When French-Khmer graphic artist Ing Phouséra or Séra, to use his pen name first started drawing comics about life under the Khmer Rouge, he didn't have a lot to go on. He had fled Cambodia as a teen in April 1975, when Phnom Penh fell to Pol Pot's forces, and had lived in Paris his whole adult life. Visual arts except in the service of propaganda were banned during the four years of Khmer Rouge oppression, leaving scant images of a period in which nearly 20% of Séra's compatriots died. So he used his imagination, and in 2005 tentatively staged an exhibition of the results in Phnom Penh his first back on home soil. "I was there with my drawing, talking about a period I didn't know," says Séra. But the gamble worked. "When Cambodians came to see it, they were shocked. They said, 'It was like that.'"
Growing up in Phnom Penh between the worlds of his French mother and Khmer father, Séra routinely escaped into the pages of French comics, and again as a young refugee in Paris. Now the author of a dozen graphic novels three of which have been about Cambodia's war years he is working to rekindle Cambodia's interest in the art form. Since his debut showing in Phnom Penh, he has been regularly returning to the city of his boyhood to hold workshops for aspiring illustrators. "It's important to try to approach the reality of our times," he says. "This is a media that only needs a pen and paper to express something." He is also helping to publish the nation's first anthology of up-and-coming comic-book artists, (Re)géné Rations: The New Khmer Graphic Novel, due in June. In so doing, Séra and his collaborators are blowing the dust off a subculture that has endured decades of neglect.
Cambodia started printing domestic comics in the mid-1960s, according to Our Books, an organization that archives comics that survived the war and promotes comic-book culture in Cambodia. Though many of that generation of artists were killed, some survived the Khmer Rouge years by drawing agricultural plans for the regime, or sketching small portraits of soldiers in exchange for food. After the Vietnamese deposed Pol Pot in 1979, comics enjoyed a bright but fragile reemergence in the 1980s, gaining a foothold in Phnom Penh's markets before the onslaught of television, movies and video that coincided with Cambodia's ensuing recovery and development. Other Asian countries had comic-book cultures resilient enough to adapt to the explosion of electronic media; unable to do the same, Cambodia's artists produced work that lay unpublished in boxes and drawers.
That the revival of their fortunes should have begun halfway around the world, at Séra's Parisian drawing table, is not entirely surprising. "The Khmer diaspora has had interesting effects on Khmer culture," says John Weeks, the assistant managing editor at Our Books. Filmmakers and novelists who fled Cambodia have helped map out a record of its struggles, and émigré communities have been instrumental in keeping traditional dance and music alive after many of its best practitioners were persecuted. Séra obeyed the same impulses as many artistically minded exiles, but although he had been publishing his drawings since he was 13, it took years before comics were accepted as a suitable form for the weighty subjects he wanted to tackle.
Séra started his first graphic novel about Cambodia, Impasse et Rouge chronicling the years just before the Khmer Rouge in 1987, five years before Art Spiegelman's Maus would win a Pulitzer for its famous depiction of the Holocaust and demonstrate that gravitas and the graphic arts were not mutually exclusive. Impasse et Rouge wasn't published for almost another 12 years. Although the following two titles about Cambodia, L'Eau et la Terre (2005) and Lendemains de cendres (2007), were picked up in fairly quick succession by the major French comic publisher Delcourt, Séra has still not had the international success that "serious" comic books artists like Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) have enjoyed. He teaches drawing by day and works as a night porter at a Paris hotel to get by.
For Séra, returning to Cambodia every year thus offers a chance to draw new artistic energy from and pass on experience to the young artists he is mentoring. Like him, the contributors to (Re)géné Rations show a willingness to tackle tough subjects chief among them the trials of daily life in Cambodia. Developed during a series of workshops between 2005 and 2007, the students' panels, which range from simple black-and-white line drawings to detailed, full-color illustration, show street kids panhandling for change and people eking out other precarious livings, like a woman gathering lotus pods to sell in the city. Not that the artists will be better off if they intend to make a living from drawing alone. It's cheaper for small printers in Cambodia to publish a reprint of an older comic than to buy rights to a new story, and literacy rates in the country remain low. "People have the decks stacked against them a little bit," admits Weeks. For Séra, however, money has never been the point facing the difficult realities of the nation's present is, and that goes hand in hand with facing the atrocities of the past. "I try to give some sign of those times," he says. "I try to tell people: Don't forget."