Can Vietnamese comics win readers' hearts?

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Nguyen Thanh Phong's Dragon GeneralImage source, Courtesy of Nguyen Thanh Phong
Image caption,
The Dragon General is about a military leader who fought off a Mongol invasion

A boy held captive in wooden stocks stares straight ahead, his gaze piercing. In the background, a woman sits on a hammock fanning herself.

The arresting image graces the cover of a new Vietnamese comic entitled Long Than Tuong - The Dragon General.

The image would not be out of place in a European or American graphic novel, but here in communist Vietnam, where the comic book industry is still in its infancy, it is highly unusual.

The comic tells the story of a military leader who fought off a Mongol invasion in the 13th Century.

One of its creators, 28-year-old Nguyen Thanh Phong, says he wants to give readers a slice of life in a historical setting, rather than the fantasy or action storylines aimed at children.

"We want something that relates to our life," he said.

'Crippling challenges'

More artists like Mr Phong are putting pencil to paper and producing locally made comics.

But it is proving a challenge in a comic book scene that has traditionally been dominated by Japanese manga and is still overwhelmingly seen as targeted towards children.

In South East Asia, "everyone grows up reading Archie, Asterix, Tin Tin and Lao Fu Zi, but the majority don't go on to read other comics after that", said award-winning Singapore-based comic artist Sonny Liew, editor of the first anthology of South East Asian Comic Art, Liquid City.

"There's still a tendency to see comics in genre terms, superheroes and comics for kids, rather than as a mature medium," he said.

Most locally produced comics in the region, including Vietnam, are also of lower quality than imports, which can be easily pirated and sold at cheap prices.

Image source, Courtesy of Nguyen Thanh Phong
Image caption,
Nguyen Thanh Phong made international headlines after one of his books was banned
Image source, Courtesy of Nguyen Thanh Phong
Image caption,
Mr Phong says he aims to give readers a slice of life in a historical setting
Image source, Courtesy of Nguyen Thanh Phong
Image caption,
The artist believes people like himself are now ready to read something more mature

"Part of it is an infrastructural issue; the lack of editorial support, or studios where creators can learn their craft," Mr Liew said. "Compared with, say, Japan, where experienced editors and creators can help guide younger ones."

On top of that, Vietnam's comic artists historically have faced "crippling challenges" including war deprivations and rigid Communist Party controls, according to writer John A Lent in South East Asian Cartoon Art: History, Trends and Problems.

Although comic art flourished under the US-backed South in the 1960s, reunification under the communist government in 1975 heralded a new era of strict censorship of the arts. The country was also desperately poor.

"Some of them [comic artists] continued after the war but there was no market," said Vietnamese artist and illustrator, Huu Do Chi, who has written about the history of comic art in Vietnam.

"Everyone came down to the problem of what to eat, where to live, so… no time for entertainment."

'Manga generation'

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Japan's manga industry has a huge following in South East Asia, as well as elsewhere

That began to change in the late 1980s after a series of economic reforms opened Vietnam to the world. But the few Vietnamese comics that emerged at this time were quickly eclipsed by the arrival of manga series Doraemon in 1992.

Both Mr Chi and Mr Phong are part of what Mr Phong calls the "manga generation", who grew up on Doraemon.

Mr Chi, who publishes under the pen name But Chi - pencil in Vietnamese - is about to publish a comic art collection in the US, which he plans to release later in Vietnam.

"I don't think people are ready to spend some money to buy an original book in Vietnam yet," he said. But he believes Mr Phong's project will help change things.

Mr Phong and school friend Nguyen Khanh Duong first published the story of Long Than Tuong in a series for a local magazine in 2004, but after 18 editions the publisher axed the series because of financial problems.

This time, Mr Phong is targeting a different audience. He believes people like himself, who grew up with comics, are now ready to read something more mature.

Image source, Courtesy of Huu Do Chi
Image caption,
Huu Do Chi is about to publish a comic art collection in the US

"Ten years ago we aimed for readers aged from maybe 13, 14 onwards, but not older than 20," he said. "But now we want to aim for older readers."

But censorship is still a problem, one to which he is no stranger. In 2011 Mr Phong made international headlines with his illustrated book of Vietnamese slang phrases entitled "Killer with a soft head", which was subsequently banned for its "offensive" language.

Raising money via crowdfunding will avoid the need for a permit - and therefore problems with the censors - but Mr Phong says the team might use a publisher later on to help with distribution.

It seems unlikely that a comic about a patriarchal hero from history will raise eyebrows from authorities, but that depends on what he and his team do with the story. His reputation certainly invites high expectations.

"I think Phong's crowdfunding project will be a very good start for a new era. Now not only in comics but illustrations, picture books, many other kinds of comic art," said artist Huu Do Chi.

"We have very good artists and they will be published in the years to come, even this year. We will have a garden in spring, the flowers are just coming up."