where he and Jan van Haasteren succeeded the Spanish artist Juan Escandell as the artist of the somewhat absurd and supernatural newspaper strip 'Horre, Harm en Hella' for De Telegraaf. Thé and Van Haasteren cooperated on two full stories by Andries Brandt and Patty Klein, in which Thé mainly focused on pencilling the characters. Van Haasteren did the first strips of the fourth story, but he was quickly replaced by Georges Mazure.

Iris by The Tjong Khing

By then, Thé Tjong-Khing had already resumed his working relationship with Lo Hartog van Banda for the colorful and psychedelic album 'Iris' (1968). The book was published by literary publisher De Bezige Bij, and largely inspired by Guy Peellaert's groundbreaking comics 'Les Aventures de Jodelle' (1966) and 'Pravda, la survireuse' (1967). The story is situated in a futuristic Amsterdam, where amusement, popstar idolation and free sex control everyday life, all orchestrated by a "Dream King". The writer's rather grim vision of the future is however told from a philosophical and non-political point-of-view, and with Thé Tjong-Khing's swinging pop art panels, the book never becomes too dark. The story is not event-driven, but has an emphasis on emotions and interpretations, told from the perspective of lead characters Iris and Mark. Since the reader follows most events through the female protagonist's eyes, the authors chose to name her Iris. With its philosophical and dreamlike undertone and experimental and erotic graphics, 'Iris' is considered the first Dutch graphic novel. Production was a true joint effort and the story was constructed organically. Thé sometimes deviated from Banda's initial vision, after which the writer alternated the story. In true pop art style, almost all characters were based on celebrities, most notably Iris, who borrowed her initial looks from British cultural icon Twiggy.

Arman en Ilva - Het Poppenhuis
Arman en Ilva - 'Het Poppenhuis'.

Arman en Ilva
In the following year, Thé and Banda joined forces again when they created the futuristic space opera 'Arman & Ilva' (1969-1975) for the Toonder Studios. The series ran in local newspapers like Leeuwarder Courant and Zwolse Courant between 1 September 1969 and 24 June 1976. The artist turned to a more clear and cinematic drawing style, with heavy use of close-ups. 'Arman & Ilva' isn't a science fiction comic in the purest sense of the word, since Thé was stronger in portraying emotions than in technical equipment and spaceships. Banda's stories are also more philosophical than scientific, and the emphasis lay on the character's response to their surroundings. Thé also didn't have to bother with drawing far-away galaxies. The high-rise blocks of the Amsterdam neighbourhood Bijlmermeer were the inspiration for the desolate environment of the story 'De Perfecte Kringloop' (1972). In another story ('De bijzonder begaafden', 1971), the authors explore the dangers of artificial intelligence. Dark and occult elements form the core of the story 'Het poppenhuis' (1970), while the personality of main character Ilva is questioned in 'Een robot is ook maar een mens' (1969). Whenever Banda was too busy with his TV work, Thé had to provide the writing as well, most notably on the story 'De bewonderenswaardige Labritta' (1973-1974). The two left the comic after sixteen stories in 1975, after which Gerrit Stapel drew five more installments until 1976.

Arman & Ilva 13 – Het spoor dat verdween
Arman & Ilva - 'Ea' (1971).

De Twee van Oldenhoek
Thé and Banda worked together once more, when their thriller story 'De Twee van Oldenhoek' (1975-1976) was published in the girls' magazine Tina. The story about two twin sisters who live with their aunt in the castle of Oldenhoek was far more heavy-handed than Tina's regular melodramatic serials. Their investigation into a series of break-ins confronts them with a creepy and violent villain. The editors even had to step in to make the story less scary.

De Twee van Oldenhoek
'De Twee van Oldenhoek'.

