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A portrait of the artist

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Images from Patrick Samnang Mey's graphic novel Eugénie

A shrink would probably enjoy probing the darker corners of Patrick Samnang Mey’s mind.

Decay, debauchery and divorce loom large in the black and white A3-size illustrations pinned neatly to the artist’s wall – the storyboard for his three-part graphic novel.

Living in Cambodia was the catalyst for Mey to self-publish his first instalment in Phnom Penh. Called Eugénie, the story is inspired by Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

This tells of a young man whose portrait ages mysteriously while he remains forever young, mourning his cast-aside lover Sybille and exploring the darker corners of hedonistic pleasure by indulging in drink and drugs.

“My central character is called Orian, in a reference to Dorian Gray,” says Mey, an engagingly earnest 31-year-old who grew up in France to Sino-Cambodian parents.

“The story begins with his divorce, so he starts out a nice guy who starts to question his moral qualities. As the graphic novel opens, the style is quite bright but as the story gets darker, it begins to reflect Orian’s change from being an idealistic young lover,” he explains.

“The story starts in France with Orian seemingly struggling to forget his former wife Eugénie, a Sino-French Shanghainese girl whom he met while in high school.

“Taking his best friend’s advice, he follows Oscar Wilde’s motto (‘a happy man is always good, but a good man is not always happy’) and tries to start life anew by giving up his old moral values.

He then yields to a life of pleasure, hoping it will help him to forget his past.

“But as he sinks into moral degeneration, his childhood memories and his happiness with Eugénie become more and more oppressing,” says Mey.

Several of his frames use watercolour to depict Orian’s dreams when he remembers his ex-wife Eugénie, lightening the lines and palette.

It’s clear that Mey is an accomplished illustrator, with many of his compositions paying homage to artists such as Gustav Klimt and Japanese manga icon Jiro Taniguchi who worked on Quartier Lointain.

He cites other influences such as Art Spiegelman of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale – the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer Prize.

Telling the story of Spiegelman’s father, a Polish Jew who survived the holocaust, the book depicts Jews as mice and Germans as cats.

Japanese artists Masami Kurumada and Shingo Araki also inflamed his passion for drawing with their work on Saint Seiya, a manga series following five mystical warriors against a background of Greek myths and legends.

Look closely at his own drawings and you’ll see a familiar pose here, or paintings on a wall displaying the imprint of Mey’s artistic heroes. The Greek myth of Orpheus and his love for Eurydice also forms part of his dark vision in Eugénie – in contrast to Mey’s warmth in person.

His face becomes animated as he shows the care in drafting the storyboard for all three parts.

“Look, here’s the bar in Lille where they meet,” he says, showing a photograph on his laptop, then bringing up the image he later drew for his novel.

“And here, this kiss has the same composition as Klimt’s painting The Kiss – my work is in tribute to the cartoonists, artists and novelists who inspired me.”

The book has taken about six years of work, Mey estimates.

Each page takes between 10 and 20 hours to draw.

Mey explains how the book came to fruition.

“Last year I came across my very first watercolour of Eugénie.

The vividness of the main colours – blue, green and yellow – could barely hide the technical flaws and the immaturity of the stroke.

At the bottom left, near my signature, the year of execution could be read: 2005.

“I could still see myself as a student. Sitting on the floor of my little studio in Lille, a pencil in my hand, I was writing down the broad outlines of what was to become my first graphic novel.

“My various memories then flooded my mind: the purring of a train in Thailand, a morning in my bedroom in Réunion Island, an afternoon lying on a deckchair in Sihanoukville, my sleepless nights in Shanghai….

“For about five years, any time, anywhere, every single relevant idea [the scenes, the framing, the light, the dialogue] were memorised, gathered and finally organised into a storyboard.”

During that time, Mey has lived and worked as a teacher in several countries, including China, England, Réunion Island and now Cambodia.

After teaching English at Lycée René Descartes in Phnom Penh, he decided to quit the day job and live on his savings for two years while finishing work full-time on Eugénie.

“If I keep drawing like a crazy person, I might finish by Christmas this year,” says Mey.

“Last Christmas, I was drawing all day and updating the website – I’ve hardly seen any of my friends. But I hope to release the second volume in September, if all goes well.”

Mey is launching the first instalment of his 270-page magnum opus with an exhibition of his work at Meta House on February 18.

He says that next he’s hoping to translate the graphic novel into English.

Having printed just 500 copies, Mey hopes to sell them at $12 during the launch period.

“It’s definitely not a money-making venture,” he smiles.

“But I wanted to keep the price affordable. This should just cover the printing costs.”

The book symbolises the fulfilment of a youthful dream, he says.

“Which, in a twist of fate, happens in this little Southeast Asian country where my parents were born and raised – Cambodia.”

Despite similarities between the central character of Orian and the artist, Mey insists the book is not entirely autobiographical, while conceding that his parents’ divorce did impact his life.

In volume one, Orian recalls his holidays in Cambodia while in volume three, he travels again to the Kingdom.

Several of these frames will be seen at the Meta House exhibition, along with several drawings and paintings from chapter two and four, showing Orian and Eugénie and scenes in Cambodia.

The exhibition and book launch take place on Friday February 18 at Meta House.

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