Iris, by Thé Tjong-Khing

Thé Tjong-Khing is one of the Netherlands' best-known illustrators of children's picture books, but he 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). 'Iris' in particular was notable as the first graphic novel in Dutch comic history. 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. Thé Tjong-Khing mostly works in a realistically-drawn style. Praised for his virtuosity, clarity and simplicity, Thé tries to find a fitting graphic look and technique for every assignment, 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). Shortly after his birth, the family settled in Cheribon, and in 1942, during the Japanese occupation, they relocated to the West-Java capital Bandung. Although he grew up into a Peranaken-Chinese family (the family name is Thé), he predominantly spoke Dutch at home and his upbringing was Occidental. Because of his oriental roots, his wartime years were relatively carefree. Thé's father was a prosperous salesman, who also managed an open air cinema, where young Khing developed his passion for American films, starting with Walt Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' and the western comedy 'Destry Rides Again'. He also drew for hours on end on a drawing board hanging on a wall in the family home. Comics weren't his foremost passion, but he did find inspiration in Disney characters, Mary Tourtel's 'Rupert Bear' 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, Hans Borrebach and Arthur Rackham, as well as impressionist painters. He was additionally 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)
Redrawn version of strip 101 of 'Martin Evans - Het Venuskruid' by Thé Tjong-Khing and Dick Vlottes (De Stem, 1958).

Starting in 1953, Thé spent three years at the Seniriupa Art Academy in Bandung, where he learned to draw from a model and painting. Feeling he couldn't fulfill his artistic ambitions in Indonesia, Thé 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
At the Toonder Studio's, Thé's first assignments 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 serial of the science fiction newspaper comic 'Martin Evans', drawn initially by Ben Abas. During its initial 1955 publication in Scandinavian newspapers, the final strips of 'Het Venuskruid' were finished by an unknown studio co-worker. By the time of its 1958 reprint in Dutch newspaper De Stem, Thé's version of the final strips were used. These panels were inked by Dick Vlottes, who also drew the sequel story, in 1959.

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

In 1958, Thé became Jan Wesseling's assistant on the Toonder Studio's newspaper comic 'Uit het Dagboek van Marion', which appeared in De Telegraaf until February 1962. The comic strip can be regarded as the Dutch answer to Stan Drake's soap opera comic 'The Heart of Juliet Jones', with its diary-format, fashion-themed storylines and frivolous locations. The plots were written by either Lo Hartog van Banda or Harry van den Eerenbeemt, with the final episode scritped 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 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 feature started out as a typical text comic, with text and dialogues underneath the images, but on 10 December 1960 it changed to the more contemporary balloon comic format.

Student Tijloos
Since Marten Toonder often visited Ireland during the early 1960s (and eventually moved there in 1965), Thé Tjong-Khing didn't meet the studio founder until 1962, when he drew the 'Student Tijloos' comic. The legendary artist's praise was a huge ego boost for the young artist, who basically worked from intuition. The initial concept of 'Tijloos' had been developed in 1959 by Toonder and artist Jan Kruis, but the project was shelved. A couple of years later, Lo Hartog van Banda 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 Student Tijloos, serialized in the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad between October 1961 and June 1963. Most of these episodes were illustrated by Gerrit Stapel, except for the third story, 'Het Spiegeldoolhof' (1962), which was drawn by Thé Tjong-Khing. It was also the most notable installment in the series, largely due to Thé's film noir influenced artwork and clever, cinematic camera angles. In this story, the young student studies architecture. He meets a girl who lives in a mysterious house that manipulates 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, causing him to back out before the story was finished, and Gerrit 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).

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

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

Iris by The Tjong Khing

By the late 1960s, 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 set in a futuristic Amsterdam, where amusement, casual sex and popstar idolation control everyday life, all orchestrated by a "Dream King". The writer's 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 1969, Thé and Banda joined forces again to create the futuristic space opera 'Arman & Ilva' (1969-1975), another Toonder Studios production. Between 1 September 1969 and 24 June 1976, the series ran in local newspapers like Leeuwarder Courant and Zwolse Courant. 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 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 additionally didn't have to bother with drawing far-away galaxies. The high-rise blocks of the Amsterdam neighborhood 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 the cyborg tale 'Een Robot Is Ook maar een Mens' (1969). Whenever Banda was too busy with his scriptwriting work for television, Thé had to provide the writing as well, most notably on the story 'De Bewonderenswaardige Labritta' (1973-1974). After creating sixteen stories, the two authors left the comic 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 Lo Hartog van Banda worked together once more, when their thriller story 'De Twee van Oldenhoek' (1975-1976) was published in the girls' magazine Tina. In comparison to Tina's regular melodramatic serials, the story about two twin sisters living with their aunt in the castle of Oldenhoek was far more heavy-handed. Their investigation into a series of break-ins confronts them with a creepy and violent villain. During a strangling scene, the editors even had to step in to make the story less scary. The original, unaltered scene did appear in the book publication in the 'Tina Topstrip' collection.

De Twee van Oldenhoek
'De Twee van Oldenhoek'.

Adult comics
Thé switched to a more comical drawing style for the booklet 'Rebbe' (1972), made in cooperation with writer Don Dekker for publisher Wolters-Noordhoff. It features comic strips and cartoons depicting a rabbi in conversation with God. Between 1975 and 1977, Thé was 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 all gave a cynical view of 1970s Dutch society. 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. In 1984, one of his short stories was adapted into a short film by director Frank Herrebout. Marie Christine De Both had the starring role in 'Zuster Lydia Zoekt Het Geluk' (1984), in which a young and excited nurse gives an elderly patient the wrong medication in order to get close to a hot young doctor. They eventually move from the operation room into the bedroom.