Thé turned to a more comical drawing style for the booklet 'Rebbe' (1972), which he made in cooperation with writer Don Dekker for Wolters-Noordhoff. It features comic strips and cartoons of a Jewish rabbi in conversation with God. Between 1975 and 1977 he was furthermore one of the original contributors to De Vrije Balloen, the independent and experimental comic magazine initiated by Patty Klein and Jan van Haasteren. He experimented freely with graphical styles for stories like 'Marilyn was here', 'De stenen god', 'TV-privaat', 'Lente in de k.centrale' and more, which gave a cynical view of Dutch society of the 1970s. Some of the stories were written by Thé himself, others by Andries Brandt, Patty Klein or Frans Buissink. The stories were first collected in book format under the title 'Storende verhalen' ("Disturbing stories") by Panda in 1979, and then by Mondria in 1981.

Zuster Lydia zoekt het geluk
Thé was also involved in the adaptation of one of his short stories into a short film by director Frank Herrebout. In 'Zuster Lydia zoekt het geluk' (1984), starring Marie Christine De Both, a young and excited nurse gives an elderly patient the wrong medication in order to get close to a hot young doctor, at first in the operation room and then in the bed room.

Zuster Lydia zoekt het geluk (De Vrije Balloen #5)
'Zuster Lydia zoekt het geluk' (De Vrije Balloen #5).

Later illustration work
From the 1980s onwards, Thé Tjong-Khing focused fully on his career as an illustrator. His initial realistic artwork has evolved into a more stylized drawing style, which he adjusts for whatever a project needs. Ever since the 1960s, he had illustrated a great many text stories for children's magazines like Pep, Donald Duck, Okki, Taptoe, Bobo, Kris-Kras and Ezelsoor. His illustrations furthermore appeared in De Spiegel, Margriet, Elegance and the seasonal books published by De Geïllustreerde Pers, in which he especially excelled with his portrayal of women. He gained most fame for his attractive illustrations for children's books, starting with the cover of Thea Beckman's 'Micky en de vreemde rovers' (1966). He has since then illustrated over 300 children's books for top Dutch children's authors, including Miep Diekmann, Els Pelgrom, Burny Bos, Dolf Verroen, Guus Kuijer, Simone Schell, Nannie Kuiper, Annie M. G. Schmidt, Frank Groothof and Bette Westera, as well as a children's Bible edition and fairy tale collections. Notable is the children's book series for beginning readers 'Vos en Haas' by the Flemish author Sylvia Vanden Heede, for which Thé designed a colorful cast of forest animals. Several installments have appeared since the late 1990s.

Vos en Haas en de ballon van Uil
'Vos en Haas en de ballon van Uil'.

Since 2004 Thé is also the author of a series of wordless picture books for publisher Lannoo, starring a family of cake-baking dogs. The books are of an educational nature and urge young readers to search for clues in the richly illustrated spreads. The series includes such books as 'Waar is de taart?' (2004), 'Picknick met taart' (2005) and 'Verjaardag met taart' (2010). The follow-up 'Kunst met taart' (2015) introduces its young readers with classic artists like Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondriaan and Pablo Picasso. Thé Tjong-Khing also released a children's picture book based on Hieronymus Bosch imagery called 'Bosch' (2015).


Later work in comics
Even though well into his eighties, the tireless illustrator returned to comics in 2017. He teamed up with photographer Fjodor Buis to create the film noir photo comic 'Crimefighters'. The strip features Thé and Buis as detectives in a drawn environment, much like Hanco Kolk and Peter de Wit's 'Mannetje & Mannetje'. The strip ran in newspaper Het Parool on a weekly base in 2017. In 2020 Thé was the initiator of a collective comic adaptation by five artists of the dark story 'De Man Die Geen Saxofoon Mocht Spelen' (Personalia, 2020) by novelist Lilian Blom. The other contributors were Aimée de Jongh, Ibrahim R. Ineke, Juliette de Wit and Marloes de Vries.

