Anthropology Magazine

When Anthropology Meets the Graphic Novel in Thailand

When Anthropology Meets the Graphic Novel in Thailand


An anthropologist, comic artist, and translator collaborated to bring the complexities of one human story to life in the English translation of The King of Bangkok.

Excerpted from The King of Bangkok. © 2021 by University of Toronto Press. Reprinted with permission from University of Toronto Press.

The anthropological graphic novel The King of Bangkok tells the story of Nok, a blind man who sells lottery tickets in Bangkok, as he grapples with whether to leave the city for good and head back to his native village in the northeastern Thai province of Isaan.

The book cover of The King of Bangkok features an overhead illustration of a blue building with a curved roof and pillars. Light illuminates the windows and spills out into the dark street.

University of Toronto Press

Alternating between reflections on contemporary Bangkok and flashbacks over the course of his life, the graphic novel reconstructs Nok’s journey through the slums of the Thai capital, the rice fields of Isaan, and the tourist resorts of the southern island of Ko Pha Ngan. Along the way, readers relive major political upheavals that have rocked Thailand for several decades—including the violent red-shirt protests of 2010—from one man’s point of view.

The book is the result of a four-year collaboration between anthropologist Claudio Sopranzetti, visual artist Sara Fabbri, and editor Chiara Natalucci. Based on a decade of ethnographic and archival research conducted by Sopranzetti, The King of Bangkok weaves together insights on urban migration, the struggle to maintain relationships with distant families in the countryside, and the sometimes harmful impacts of economic development on workers. Ultimately, it is a story about political awakenings in contemporary Thailand and how the waves of historical changes crash into, engulf, or lift ordinary people.

The following pages come from the beginning of the second chapter, in which Nok reflects on how losing his sight has changed his perception of Bangkok and pushed him to look elsewhere for survival.

Claudio Sopranzetti

A large panel shows a black-and-white illustration of a man holding an open suitcase with tickets inside, surrounded by colored panels and other people selling goods on a city street. Above the panel, a text box reads: “Ever since my vision went black, the city has lost its attraction. It used to be filled with objects and people. Now I move about in a blank space, washed over by waves of sound that bounce off the concrete …” Below the large panel, three smaller panels show brightly colored illustrations of hands preparing food. Above these, a text box reads: “At times, from the tide, a sound surfaces, shiny.” The illustrations include the onomatopoeia “swish,” “tum,” and “frush.”

Claudio Sopranzetti, Sara Fabbri, and Chiara Natalucci

A large panel shows a black-and-white illustration of a man walking with a cane on the sidewalk beside a large profile of his face. A text box in the top right reads: “As I cross the street, an empty space opens in front of me.” Below the large panel, a series of nine smaller panels show black-and-white illustrations of the man crossing the street as cars pass close by. In between panels, the following text is interspersed: “I leap into it. I imagine the drivers annoyed by my slowness. Time is money in Bangkok, and there’s nothing more important than money here.”

Claudio Sopranzetti, Sara Fabbri, and Chiara Natalucci

Three small panels show black-and-white illustrations of arrows pointing up a flight of stairs, a person walking upstairs, and a hand holding a railing. The text below these reads, “When I finally reach the stairs, I feel safe. People who can see think the stairs must be difficult for me. But there’s always a handrail or a wall to lean on.” Below the three small panels, a large panel shows a black-and-white illustration of the man walking up the stairs next to colored panels and other pedestrians. Above the large panel, a text box reads: “They’re much harder for the vendor dragging his cart.” The illustration includes a conversation in text bubbles: The blind man asks a vendor pulling a cart, “Do you want a lottery ticket?” The vendor replies, “No, thanks.” The vendor then asks, “Will you be OK alone?” The blind man replies, “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

Claudio Sopranzetti, Sara Fabbri, and Chiara Natalucci

A large panel shows a black, white, and red illustration of a bridge with water below. A text bubble in the top left reads: “On the bridge, the wind catches me. It’s a fetid breeze that crawls over the river and carries the roar of boats and the smell of rotting trash.” Another text box in the bottom right reads, “It comes crashing from every direction. I am defenseless.”

Claudio Sopranzetti, Sara Fabbri, and Chiara Natalucci

A large panel shows a black, white, and red illustration of a bridge with water below. A text box in the bottom right reads, “It comes crashing from every direction. I am defenseless.”

Claudio Sopranzetti, Sara Fabbri, and Chiara Natalucci

Three small panels show illustrations of a man’s face and shoulders in black and white, surrounded with colored panels. Below, text boxes read: “Before, I could just close my eyes and the city would leave me alone. Now I can’t stop its sounds or its smells. I just want to be able to turn them off.” Below the small panels, a large panel shows an illustration of the man with a walking stick at the top of stairs at the front of a building. He’s surrounded by colored panels and people, with words and snippets of conversation in different languages floating in the air. At the bottom, a text box reads: “I’m desperate for some silence.”

Claudio Sopranzetti, Sara Fabbri, and Chiara Natalucci