Reading books is not a particularly popular pastime in Cambodia. If you are a person who wants to educate and disseminate information to Cambodians, you might be encouraged to turn to TV or the radio to get your message out. Another option, which is being attempted by the writers and illustrators at Our Books, is to make books more attractive and relevant to an audience of Cambodian youth.
In an effort to keep reading alive in Cambodia, the people at Our Books – a non-profit organisation that creates and distributes books throughout Cambodia and provides illustrations for various publications – has been using the popular appeal of comics to attract a wider audience of inexperienced readers to engage with subjects that might otherwise be intimidating or overly complex.
Comic books first hit Cambodia in the 1960s, when the influence of French cartoonists inspired a small group of Cambodian counterparts. The Khmer Rouge brought an end to the creation of comics as well as the destruction of nearly all of those that already existed. There was a resurgence of the comic form in the 1980s, and while there are still some commercial comic strips and books, many of Cambodia’s consumers have moved on to other types of entertainment.
“Comics face stiff competition in today’s media environment, but they were highly popular in the past and can be again,”said John Weeks, the managing editor of Our Books. “We design our educational and entertainment comics to appeal to today’s market. For example, our first graphic novel was priced and sized similarly to prose novels.”
In order to expand their reach even further, Our Books publishes its books in three languages - Khmer, English, and French. The Khmer versions, which are delivered to NGOs, libraries, and book stores in Cambodia, are the most popular.
Unlike many comic strips, which aim to be purely entertaining, Our Books works to promote awareness of issues such as education and land rights. “We are very keen to grow readership in Cambodia via comics,” said Weeks. “We have partnered with local and overseas organisations to accomplish our goals of cultivating Khmer comics, as well as sharing them with the international community.”
Soeun Klo, an office manager of Our Books, said that the NGO coordinates exhibitions, training and media campaigns to promote reading among a population of youth that tends to choose other sources of information and entertainment. “If we see youth ignore books and we ignore publishing them, the future of books and youth in Cambodia will be uncertain,” he said. “Our Books will, at least, partly awaken teenagers to the value of reading books such as comic books.”
The idea behind Our Books is that pictures allow inexperienced readers to relate to stories in a way that words, by themselves, do not. Moeu Diyadaravuth, a graphic artist for Our Books, said that careful work and a deep understanding of the topic allowed he and his team to generate books which allow readers to engage with difficult concepts. “I have to really understand the meaning of the story before I can begin to draw,” said Moeu Diyadaravuth.
Weeks said he had been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of comic books among Cambodian readers and is optimistic about the future of comic books in the Kingdom.
Visit ourbookscambodia.com for more information and examples of books, comic strips and commercial work