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Matt Ames marvels at the lasting legacy of Khmer comics

By: EAS Staff Posted: December-21-2010 in
EAS Staff

After marching around the broad streets of Phnom Penh for the better part of a morning, without any real goal in mind, I decided to have a look inside a Western-style store called Pencil. There in the book section I stumbled across a handful of colorful, eye-catching pamphlets, which quickly revealed themselves as the gorgeous works of art that are Khmer comics.

When I first laid eyes on the comic books of Cambodia, I knew I was in love. They revealed primary colors, epic violence, monsters, and a sense of graphic design that was both crude and creative. Most were written in Khmer, but that didn't matter. Their images of love, war, and mythical beasts-with Khmer script typeset in a bold 3-D format-were amazing. One of the comics I found that day, The Fallen Areca Flower, was written in English, its stilted, charmingly broken text bubbles telling the story of young lovers kept apart by a meddling relative.

That night back at my guesthouse, I decided upon a mission. To find more Khmer comics. The next morning I took a tuk-tuk to the Russian Market and began my search there. Later on, after much maneuvering among stalls in the day's heat, I uncovered the mother lode at the Psar O'Russei market. On the second floor, in the book section against the far wall, a female vendor had a shelf chock-full of comics. She must have had over fifty different titles, including some two-part series.

At first, she and her friends seemed a little surprised by me, possibly because the Psar O'Russei is the least touristy of the city's markets and sees relatively few foreigners. Even more perplexing, I was interested in reading material I couldn't read. Recognizing a serious shopper when she saw one, however, she pulled out a plastic stool so I could sit and peruse my newfound obsession.

Her collection yielded many wonderful surprises. I found comics with men riding dragons, naked giants hovering over villages, warriors losing arms in battles, zombie women menacing terrified lovers, apsaras floating over ponds, and kings and queens coping with indiscernible yet ominous challenges to their leadership. A few even contained stills from old Cambodian movies, arranged in story format, starring Kong Som Eun, a male heartthrob of the 1960s and '70s.

Throughout the rest of my travels, I occasionally shared my new comic collection with Cambodians as a fun way to break the ice. Outside of Phnom Penh, people were surprised and asked where I'd bought them. A teacher in Sen Monorom even translated Boxing District for me, the tale of a champion boxer who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd. In Battambang, the older monks seemed to think they were trashy, while the younger monks gobbled up the colorful soap operas.

Somewhere along the way, I realized how amazing these comics really were, beyond their immediate visual impact. Somehow, the printing plates for many of these books had survived the Khmer Rouge era, escaping cultural destruction to see resurrection as cheap pop entertainment. In a country that lost so much of its heritage, this one legacy at least had survived.

Fact File: Khmer comic books
You can start your own Khmer comic book collection by visiting Pencil Super Center on Street 214 in Phnom Penh. The Russian Market, known to all motodops and tuk-tuk drivers, may yield a few treasures, as will the equally well-known O'Russei Market. Comic books can also be found at some of the stationery bookshops, such as Peace Book Center.

This excerpt from To Cambodia With Love comes from Matt Ames, who resides in the United States and studies data visualization, works on art projects, makes music and writes and directs short films. For TCWL he took a look at Khmer comics.

Excerpted from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

Click to read Gabi Yetter's review of TCWL


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