I sat in an open-air restaurant, hunched over my amok, a national dish of steamed, curried fish and served here in an open coconut, as the sounds and smells of Phnom Penh rampaged about me. I mopped at my face sweating in the midday heat, and thumbed through my small stack of Khmer (Cambodian language) comic books splayed out in front of me. The comics, mostly drawn several decades before, had been ripped off, copied, and resold, with no money going back to the original artist or publisher, evidence of the lack of copyright protection in one of the most corrupt and lawless countries in the world.
Being both a cartoonist and a compulsive traveler, I’ve wandered the globe looking for comics scenes. Rarely have I run into a wealth of comics art like that which exists in Cambodia. I had expected more of an influence from Japan and China, but Khmer comics were clearly inspired by French and perhaps Indian and American artists, with an emphasis on realistic figures, cross-hatching, and a large amount of text. Unlike their influences, however, Khmer artists rarely use panel borders (with only two or three panels per page created in such instances), instead breaking apart the page with the use of collaged images and dialogue balloons.
Clearly, the French colonial occupation had dropped a Western art form into a culture already rich with its own tales and storytelling techniques, a culture which quickly made the form its own. I was, in fact, wearing a symbol of this very process, a Tintin T-shirt depicting the intrepid reporter on the back of a Cambodian tricycle taxi (or “cyclo”), captioned “Tintin au Cambodge” (“Tintin in Cambodia”). Hergé never wrote a Tintin story set in Cambodia, and I’m sure his publisher never received a single franc from the guerilla T-shirt designer for the use of the character, but there I was wearing it.