Crimefighters by The Tjong-Khing and Fjodor Buis

Thé Tjong-Khing has received many awards and prizes during his career. As early as 1971 he won a prize for 'Arman en Ilva' on a Belgian sci-fi convention. He won the "Golden Pencil" for Miep Diekmann's 'Wiele Wiele Stap' (1978), Els Pelgrom's 'Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper' (1984) and Sylvia Vanden Heede's 'Het woordenboek van Vos en Haas' (2003). He furthermore received a "Vlag en wimpel" ("Flying colors") for Simone Schell's 'Hier woon ik' (1980), Gerard Brands' 'Een krekel voor de keizer' (1982), Dolf Verroen's 'Juf is gek' (1982), Colin Dann's 'De dieren van het duitenbos' (1983), Marcella Hart's 'Hoor je wat ik doe?' (1985) and Colin Dann's 'Het Witte Herten Park' (1986). 'Waar is de taart?' earned him a "Silver Pencil" and the Woutertje Pieterse Prize in 2005. He was furthermore awarded the German Deutsche Jugendliteratur Preis (1987), the NIC Illustration prize (1987) and the Max Velthuijs prize for illustrators (2010).

Illustration for children's book 'De Wonderbare Reis van de Jongen', by Thé Tjong-Khing 1998
Illustration for children's book 'De Wonderbare Reis van de Jongen' by Antonie Schneider (1998).

Legacy and influence
Although he is nowadays one of the foremost Dutch children's book illustrators, his comics are far from forgotten. Mat Schifferstein's publishing house Sherpa collected the complete 'Arman en Ilva' in sixteen luxury landscape format-shaped volumes between 2006 and 2017. The books were completed with extensive background dossiers by Schifferstein, Rudy Vrooman and Bert Meppelink, and forewords by colleagues such as Joost Swarte, Hanco Kolk, Dick Matena, Jacques Post, Peter Pontiac, Martin Lodewijk, Jan Kruis, Jesse van Muylwijck, Peter van Straaten, Dick Maas, Marq van Broekhoven, Fred de Heij, Fred Marschall, Willem Ritstier, Ger Apeldoorn and Hans van Oudenaarden. Sherpa also published two volumes of 'Storende Verhalen' (2008-2010 with forewords by Patty Klein and Robert van der Kroft), 'Het Spiegelpaleis' (2016, with a foreword by Alex van Koten) and a fully colored luxury volume of 'Iris' (2018). A monography about Thé Tjong-Khing's work called 'Thé Tjong-Khing - Van strip tot sprookje' was compiled by Joukje Akveld and Annemarie Terhell and published by Gottmer/Lannoo in 2011.

Illustration for 'Het Loterijbriefje' by Els Pelgrom.

Thé Tjong-Khing is also famous for his knowledge about movies. He appeared at least eight times on the Dutch TV quiz show 'Voor een briefkaart op de eerste rang' during the early 1970s. He was such a frequent contestant, that he was even featured in a spoof by Herman van Run and Luc Lutz for radio cabaret Cursief. In the sketch, "Mister Thé" managed to answer every question, even before the host could finish his sentences, and eventually even after the first word! The sketch was reprised by Gerard Cox and Frans Halsema in their 1973 stage show 'Wat je zegt ben je zelf'. In addition to his own illustration career, Thé Tjong-Khing has worked as a teacher at the Rietveld Academy for a couple of years in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Among his pupils were such artists as Fred de Heij, Ruud Bruijn, Philip Hopman and Hans de Beer. Thé however wasn't happy in his role as teacher, as he didn't feel at ease with judging other people's work.

Inspired by the famous Belgian comic book murals in Brussels and Antwerp, Thé Tjong Khing designed the first official Dutch mural for the city of Haarlem. An initiative of the organization of the Haarlem Comics Festival, the mural was executed by the artist Diego Teroba and festively presented on 7 October 2019. It featured famous characters from Haarlem's history, characters from Thé's children's books and comic characters like Willy Vandersteen's Tante Sidonia, Hergé's Bianca Castafiore and Gerben Valkema's Elsje.

Lambiek will always be grateful to Thong Khing for illustrating the letter "I" in our encylopedia book, 'Wordt Vervolgd - Stripleksikon der Lage Landen', published in 1979.

Thé Tjong-Khing in 2011 (Photo © Robin Schouten).

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