Photo by: Kyle Sherer
Patrick Samnang Mey in his comic-covered apartment.
In his apartment in downtown Phnom Penh, artist and writer Patrick Samnang Mey leafs through pages of thick storyboards for his opus Eugenie, a graphic novel about heartbreak and hedonism set in France and Cambodia. For an artist, not to mention one who spends almost every waking hour working at home, his place is surprisingly clean – except for one wall which is covered from floor to ceiling in comic panels.
In February, Patrick released volume one of Eugenie, a story about a Frenchman named Orian who divorces his half-Chinese wife and embarks on a self-destructive phase of soul-searching. Volume two, the middle part of the series, will be launched on Wednesday October 26 at Equinox, and Patrick promises that Orian’s life is about to get seriously bleak.
“Volume one is more about Orian, the main character, focusing on his past. His parents divorcing, his father being an alcoholic, how he met Eugenie. Volume two is about how he is trying to forget Eugenie, and volume three is about how he is trying to get Eugenie back. So we can summarise it in this way: volume one is about the past, volume two is about the present, and volume three is about the future,” he said.
“In volume two he starts trying things he’s never tried before. He’s getting into drugs. He starts to drink, he starts to smoke. He smokes alone, and not necessarily cigarettes. He gets into cocaine and heroin. He’s very lost, and he’s trying to follow some of his friends and do the same as them, but it’s not his sort of thing. Volume one was about morality, his moral codes. Volume two is everything except moral values.”
Patrick has Khmer heritage but was born in France, moving to Cambodia later in life. His conflicted identity inspired the two main characters in the graphic novel: Orian, who is only comfortable in France and won’t even deign to learn a different language; and Eugenie, his ex-wife, who wants to return to her Asian roots. After the couple honeymoons in Cambodia, Eugenie experiences a spiritual awakening that ultimately drives a wedge between the couple.
“Eugenie shares my experience. What she felt when she arrived in Cambodia is what I felt when I came here for the first time,” he said.
“When I came here something was triggered…In my house, my parents had many pictures of Angkor Wat and Apsaras. When I came here, when I saw them for real, it was a bit of a shock. I would hear Cambodian only in my house, but here everyone was speaking Khmer. It was something that I thought was very private in France, but was shared by everyone here. I feel French, but at the same time I feel Cambodian as well.”
While volume two is set in France, where an increasingly wretched Orian tries to drown his sorrows, Cambodian imagery is constant throughout the story.
“When he takes drugs, he has hallucinations about Cambodia. He sees his wife dressed as an apsara dancer.”
The flashbacks and hallucinations allow Patrick to experiment with his drawing style, rendering the present in ink and the past in watercolour. Depending on the mental state of Orian, art switches between soft, detailed scenes and harsh, frenetic strokes.
But while so much of volume two is focused on Orian’s descent, Patrick stresses that not everything in the story is drawn from his personal life.
“There’s a lot of me in the story, but I insist it’s not an autobiography,” he said. “I don’t take drugs; I tried things but I’m not an addict. My father was not an alcoholic. The core is about me, but there are a lot of things I add.”
Patrick said he is constantly incorporating details and impressions of Cambodia, to the point where the country is almost a third character – a member of the love triangle between Orian and Eugenie.
“Here is a scene I originally did not plan to add,” he said, pointing to a storyboard. “A very old man is walking down the street with a very young Khmer woman. A good friend of mine who is Khmer is married to an older man. It’s not prostitution; they are a couple, they have children, and that’s the case in the scene I drew. At first when Eugenie sees them she thinks he’s with a prostitute, but then she sees the child.
"I’m not judging it, I’m not saying it’s bad or good, but it’s a situation you see a lot here. I want to present Cambodia, but I didn’t want to focus on Angkor Wat or the Khmer Rouge because everyone talks about that, and I think Cambodia is much more than that. It’s Eugenie falling in love with the country, talking about Sihanoukville, diving, the islands, the people always smiling. It’s the way I see Cambodia.”
In addition to slice of life shots, and anecdotes from friends, Patrick also draws on two works of literature: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, and the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.
From Dorian Gray, Patrick took the main character’s newly adopted amorality. From the story of Orpheus, Patrick took the concept of doomed love.
“Orpheus, a famous musician, falls in love with Eurydice. Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus tries to forget her for a long time, but doesn’t manage to. So he goes into hell to try to bring her back.”
Patrick includes several shot-to-shot parallels between the story of Orpheus and the journey of Orian in volume two.
“Here’s Orpheus going into a boat, and here’s Orian boarding a plane,” he said. “Orpheus is going to hell but Orian is going to Cambodia – that’s the relationship he has with the country. He sees it as corrupt and poor. Putting the stories side by side is a way to show that Orian hates Cambodia.”
Despite the irreconcilable differences between Orian and Eugenie, his descent into a drug-addled stupor, and his crippling xenophobia, the story of Eugenie is wistfully romantic. The love Orian has for Eugenie, and the love Eugenie has for Cambodia, may be as doomed as the love between Orpheus and Eurydice, but it is compellingly enduring.
“I told someone about the story and they said ‘Oh, it’s romantic,’” said Patrick. “Even if it’s not a love story.”