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

Illustration work
During the 1970s, Thé Tjong-Khing's interest slowly shifted towards illustration. Ever since the 1960s, he made illustrations for text stories, articles and spreads for children's magazines like Pep, Donald Duck, Okki, Taptoe, Bobo, Kris-Kras and Ezelsoor. His illustrations also appeared in the newspapers Algemeen Handelsblad and De Telegraaf, women's magazines De Spiegel, Margriet, Eva and Elegance, as well as the seasonal books published by De Geïllustreerde Pers, where he excelled with his portrayals of women. Among Thé Tjong-Khing's early book illustration assignments were collections of Guy De Maupassant stories and novellas by Honoré De Balzac. He also did some advertising artwork, but quickly discovered this industry didn't suit him.

Over the years, Thé's initial realistic artwork evolved into a more stylized drawing style, which he adjusts for whatever a project needs. He gained most fame for his attractive illustrations for children's books, starting with a 1963 Dutch edition of Roald Dahl's 'James and the Giant Peach' and the cover of Thea Beckman's 'Micky en de Vreemde Rovers' (1966). Since the, he has 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.

Spread for Bobo magazine, collected in the book 'Hier Zit Ik Op' (1983).

The illustrations for Miep Diekmann's teenage novel 'Total Loss, Weetjewel' (Querido, 1973) marked the artist's full transition towards the field of children's picture books and youth literature. Thé and Diekmann worked again for a series of three nursery rhyme collections, containing 'Wiele Wiele Stap' (1977), 'Stappe Stappe Step' (1979) and 'Ik en Jij Spelen Wij' (1982). As story and art formed a perfect blend, 'Wiele Wiele Stap' was awarded a 1978 "Gouden Griffel" for best children's book and "Gouden Penseel" for best children's book illustration. Also notable was Thé's collaboration with writer Simone Schell, which started at the toddler's magazine Bobo. For many years, they came up with thematical picture spreads showing large groups of children going to a swimming pool, attending a hobby club, doing a school play, etc. Collected by Oberon in the books 'Hier Woon ik', 'Rommel Op Reis', 'Hier Ga Ik Naar Toe' and 'Hier Zit Ik Op', these watercolored pictures were early showcares of Thé's talent for making detailed drawings with large groups, in which every character has its own little storyline. During the 1980s, Thé Tjong-Khing also illustrated some of the children's mystery books by Simone Schell, including 'Tocht naar Toerpa' (1981) and 'Met Andere Ogen' (1982). In addition, the two hosted storytelling sessions at Dutch primary schools.

'Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper' (1984).

During the early 1980s, Thé Tjong-Khing was paired with children's book writer Els Pelgrom, for whom he illustrated 'Drie Japies' (1980), 'Lady Africa en nog een paar' (1981) and, most notably, 'Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper' (1984), with its meticulous pen drawings with atmospheric crosshatching. Both a favorite for fans and the artist himself, the latter book told the story of a terminally ill child who goes on a fantastic journey with her puppets and cuddly toys, in which she discovers how her life could have been. The winner of two "Gouden Griffels" and the German Children's Literature Prize, 'Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper' was adapted into a stage play in 2017.

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

Since 1998, Thé Tjong-Khing has been working with the Flemish author Sylvia Vanden Heede on a popular picture book series for beginning readers, 'Vos en Haas'. It allowed the illustrator to move from drawing realistic settings towards boundless fantasy, using a colorful cast of forest animals and abstract subject matter. About forty volumes of this award-winning series have appeared at publisher Lannoo, and in 2018 the stories were adapted into a series of 26 short animated films for KRO/NCRV television. After many years drawing in the service of writers, Thé Tjong-Khing began working on his own picture books. Since 2004, Thé is 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). Since 2007, Thé Tjong-Khing is also the author of the 'Sprookjesverteller' book series for publisher Gottmer, in which he visualizes classic fairy tales in the way he tells them to his grandchildren. In 2022, he also provided the illustrations for two fairy tale books by the late Godfried Bomans for publisher Sunny Home.


Later work in comics
Even well into his eighties, Thé returned to comics in 2017. The seemingly tireless illustrator 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'. In 2017, the series ran in newspaper Het Parool on a weekly base. In 2020, Thé was 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 additionally 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). His own picture book 'Waar Is De Taart?' earned him a "Silver Pencil" and the 2005 Woutertje Pieterse Prize. He was additionally awarded the German Deutsche Jugendliteratur Preis (1987), the NIC Illustration prize (1987) and the Max Velthuijs prize for illustrators (2010). In April 2023, on the occasion of the artist's upcoming 90th birthday, a large overview exposition of Thé Tjong-Khing's work was curated by Tonio van Vugt in the Verwey Museum in Haarlem. The exhibition also offers room for a selection of illustrators who are inspired by Thé Tjong-Khing's work, consisting of Emanuel Wiemans (1975), Marloes de Vries (1984), Janneke Ipenburg (1979) and Branco Suijkerbuijk (2005).

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 Thé Tjong-Khing is nowadays one of the foremost Dutch children's book illustrators, his comics are far from forgotten. Between 2006 and 2007, Mat Schifferstein's publishing house Sherpa collected the complete 'Arman en Ilva' in sixteen luxury landscape format-shaped volumes. 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. In the early 1970s, the cinephile appeared at least eight times on the Dutch TV quiz show 'Voor Een Briefkaart Op De Eerste Rang'. 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 students were such artists as Fred de Heij, Ruud Bruijn, Juliette de WitPhilip Hopman, Magda van Tilburg 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 Thé Tjong-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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