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Sorry state of Vietnam's comic industry allows cultural imports to hold sway

 
Images from Vietnamese comic Vuong mien sac dep (Crown of beauty) at a recent comic festival in Hanoi. The works surprised foreign visitors, but insiders fear it will take a lot more effort for Vietnamese to win back the comic market from foreign rivals.

It may appear reasonable that the government has bigger things to worry about, but the pitiful condition that the Vietnamese comic industry is in points to the larger problem of a "cultural deficit" that is increasing by the day, industry insiders say.

At the third annual comic festival held last month, foreign visitors, including famous Belgian comic strip writer Jean-Claude Servais, were surprised by the quality of Vietnamese comic paintings that were on display for the first time.

However, the general consensus was that the artists have to keep up the good work for a viable comic industry to develop in Vietnam over the next 10 to 15 years.

The wave of foreign cultures that have swept Vietnam's shores in the last three decades - Western music, films and TV serials from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, have also brought in its wake a flood of comic books from other shores that have dominated the market in Vietnam since the late 1990s.

Japanese mangas "Doraemon" and "Dragon Ball", or Western comics "Lucky Luke" and "Spirou" are names known to most Vietnamese children, and possibly adults as well.

Kim Dong, a leading children's book publisher in Vietnam, releases around 50 foreign comic series every year, compared to two or three Vietnamese ones. And that is much better than other publishers who only release foreign comics, according to a June 18 report by news website VietNamNet.

"Vietnamese comics might make up less than one percent portion [of the whole market], and those are only for kindergarten and primary school readers," a local comic fan told VietNamNet.

The director of a comic book publisher laughed on hearing the "one percent" guess, which he considered overoptimistic.

He told the news website, anonymously, that "Vietnam's comic books can be counted with ten fingers, while there is no counting number of foreign ones."

Vietnamese publishers are working as a "tool" for Chinese, Japanese and South Korean comic books. "They just print and sell."

It is a profitable market, though.

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Each comic series has several dozen episodes, and between 3,000-5,000 copies of each episode are printed at a time. The episodes are usually sold out in one or two weeks for around one dollar each, according to a survey by VietNamNet.

Insiders said Vietnamese comic books are yet to be good enough to vie for a piece of the pie.

"For Vietnamese comics, selling 2,000 copies is very difficult," Hoang Minh Quan, the media representative of Kim Dong, told VietNamNet.

Quan said the main problem with Vietnamese comic industry lies in its lack of artistic talents.

Vietnam only has two universities that provide training in doing comic illustrations Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts University and the city's private Hong Bang University International. The training was only started several years ago.

"Vietnam does not have trained comic painters yet," he said.

Quan said Kim Dong is always waiting for proposals from any painters, writers and artists to promote them if they come out with good enough products. But few of them have done so.

"Many young people falsely think that Kim Dong refuses to print Vietnamese comics and just focuses on foreign ones to make money. While the profit from foreign comics is real, people cannot use that to accuse us of not supporting local comics. If there are some painting products, good or bad, you have to send us and we will respond," he said.

Nguyen Thanh Phong, an artist who won an award at the Asian comic and cartoon festival last August in China, said the Vietnamese comic industry is young and the artists have not learned to draw as well as their counterparts in other countries.

Several efforts to develop the industry, like making comic books from textbook stories, have failed as the drawings look like Japanese characters.

Quan said, "The young authors, especially the late 8X generations, are deeply influenced by the manga style. They grew up with Japanese mangas, with "˜Doraemon' and "˜Sailor Moon.'"

The writing of stories for comics is also a bottleneck in Vietnam.

Quan said Vietnam does not have a school to train comic book story tellers like Belgium or Japan.

The local industry also does not have resources to release a weekly or monthly series like "Doraemon" or "Detective Conan", Phong said.

"We do not have a real comic book industry yet, or a particular style. We have to start building now."

Time to act

In an interview with news website VietNamNet, Phan Thi My Hanh, the director of Phan Thi Company, said: "Vietnam does not have a comic industry. That's true. But if we keep doing nothing, we will never have it, and I don't know for how much longer the culture deficit will last."

Her company produces Than dong Dat Viet (Vietnam's prodigy), the longest and most successful Vietnamese comic series ever, first launched in 2002. It tells stories of a little boy of primary school age who, with his friends, help the neighborhood and the king solve a lot of problems, including dealing with Chinese invasions. The series are set during the time of Vietnam's Later Le Dynasty (1428-1527).

Hanh said the company is planning to promote the series to overseas Vietnamese by putting them on the Apple Store, something other publishers do not have the right to do with foreign comic series.

"I am sure that Vietnamese people can make comic books. I think our painters can learn from the techniques of foreign comic books and develop on it," she said.

But the government needs to step in to help with the costs and organization, she said.

"It costs more to produce a Vietnamese comic series than to buy foreign copyrights. The time taken is also longer."

She said the industry needs an organizational structure that can address its shortcomings and overcome them, as also rules that govern it. She mentioned in particular the need for comics to display clearly the appropriate audience for them. Right now, Japanese manga comics containing "inappropriate" sexual content are being read by children because the age group that they are suitable for is not shown prominently enough on their covers, she said.

The director said she understands that the government is busy with macroeconomic plans to make the country richer.

"But I hope the government thinks of the word "˜rich' in a broader sense and have more policies to enrich Vietnamese culture and creativity."

"Right now, the painters of comic books are still struggling to find their way. They have to let fate decide if some publishers would agree to print their products. There has been no support from the government whatsoever."

Hanh said Vietnam's younger generations have not been "enriched" with Vietnamese culture for the past 30 years.

"And who is responsible for this? Maybe the government and the Ministry of Culture do not see this."

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