Until now, Vietnamese comics are still a very new concept even to Vietnamese people. This, however, cannot stoppassionate, committed young men and women in the pursuit of their dream to bring Vietnamese comics to literature maps, not only in Vietnam but also internationally.
In this S-shaped country, everything is ever-developing, and comics are no exception. But, the so-called ‘Vietnamese comics’ is too new and too nascent to be talked a lot about. Some may say it’s like a toddler practicing its first steps. Others may think it’s just an embryo that’s just been conceived. The majority might even be unaware of its existence.
This situation, however, cannot stop many whole-hearted Vietnamese artists, largely young, in their pursuit of comics, not only as a profession but more as their ‘karma’.
'VIETNAMESE COMICS' - A ONCE SO 'DARING' NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
Despite having created some kind of buzz on mass media for about 10 years, the definition of ‘Vietnamese comics’ would currently be unclear to any ordinary Vietnamese whom one may come across down the streets.
For the majority of Vietnamese adults, especially those with less open mindset, comics are by default perceived as something only for small children. They are just educational colored pictures that can be easily found in kids’ stationery and book stores. Or else, they could just be somepicturedbooks with the story boards that tell you briefly what happened in the national history of forming and preserving the country, or in other words, they are nothing but some kind of picture-based history books.
However, for those who are more knowledgeable about this topic and more open-minded, comics are not just some kids’ ‘toys’. Indeed, in their own right,they are a cultural product suitable for people of any age range and can even represent a whole country. Examples are the well-known terms of ‘manga’for Japanese, ‘manhwa’for Korean, ‘manhua’for Chinese, or ‘comic’ for western styles. So what should be the term for Vietnamese comics?
During the booming period of Vietnamese comics driven by a young generation back in 2004-2005, two of the most discussed topics were ‘What name should be given to Vietnamese comics?’ and ‘What is Vietnamese comics’ style?’This period also witnessed the most dynamic landscape of Vietnamese comics in its evolution (if such evolution does exist).
Just like ‘Prodigy of the Viet land’, Vietnamese comics in general were seen as a playground of some young kids who were still immature school kids. As they developed an interest in foreign comics (mainly manga and comic), a passion for drawing also rooted and grew inside each of them, and those dreamy young people began to set an aspiration of becoming comic artists. The several comic magazines and websites emerging during that time provided forums for young writers to also discuss the then so young and new Vietnamese comic landscape.
However, ‘Vietnamese comics’ or literally ‘Vietnamese picture books’ – lengthy as it is –was eventually kept as the final choice of term, as everyone agreed that it was not strong enough to become a brand name in its own right, and that it needed quite some more time to develop and sustain itself.
As far as styles are concerned, young Vietnamese artists of 10 years back were strongly influenced by 2 distinct trends of styles, namely Japanese manga and Western comic. And although the foundation of Vietnamese comics at the time was near to nothing, young artists already started talking about their ambition for a style unique to Vietnamese comics. This really sounded daring, if not defiant!
Of course, by the end of the surging wave, what was achieved out of such ‘Vietnamese comics style’ ambition was still a deadlock. The only exception was the duo of Thành Phong and Khánh Dương, or Phong Dương in brief(with series such as‘Nhi & Tũn’ or‘Long Thần Tướng’). Their signature style was a combination of comic-like descriptive drawings with a bit of more tender twists and manga-like narratives of daily life stories. They were exemplary of ‘breaking free’ and creating one’s own style, and were considered by many at the time to have created a very Vietnamese flavor for their comics.
By now, after surviving several years of crisis since 2007 (when all comic books and magazines ceased to be published and the very fruitful playground for young artists disappeared), the daring ‘new kid on the block’ has grown a little bit bigger. No Vietnamese comic artist or anyone who is interested in and knowledgeable about this topic would mention the ‘what style’ question any more. The reason is, obviously, just the drawings could not form the culture of comics. Instead, it is the combination of individual artists’ unique drawing styles and stories told through the eye of a Vietnamese that give it a voice.
