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Cambodian Comics - ZineWiki - originally published in Punk Planet #78 / March and April 2007 - Justin Hall

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.

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Comics, culture, communication.

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.

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.