History in Stark Relief – Vann Nath: Painting the Khmer Rouge

CW: torture, mass murder

I continually feel humbled by my own lack of knowledge when it comes to the many atrocities of this world. Whether it’s the Holocaust, the burning of Black Wall Street, the Armenian genocide, and more, it’s all too easy to remain ignorant at the darkness of humanity, especially if you believe these events to be far-off relics of the past—or worse yet, if you’re never been taught them at all. It was while browsing the European comics catalog over at Izneo that a particular title caught my attention: Vann Nath: Painting the Khmer Rouge, written by Matt Mastragostino with art by Paolo Vincenzo Costaldi.

I’ve only ever had the vaguest understanding of Pol Pot and the tragedy brought upon the people of Cambodia, and thought this could be my introduction. Helpfully, the staff at Izneo listened to my request to receive digital access for review purposes, and so I began learning about the 2 million Cambodians who died, as well as the man who used his artistic skills to highlight these horrors. 

The Khmer Rouge was the government regime that ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, and Vann Nath was a real-life survivor of the S21 prison where only seven out of 20,000 remained alive by the end. Vann Nath: Painting the Khmer Rouge is told from the perspective of its namesake. The story goes between Vann Nath living as a prisoner, revisiting his trauma even after the regime had collapsed, and ultimately being a painter who strove to make sure the brutality of the Khmer Rouge never leaves humanity’s collective memory.

The educational aspect is obvious, but Painting the Khmer Rouge largely isn’t didactic, and the comic’s greatest strength is that its art and story neither trivialize nor sensationalizes what transpired. The loose, painterly quality and the lack of gory detail make for a more sensitive approach, but the depictions of the horrors that occurred—torture, family separation, mass graves, and more—still carry a great deal of weight. Much of how the prison is portrayed (such as the eerie tiled floor) draws inspiration from Vann Nath’s own work, but the art does not try to mimic Vann Nath’s style outside of panels that specifically and purposefully call back to his paintings.

Reading through Painting the Khmer Rouge gave me not only a better sense of Cambodia’s past, but also the ways that language can be twisted, as well as how this dark history can’t help but inform the present. Even if the Khmer Rouge was a totalitarian dictatorship that strayed far from what communism is ideally meant to be, it’s no wonder that Cambodian immigrants (and other similar groups) might react strongly against anything described as communist or socialist. Similarly, the name of Cambodia under Pol Pot was Democratic Kampuchea, and much like North Korea (officially the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea), a word like “democracy” can be bandied about without much care for its actual meaning. During the Khmer Rouge’s reign, men had to call one another “brother” as a sign to show that they are all equal, but the reality of the situation is that it forced people to minimize the clear power disparities between those in charge and those crushed underneath. Words are worthless when they’re nothing more than tools to obscure truth and bludgeon people into submission.

A comic can only tell so much about history, and I understand that this is only scratching the surface. It’s inspired me to learn more about Cambodia and Vann Nath, and for that, I’m grateful.

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