UPTAPPED POTENTIAL AND A NEW SURGE OF WAVE
As Vietnamese comics went through the aforementioned decline, quite a lot of fans who wanted to pursue this profession/ karma were trapped with disappointment, and many chose to drop their passion and turn to another occupation. However, the low time did not extinguish the inflammable love for Vietnamese comics, which is stillsmouldering, waiting for its time to deflagrate.
Overtime, this nationalist spirit of Vietnamese people are still presented in the way young artists are determined and committed to pursuing their passion for comics through times of crisis and bring it to a new surge of wave thathas emerged since around 2009.
If Vietnamese comics are to develop as robustly as seen in other neighboring countries like Japan, Korea or China, the first and foremost change that needs to happen is a shift in mindset towards perceiving comics as an entertainment product for any age range and seeing the need to invest adequately in it. However, social perception is not something that could be changed overnight. Now that comic artists are becoming more mature in their sketches and creative direction, what they need to do is to attract the attention of the public. In fact, publishing companies and comic artists themselves have done quite a good marketing job in recent years, leading to a new surge of wave.
The quiet time of the Vietnamese comic landscape also provided artists with opportunities to improve their technical skills and build their own names by drawing illustrative pictures for magazines and books with large circulations nationwide. When doing so, they allow for their names and their styles to be more or less known to and remembered by the public before they officially launch their comic works. Comic adaptations of local prominent literatures such as ‘Chí Phèo’, ‘Tắt đèn’, ‘Giông tố’, ‘Chiếc lược ngà’… also help making comics known to a wider public. This is exactly what B.R.O has been doing successfully and thus established themselves since 2004-2005.
Thanh Phong of the duo of Phong Dương chose another direction to follow: excelling in international landscapes before creating his own reputation back in Vietnam. After extremely well-received series such as ‘Nhi & Tũn’, ‘Long Thần Tướng’, or the first part of ‘Orange’launched during the booming period of comics, the duo chose to continue with other projects in a much quieter way, promoting only Thanh Phong’s reputation with his solo premier ‘The Boy And The Paper Plane’ (Cậu bé và máy bay giấy) published in a compilation of South East Asian comics called Liquid City. Subsequently, Thành Phong participated in different exhibitions and festivals as a highly potential representative face from Vietnam.In Vietnam, ‘Orange’with stories about schooling/ basketball and later on the picture-illustrated compilation of Vietnamese idioms‘Sát thủ đầu mưng mủ’were big hits when launched in the domestic markets.
Dimensional Art Studio with the ‘Đất Rồng’ (Land of Dragon) instead chose to focus on domestic markets, which proved to be not less effective. They have collaborated with one of the most-visited news webpages for young people in Vietnam and published free of charge some first chapters of their comic works on the webpage before officially launching the print versions. ‘Land of Dragon’ is set in current context with protagonists of young students, but the contents also include some fiction ideas of a war for power between the good and the bad, blended with the Vietnamese folk tale of ‘Sơn Tinh – Thủy Tinh’. Compelling contents set in typically Vietnamese contexts have helped attracted a large numbers of fans for the work. Recently in early 2013, the work received Bronze Award of the 6thInternational Manga Award.
There are more and more activities related to Vietnamese comics, such as training courses in comic drawing techniques offered by some universities, Vietnamese comics festivals held for 3 consecutive years in 2010 - 2012 with many young Vietnamese and foreign participants; short comics contests organized on social networks providing excellent opportunities for young artist to show their talent; some online comic magazines being launched and maintained in substitution for the old-fashioned prints, and so on.
In summary, as the new wave of Vietnamese comics is surging, everything is going through aggressive development – evidenced by increasing numbers of professional works with more attractive visual expressions, more diverse contents and more authentic presentations. Of course if Vietnamese comics are to further develop, an industrial production base would be required, which is something that is not yet in place in Vietnam. However, the aforementioned new developments are gradually changing public’s awareness and perception of Vietnamese comics. A brighter and more aggressive future for Vietnamese comics is therefore not impossible and in fact should be expected. I am confident of, and look forward to, that future.
Footnote: A type of Vietnamese folk tales about talented characters who excelled in examinations and became mandarins under feudal regimes