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Pages from The Year of the Hare by Chan Veasna. Photo supplied

When a drawing is worth a thousand words

Graphic novels and comic strips are increasingly used for commentary on Cambodian society, and as a medium to address the trauma of the past.

After living in Cambodia on and off for nearly a decade, American writer and cultural critic Anne Elizabeth Moore had so much to say about the country that she wrote three books.

Her latest work, Threadbare, draws links between the international sex trade, human trafficking and Cambodia’s garment industry, demonstrating how the women making the clothes are connected with the ones buying and selling them.

“These issues that I’m trying to talk about aren’t just about freedom of choice and the ability to work and earn a living, which are very important,” Moore says. “But it’s about how we’ve turned several different sectors of industry into abusive environments for half the population of the world, which [also] talks about the way capitalism works fundamentally.”

While the connections between these broad issues may not be immediately apparent, Moore uses a medium that allows her to tie together their complex components: the graphic novel.

“The lucky thing about comics is that it doesn’t have to be just words. It doesn’t have to be me trying to stir you to understand that this is important,” Moore says. “To make you grasp the larger picture of these several different, really difficult-to-parse situations, you can just see them.”

Moore used the same technique for her previous books New Girl Law and Cambodian Grrl, which were inspired by her time living in a college dormitory with young women from rural areas in Cambodia.

Moore’s books are three of a handful of graphic novels helping to explain the complexities of Cambodia’s past and present. According to Huot Socheata, a publisher with the NGO Sipar, which began publishing graphic novels in Cambodia several years ago, the trend is a modern revival of a style that was popular in the Kingdom in previous decades.

“The graphic novel existed in Cambodia in the 1980s,” Socheata says. “It was very, very popular. It disappeared for a while, but now there is a renewed interest.”

One of the original artists was Pol Saroeun, whose illustrations depicted the heroics of local nobility. In the years since, artists Chea Serey Roth and Nuong Sakal have produced abstract wordless narratives that resemble graphic novels.

But like Moore’s work, the most recent iterations are more social commentary than entertainment.

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A collection of characters by Tian Veasna-Sothik. Photo supplied

Books such as The Year of the Hare and Bitter Cucumbers, both of which describe life under the Khmer Rouge from the perspective of a child, help unpack the experiences of fear, flight and exile.

Ing Phousera, or Sera for short, published Bitter Cucumbers in 2015, after producing his debut graphic novel, Water and Earth, eight years earlier. The latter is considered the first graphic novel to cover the history of the Khmer Rouge.

Several years later, American illustrator Eric Pape published a graphic novel that explores the plight of Cambodian women attacked and disfigured with acid.

French-Khmer artist Chan Veasna, who fled Cambodia with his family at the age of 5, authored three volumes of The Year of the Hare. The first was published by Sipar in 2015, and the second will be made available on May 20, coinciding with the Day of Remembrance that commemorates the excesses of the Khmer Rouge. The final volume will be released at the end of this year, in time for Cambodia’s sixth annual book fair.

And Nicolas Wild, a French artist-in-residence at Phnom Penh’s French Institute, is now working on a graphic novel that describes the rapid development of Cambodia’s capital, which he hopes to finish in June.

For Wild, images allow audiences to understand a story on an emotional level.

“Words allow a deeper intellectual and philosophical description of the world. But maybe image can carry on more emotions and sensibility,” Wild says. “I know drawings soften the brutality of situations. You address to the child still present in the reader’s mind.”

Jim Gerrand, an Australian film producer whose work focuses on Cambodia, says the late Khmer cartoonist Un Bunheang, also known as Sacrava, was the first artist to create a market for political and socially-oriented artwork in Cambodia. Sacrava worked as a cartoonist in the 1970s before the Khmer Rouge, but his work became increasingly political in the decades after the regime’s fall.

“Bunheang was kind of a pioneer in this. His cartoons were a record of life,” says Gerrand.

According to Socheata, many non-profits in the Kingdom have recently started using graphic novels for their educational and promotional materials, realising that messages are often easier to share through images.

Sipar itself formed as a non-profit serving refugee camps in the 1980s. After the camps closed, the organisation began setting up libraries across the Kingdom. There are now over 300 libraries in Cambodia carrying Sipar’s books, including the newest graphic novels.

While most of the buyers are still libraries and schools, Socheata says interest in graphic novels is growing among Cambodia’s public. The Year of the Hare sold well at a recent book fair, and Socheata says she’s convinced the market will continue to grow.

“You can tell a lot of things with graphic novels,” she says. “We hope there will be more.”

The Year of the Hare ($6) can be purchased at Sipar’s office in Phnom Penh and on Sipar’s Facebook page, the Tuol Sleng Museum, and in Phnom Penh bookstores such as Open Book Shop and Carnets d’Asie. The French Institute will host the presentation of another graphic novel illustrated by Veasna about childhood during the Khmer Rouge on Tuesday at 6pm.

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