Comic books as an industry exist for over a century. From cheap booklets sold for few cents in 1930s, they evolved into a huge entertainment hegemons like DC Comics, Marvel in USA or 2000 AD and Dargaud in Europe. The industry lives on, thanks to many talented artists and writers. For example, Jack Kirby who almost saved the whole genre in 1960s by providing new unique drawing and narration style that changed the whole industry which was stagnant for two decades.
But it wouldn’t even endure without people who were not only artists but for most important publishers and PR Managers. People like famous Stan Lee, who can be overrated as a comic writer and creator, but for sure he was the ‘face of industry’ and biggest graphic novel popularizator in the history.
Each country where comic books were present had or have people like this. Cambodia is not an exception.
In the Kingdom this genre became present in 1960s, on the same time when Kirby and Lee were revolutionizing the whole industry. This is when a young artist named Uth Roeun decided to publish his first story.
Born 1944, Uth Roeun is a key figure in the “golden age” of Cambodian comics. His interest in comic books started in a secondary school, when his art teacher, Madame Greck, introduced him to French comics, so called bandes dessinées, (common term for Franco-Belgian comics). Roeun decided to create his own stories with similar style but inspired by Khmer folklore. In 1964 he published his first story Neytung Neysang. Comic was sold in 20.000 copies and it’s considered the first Cambodian comic book. The story was based on the adventures of two teenage friends. Roeun created both story and art.
Same year he published the second book Preah Thoung Neang Neak. This time he took up the matter of tolerance towards Muslims. This controversial publication drew authority’s attention. Uth was arrested for one day, but after this happening he quit school to devote himself to create graphic novels. His success inspired other young artists to release their own comics. Graphic novels and illustrated pulp stories like Stormy Mind of a Young Girl by Penn Vanthun and Mr Soy Visits Heaven by Chuon Ra are one of the most famous.
Uth became an artist recognised in whole country and worked on comics until Khmer Rouge, when the regime hired him to draw construction plans for the government.
The government said you are an artist, then you must draw. There was no money paid, just food given. I drew pictures for the Khmer Rouge. If they were building a dam, I did the drawing of it. My fingers were red from exerting myself while drawing for the Pol Pot regime. […] I served by drawing soldiers, Khmer Rouge plans. I was too skinny to work in the rice fields; I was very thin and could not do hard, physical work. Said Roeun in the interview with John A. Lent, the author of Southeast Asian Cartoon Art: History, Trends and Problems
Many of his works were lost during the regime and we will never get a chance to read them again.
He came back to industry in 1980s with Torn Chey (1985) – a story of trickster boy who outwits the king. In 1986 Uth published Tum Teva, adaptation of classic romance (considered a Cambodian Romeo and Juliet) and New Life in Kampong, the story of a Cambodian soldier. Those three books were financed by the Ministry of Culture, but unfortunately, the Cambodian comic book market started to wane in this time.
Comics lost their popularity for television. Another significant reason was a piracy and plagiarism. Many pre-regime stories were reprinted or even redrawn by unauthorised publishers and distributed without any royalties for original authors. The market collapsed in 1990s. Many artists decided to leave the industry and Uth Roeun took up a position at the Ministry of Culture. In 2001 he founded The Association of Cambodian Artist Friends, based near Wat Phnom. It’s very important to remind that Roeun was also a teacher to other significant artists, like Sim Yang Pirhom, one of few women of industry.
In the beginning of 2000s Cambodian comic art caught an eye of an Australian artist named John Weeks. Weeks worked for Dark Horse Comics – American publisher, known from series like Hellboy, Sin City and, for over 20 years, owner of Star Wars comic license.
Weeks, impressed by the variations in style and content began collecting Khmer comics soon after his arrival in Cambodia in 2000. As he often says, the style of Cambodian art is truly unique and related to a long history of telling stories through pictures in the Kingdom. He found out that a lot of publications were illegal reprints and original ones were lost. Six years later he co-founded an NGO organisation called Our Books, dedicated to the preservation and archiving of Khmer comics. John teamed up with younger Cambodian artists to track down the masters of “golden age” of Khmer comics.
As he once said: We just don’t know where most of the artists are. We think that most of them just disappeared when they went onto other work. A lot of the comics we find are cheap copies, some have even been reproduced through tracing. If we want to find the originals and preserve them, we are going to have to find the masters.
Our books promotes the genre in Cambodia also in other ways. One of them is associated with the international challenge called ComicKaze. Phnom Penh’s up-and-coming cartoonists gather to create a 24-page comic in 12 hours. From beginning to an end. The idea is to promote this kind of art and preserve Khmer comic tradition. You can find more about this organization, present publications and active artists on Our books website.
As we explained before, European comic was a main inspiration for the first wave of Cambodian cartoonists. But now we can observe some Khmer influences on European field. Phousera Ing, nicknamed Séra was born 1961 in Phnom Penh from Cambodian-French marriage. Séra is associated with bandes dessinées scene, but he’s known as an author of graphic novel trilogy consecrated to the Khmer Rouge: Impasse et rouge (1995), L’eau et la terre (2005), Lendemains de cendres (2007). Now, Séra is leading a new school of Khmer cartoonists. Although his works are not popular in the Kingdom, Séra is esteemed by European readers and critics.
History of Cambodian comics may not be as rich and long as American, European or Japanese, but for sure is full of passion and determination of all those people who were writing and drawing stories. All thanks to Uth Roeun who lighted the spark back in 1964. 76 years old artist is still creating, even if the comic genre in Cambodia didn’t regain its popularity from “golden age”. With help of people like John Weeks and Séra, Cambodian comics and Khmer influences are still alive and will be preserved for next generations.