Cambodian Comics

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Cambodian Comics

By Justin Hall, originally published in Punk Planet #78 / March and April 2007

Cambodia is full of wonderful stories—some of them told best through comics. Unfortunately, it is a waning artistic tradition, crushed by the current realities of the marketplace even after surviving decades of war and censorship.

I sat in an open-air restaurant, hunched over my amok, a national dish of steamed, curried fish and served here in an open coconut, as the sounds and smells of Phnom Penh rampaged about me. I mopped at my face sweating in the midday heat, and thumbed through my small stack of Khmer (Cambodian language) comic books splayed out in front of me. The comics, mostly drawn several decades before, had been ripped off, copied, and resold, with no money going back to the original artist or publisher, evidence of the lack of copyright protection in one of the most corrupt and lawless countries in the world.

Being both a cartoonist and a compulsive traveler, I’ve wandered the globe looking for comics scenes. Rarely have I run into a wealth of comics art like that which exists in Cambodia. I had expected more of an influence from Japan and China, but Khmer comics were clearly inspired by French and perhaps Indian and American artists, with an emphasis on realistic figures, cross-hatching, and a large amount of text. Unlike their influences, however, Khmer artists rarely use panel borders (with only two or three panels per page created in such instances), instead breaking apart the page with the use of collaged images and dialogue balloons.

Clearly, the French colonial occupation had dropped a Western art form into a culture already rich with its own tales and storytelling techniques, a culture which quickly made the form its own. I was, in fact, wearing a symbol of this very process, a Tintin T-shirt depicting the intrepid reporter on the back of a Cambodian tricycle taxi (or “cyclo”), captioned “Tintin au Cambodge” (“Tintin in Cambodia”). Hergé never wrote a Tintin story set in Cambodia, and I’m sure his publisher never received a single franc from the guerilla T-shirt designer for the use of the character, but there I was wearing it.

I had picked up my pile of comic books at one of the many small, street-side shacks selling newspapers, foreign magazines, and sweets. Almost all of them had Khmer comics for sale as well, made from folded-over pieces of cheap, newsprint paper with full-color covers printed on the backs of higher-quality, recycled typing paper. And by recycled I do mean previously used: on the inside of one of the horror comics was an employee’s letter of recommendation from the US Trade Representative, and I’ve even heard of the cover of a romance comic unwittingly printed on the back of, ironically enough, a divorce agreement, complete with thumbprints (Plaut, p 1).

The method of this artistic theft was particularly amusing to me. Every one of the pages in these comics was hand silk-screened. In the States, where machines are plentiful and labor and time are valuable, simply having a hand-silk-screened cover on a minicomic (a self-made, zine-style comic book) makes it worth more. Americans find the extra time and effort of the creator intrinsic in handcrafted art to be an added bonus, and a point of sale. In Cambodia, as in the entire developing world, the opposite is true. Labor and time are plentiful and cheap, while machines and their products are valuable, making a book printed on an offset machine worth more than a book printed entirely by hand. Handmade comics aren’t objects of art; they’re simply the standard format. In Cambodia, even the photocopier, the ultimate tool of the zine and minicomics creator in the States, isn’t DIY at all, but just one more expensive machine.

The lavishly illustrated comics I was devouring along with my meal were a lesson in contrast to the frantic bustle of the street scene in front of me; for the most part they represented a more idealized Cambodia, often in the historical past or less urban places where traditional life continued. Most were either romance comics or retellings of folktales and legends.

Of course there was still plenty of drama in the stories; subjects ranged from a were tiger woman hiding her true identity from an unsuspecting village, to a wife who must learn self-reliance after being left by her husband to become a Buddhist monk, to a clever peasant boy who outwits a king. Although modern dramas were also represented they were noticeably apolitical, despite Cambodia’s—one of the modern world’s most turbulent and blood-soaked political landscapes—recent history of death camps, foreign occupation, and bombings. This is not exactly surprising, considering that everything smacking of artistic expression was brutally crushed during the Khmer Rouge period, and the censors of the Vietnamese regime installed for a time afterwards took a dim view of political art that did not fit within party guidelines.

