At markets in Phnom Penh stalls are piled high with comic books – all reproduced without royalty or acknowledgement to the artists.
It's a scenario that is killing Cambodia’s comic book industry, according to new resarch.
The talented but embattled group artists are the focus of a new study by two British researchers who are campaigning for greater copyright protection for the artists.
Jason Dittmer (University College London) and Katheine Brickell (Royal Holloway, University of London) interviewed comic book artists in the country and identified an urgent need to enforce copyright to stop the art form dying out and preserve “the artistic national heritage of Cambodia”.
The comic books found in the markets, they say, are unauthorised re-publications of past works that flood the market with cheap product. They benefit only the pirates who publish them, and contribute to the demise of the industry.
“These artists possess knowledge of uniquely Cambodian ways of representing Cambodian bodies, landscapes, and culture.”
The craft takes years to perfect and artists are highly trained. Some have been educated at the Royal University of Fine Arts or at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, while others are self-trained, having taught themselves to emulate and build on past work.
But researchers say that the art form is suffering fom a “blood-letting of talent” as new artists fail to replace the current crop due to piracy.
“There is no incentive for artists to create new works, as they will be quickly appropriated by the pirates who do not compensate the artist for her or his time, training, and imagination. Why would anyone make a new creative work in this situation?”
“The current situation regarding copyright law risks the permanent loss of this important artistic heritage," they said.
Cambodian law passed in 2003 states that people who sell pirated goods can be fined up to 20 million riel ($5000) and spend up to five years in prison.
But it could be another five years before the legislation takes effect, as this year the government will ask for a five year extension from the World Trade Organization on enforcement.
The industry is partly propped up by NGOs in Phnom Penh that use comics to educate young people, but Dittmer and Brickell fear what will happen if the art form falls out of vogue among their patrons.
The researchers say that dwindling interest in the art form is also partly due to the influence of Western film and television in the region.
“Over time the ability to tell Cambodian stories, with Cambodian art, will disappear as a new generation of artists fails to replace this one.
“Whether through the telling of ancient tales from Cambodian history or through stories of contemporary social and political relevance to Cambodia such as gender relations, these artists see themselves as occupying a niche that will otherwise go unfilled by foreign media imports.”
Dittmer, a political geographer, and his research partner Brickell interviewed artists from Paññasstra University and the staff at Our Books, an organisation dedicated to preserving Cambodian comic book culture.
Dittmer said: “What has been fascinating for us has been to unearth all the layers and dynamics that come clear when you tug at the strings of Cambodian comics a little bit.
"You have inter-generational tensions, the rupture of the Khmer Rouge period, and various transnational influences, such as French bandes dessinnes, Japanese manga, and the educational style preferred by the NGOs who are a major source of funding here."
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org