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.

A European Tour: Izneo Comics App Review

In recent years, I’ve turned more and more to digital comics as a resource. While there is something lost in not being able to hold a physical book, the sheer amount of manga, webcomics, and the like that I try to keep up with means that I would soon run out of living space. I purchase ebooks on a regular basis (in English and Japanese), and have subscriptions to multiple comics and manga services.

I was recently contacted by a digital comics platform called Izneo, who asked me if I’d like to review their service. They offer a variety of American comics, manga, and webtoons, but what really caught my eyes was their robust European comics selection. While Ogiue Maniax is ultimately more focused on anime and manga, I spent a few years living in Europe, and I tried to use that opportunity to learn more about the storied history of Franco-Belgian comics (bande dessinee), Dutch comics (stripboeken), and just about anything I could get my hands on. Still, it’s an area of comics where my knowledge of comics is relatively weak, and knowing that Izneo seems dedicated to promoting European comics digitally encouraged me to write something.

Izneo was actually started by several large comics publishers in France, and so while they might not be as big as the elephant in the room, Comixology, they have a particular edge when it comes to European comics. From what I could tell, they tend to get new European releases sooner, and their premium service (which is first month free before switching to $7.99/month) has a lot more European titles readily available than Comixology Unlimited. For example, I compared the classic Belgian adventure comic Blake & Mortimer. As of December 2020, a Comixology subscription has nine volumes available to read at all times, whereas Izneo’s offers fourteen.  I think that alone can justify the subscription, but it doesn’t hurt that the selection of non-European comics is still quite decent. You can also buy the comics as individual purchases on there without a subscription, so there’s some flexibility in terms of cost.

I tried out Izneo’s apps on multiple platforms—a tablet, a smartphone, and even the Nintendo Switch—and what quickly became clear to me is that the tablet offered the best reading experience because of the traditional format of European comics. Unlike manga, which come collected into fairly small books usually somewhere between 144 to 208 pages mostly in black and white, European comics are around 48 to 64 pages, come in much larger dimensions (even bigger than the typical Marvel or DC hardcover collection), and are lovingly detailed in both linework and color. Although each European comic album is relatively short, it can often take a single artist months or even years to complete a single book, and they’re ideally read with the entire page visible to appreciate the overall visual composition. Because of this, it’s a challenge to read on a smaller screen, especially when you hit a word balloon that’s just stuffed with exposition. The best solution might be to just have an extremely large monitor, so you can even read the comics as full double-page spreads all the way, but that’s not a solution available to everyone.

Izneo is well aware of this limitation and offers a couple of workarounds for those using smaller devices. First is their “eazy comics” view, which breaks the page down so you read it one panel at a time. Second is that you can display each page zoomed in so you see about a third of it at a time. Of the two, I much prefer the latter, especially when it comes to older titles that stick more closely to the “three ‘strips’ per page” format. I also want to reiterate that I’m focusing on this issue not because it’s some fatal flaw of Izneo specifically, but because it’s an inherent compromise that comes with digital releases of European comics across all comics services.. The offerings for manga, American comics, and of course webtoons (which are generally created to be read on smaller screens) don’t run into these issues nearly as much. 

In order to do this review, I received the one-month premium subscription from Izneo, but I actually plan on continuing to use Izneo. I haven’t decided if I’ll keep the premium service or go into a la carte purchases, but their digital service just gives me such an opportunity to really explore European comics, and it means supporting the publishers and artists more directly. My only real wish is that they get more titles in the future. I would love to see Yoko Tsuno on there, and for the release to go beyond the few volumes released (out of order) in English previously. If possible, I also hope that they could eventually get non-Franco-Belgian European comics on there, like the Dutch series Agent 327. Overall, when it comes to Izneo, I like what I see, and I want more.