The current danger to this artistic legacy of Cambodian comics is perhaps even more insidious than war or censorship, however. Virtually all of the comics sold in the shops now are illegal reprints of work published from the mid 1980’s to mid 1990’s, (as well as a few from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the Khmer Rouge took control), when there was a great demand for local stories as the country recovered socially and economically from the bloody horror of the Khmer Rouge regime, and before movies and video games began to enter the market, resulting in the decline of Khmer written material such as comics in the largely-illiterate country. The artists and publishers of the original material receive nothing from the current sales of their work, though they never made much from the initial ones either. Many printed and distributed their comics themselves, and when sales were not good, would sell their original art for cash to a “middleman,” therefore somewhat accidentally giving up their copyrights. But many other comics have been reprinted without permission as well.

Uth Roeun, one of the most respected Cambodian cartoonists and the creator of about 30 comics from 1960-1965 and then later in the 1980’s, noted in a recent interview that he had found his comics reprinted, but with his name taken off. “Most of my comics are lost. I found some in markets, but the name was changed. They were my comics, but without my name” (Plaut, p 2).

This lack of copyright protection even carries over into foreign comics coming into the country. I visited a large, friendly, Wisconsin man who owns Fantastic Planet, the only comic-book store in Phnom Penh (which only has a small section devoted to Khmer comics). He had filled the majority of his store with his old collection of American comics from when he was a kid, which he sold to the Westerners in his largely expat neighborhood. He also, however, had hand-photocopied and bound reprints of new American comics and books that had fallen into his hands, selling on demand. He had a particular fondness for the works of Brian Wood, a Bay Area, independent comics writer. When I told him that I was a cartoonist myself and knew Brian, he blushed deeply and handed me an US$20 bill. “Tell him I’m sorry about ripping off his comics,” he told me, “and that this should cover some of what I’ve made off them.”

I handed the bill back to the owner, and told him that Brian probably didn’t care so much, and that better would be for me to tell him that he had a fan and a free place to crash in Phnom Penh anytime he wanted to come.

The copyright problem is no longer a legal one. In anticipation of membership to the World Trade Organization, a Trademark Law entered into force in Cambodia in February 2002. Before this came into effect, there was no civil law on intellectual property protection, and so trademark and copyright issues were governed primarily by practices, ministerial announcement, and by referencing provisions in other laws. This is perhaps due to Cambodian politics; copyright law is a decidedly capitalist preoccupation, and so the socialist Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos) were much slower to embrace such legal reforms than their capitalist neighbors.

There remains, however, the bigger problem of implementation. Bootlegged comic books, alongside illegal CDs, DVDs, books, and other media, still dominate the marketplaces of Cambodia, as in other developing nations with little law enforcement, pushing out opportunities for legally produced material that would carry a higher cover price. In a country of limited resources, a high crime rate, and endemic corruption, the enforcement of copyright protection is a low priority. It also requires political will, which has been more interested in economic development and regional security, though that is changing as investors and trading partners seek access to an opening market in Cambodia.

When I left the restaurant, traffic swarmed in front of me. Cars barreled through the choked streets, pushing past bicycles and tall, stately tricycle taxis, and fighting for position with the real ruler of the Phnom Penh roads, the motorbike. There were throngs of the latter, carrying everything from frantic businessmen, to five-person families, to a butcher with three, large, live hogs tied to the back of the seat. There were also motorbike taxis (called “motodops”), which were often quite aggressive with foreigners.

I brushed aside several of the more persistent motodops, explaining that I didn’t need a ride, but was waiting for a friend. Luckily he did finally arrive, just as my patience (the single most important virtue while traveling in Cambodia) was wearing thin.

John Weeks hopped off his motorbike, parked it, and made a beeline for me. I wasn’t that hard to spot; a Caucasian giant in Cambodia. John, while also a white guy, was closer to Cambodian size, with a wiry frame, big eyes, and an infectious smile.

Weeks grew up in Southern California, and was an avid comic book fan and creator from early on. In college he was introduced to Cambodian culture, which led to an MA in Asian Studies in Melbourne, giving him the chance to learn the Khmer language as well as participate in Australia’s thriving DIY comics scene. He eventually moved to Cambodia for a position at an academic research center in Siem Reap, the town nearest to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s spectacular Hindu/Buddhist ruins and largest tourist attraction. Then, in 2003, he relocated to Phnom Penh to delve into the publishing world.

“I see you’ve got a copy of an Em Satya book,” he said to me after the exchange of greetings. “He’s amazing.”

