Cambodian comic books, though uncommon today, had a “golden age” in the 1960s and 1970s and a revival during the Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s, providing an outlet for artists and writers to address social issues in a popular art form.
“Most of my comics are lost. I found some in markets, but the name was changed. They were my comics, but without my name,” said Uth Roeun, who published about 30 comics from 1960-65 and began again in the early 1980s.
“Now I wait for copyright applications,” he said. But, he added: “I am not angry, because what’s important is that everyone can read them.”
The most popular genres are folk tales, romance and adventure, illustrated in great detail that is often lost over generations of copying and reprinting with imperfect equipment and cheap tan-grey newsprint.
The brightly colored covers are sometimes printed on the backs of used sheets of more expensive white paper; one copy of a romance comic is ironically printed on the back of a divorce agreement, thumb prints and all.
Although Cambodia adopted a copyright law last year in anticipation of its membership to the World Trade Organization, comics, like compact discs and other media, compete with bootleg copies in a market with little enforcement of the law.
“Basically, the copyright rests with whoever has the best original copy,” said John Weeks, curator of “Comics of Cambodia,” an exhibition at the French Cultural Center through early November. “Many of the comics today are reprints from the 80s or even before.”
When Cambodian comics began to first emerge in the 1960s, they took a lot of aesthetic inspiration from French comics, which were popular because French was a required subject in school, according to Alain Daniel, who taught Khmer language and literature at the National Institute of Oriental Language and Civilization in Paris.
The stories, however, define the comics as distinctly Cambodian.
Uth Roeun drew a series of comics based on “Thoun Chey,” a folk tale about a clever peasant boy who outsmarts the king.
“One of the first things they did in the 1980s was to reissue ‘Thoun Chey,’ because it was against the king,” Weeks said. “It’s very anti-authoritarian for Khmer culture.”
However, comic books in Cambodia, like those in the West, are rarely political, Weeks said.
Although both of the expatriate Cambodian artists in the exhibition addressed the Khmer Rouge period, artists here refer to it obliquely if at all.
“People are more interested in attacking customs,” he said. “It’s not done with [super hero] capes and tights, it’s done in different genres in different ways.”
“When people started publishing in the 80s, what was the safe thing to do? Romance,” Weeks said.
But, he said, “I would [pit] these romance comics against the X-Men in terms of challenging social order.”
Under communism, when authors were often credited as “comrade” and everything published had to pass through the Ministry of Culture, “The censors were more interested in novels than comics,” Daniel said.
Sin Yang Phirum, one of only a few female Cambodian comic artists, wrote and illustrated a series of comics from 1985 to 1992.
“I like to criticize,” she said. “In my comics, I liked to talk about women and social issues.”
She gave two examples, both involving a poor woman marrying a rich man.
One comic encouraged self reliance rather than dependence through a story of a husband mistreating his wife after taking another woman.
In the other comic, a young wife discovers she has different values from her husband when he leaves her to become a monk.
Sin Yang Phirum said that comic conveyed the message that there are values other than true love: Family, friends and work.
However, she stopped publishing in 1992 to sell cooked rice and make money for her family.
“A professional comic artist in Cambodia? I haven’t met one,” Weeks said. “Many of them have ministry jobs and moonlight…. Some are from the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Urban Planning.”
Uth Roeun said he worked at the Ministry of Education before retiring, including some work illustrating school books.
Em Satya’s name appears on many comic books from the late 1980s, but he is perhaps better known as “Nono,” the pseudonym under which he drew caricatures and political cartoons for newspapers in the 1990s. Since he lost the use of his right arm in 2001 due to illness, he has learned to draw with his left hand and supports his family as an illustrator.
“The [literacy] level of the Cambodians is not high enough for there to be as many comics or books as before,” Daniel said. “Just after the war, the quality could not be as good as it used to be [because] most of the artists had been killed.”
However, Daniel added, comics flourished during the Heng Samrin period in the 1980s before the arrival of video.
According to Weeks: “Once the videos and everything else started coming in, the comics started drying up.”
Uth Roeun disagreed: “I don’t think videos and cinema take away from the comic market. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a lot of good cinema,” he said. He added that he was inspired by the films of that period.
Weeks said that the best-paying jobs for comic artists today are coming from the NGO sector.
Educational com-ics about AIDS and other social ills are published as a tool to reach Cambodians of all ages.
“Some NGOs use the way of the comic to make ideas widely spread in the population, so of course these comics are more [foreign] than Cambodian,” Daniel said.
“They cannot be considered a part of this popular art.”
The current exhibition features images from a comic about a young girl lured into the home of a foreign pedophile, which was produced by the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center.
“It is controversial,” Weeks said. “All of the bad guys in that particular comic are foreigners.”
However, most comic books aren’t tragedies: “The modern stories give a very good idea of what Cambodians would like…a kind of idealistic image of society,” Daniel said.
Problems in the world of Cambodian comics were addressed at an Oct 23 conference that brought together both artists and representatives of publishers and other organizations.
They discussed plans for archiving, reforming publishing and copyright issues, and founding an organization to revive the art form.
“Artists today are sitting on their comics because they’re afraid they’re going to get bootlegged and copied,” Weeks said. “Cambodia is full of stories. It would be great to see these stories celebrated more.”