“Yeah, his work looks a lot like pre-code American comics from the 1940’s and 1950’s . . . ”

“I actually was planning on taking you to go see Satya. He lives nearby and is a friend of mine. He was part of the “Comics of Cambodia” exhibition I curated at the French Cultural Center,” Weeks told me. We hopped on his bike, and plunged into the flow (there is one if you know how to look) of traffic. I held on a bit too tightly, and tried to continue our small talk through clenched teeth.

Em Satya was one of a number of cartoonists who came to prominence in the socialist 1980’s, when Cambodia was controlled by its neighbor Vietnam and artists were often referred to as “comrades.” Fortunately, the Ministry of Culture censors were more interested in novels than comic books, and this was quite a prolific time for Khmer cartoonists. Satya himself produced a number of books then, and became well respected for his storytelling ability and the quality of his line work. He also achieved fame as the editorial cartoonist “Nono” during the 1990’s in the newspaper Cambodge Soir.

After a harrowing 15 minutes, we arrived at Satya’s home, a ramshackle wooden structure in a poor neighborhood of the capital. We entered, and I met Satya’s wife, son, and finally the artist himself. He was a small, quiet man that radiated a sense of poise, especially when he took his seat back behind his drawing table and picked up his brush.

“Em Satya lost the use of his right arm after a stroke in 2001.” Weeks described the slow and meticulous way that the artist went about his craft. “He had to learn how to paint all over again with his left hand.” Satya applied his lines with painstaking deliberation, but the image on the paper, that of a young woman in traditional dress, was more extraordinary than even the artwork I had seen in his comics.

“He obviously regained his skills, but the extra time it takes him makes it harder for him to make his living as an illustrator,” said my friend.

“Did he ever make much money making comic books back in the day?” I asked.

“No,” replied Weeks, “almost none of them did. Most cartoonists had a day job, maybe as an art teacher, an architect, or a portrait painter, and would do comics on the side. Sin Yang Pirom, one of the few women artists, gave up drawing comics for a more stable job selling noodles in the market to feed her growing family. Now, with the problem of bootleggers, local cartoonists don’t even see a point in attempting to publish.”

After my friend explained in Khmer what we were talking about, Satya got up and pulled out a manuscript from a heavy, wooden box in the clutter behind his desk. He showed me some of the pages, clearly done in his old style from before the stroke.

“He began this book back in 1988.” Weeks translated for Satya. “It’s a graphic novel almost a hundred pages long, and needs about fifteen more pages drawn by his left hand. He would love to finish it, but he’s sitting on it until the current situation changes. It’s too heartbreaking to put a book out on the market, just to watch it be immediately stolen from under your nose.” He added, “When we did the exhibition, we included an ‘unpublished’ section. We’re finding many artists out there with dusty manuscripts, about all kinds of subjects.”

I thanked Satya for his time, and, after getting him to sign the (illegally printed) comics of his that I had bought, Weeks and I headed out. As I emerged once again into the chaos of the Phnom Penh streets, I realized that I had stumbled across one more of those privileged assumptions I had as a citizen of the developed world. When I create a comic book, I don’t worry about people stealing my stories and destroying my business; I would actually be flattered if someplace like Fantastic Planet decided to photocopy my books and sell them. But that’s because everyone who buys my comics knows that they’re my work, and at least some of that money will come back into my hands.

I touched my Tintin T-shirt, damp from the heat, and thought about all the times I’ve been on the other side of this copyright debate. The very reason I loved this T-shirt was the delightfully subversive quality of a former colony illegally swiping the images of its colonizer. I make minicomics that are parodies of copyrighted characters, and my own boyfriend is now in a legal battle with a French court over his right to parody a Che image. Copyright protection can clearly have a stifling impact on creativity, when used too harshly.

Cambodia, however, showed me the flip side to this, what happens when there is a complete lack of copyright protection and artists have no control over their own material. There are creators who do their art for themselves with no thought of either distributing that work or making money from it, but if a society wants to reap the benefits of art, it must provide protection for its artists. There must be at least the possibility of generating income and garnering recognition as incentives for artists to contribute their part in society. If that doesn’t happen, the result is, as in Cambodia, artists sitting on their material, unable to publish it for fear of theft and hoping for the situation to change. Ultimately, if changes never happen, many artists will never even bother making their work at all.

Sadly, in a country such as Cambodia with such a vibrant artistic tradition and dramatic history, where the people desperately need to be telling their tales to each other and to us abroad, the end result of this lack of protection is a loss of stories for everyone. •

© 2007 Punk Planet | Punk Planet is a project of Independents' Day Media