Vietnamese Comic Books, A History

Bang Bạnh - Xã Xệ - Lý Toét

The modern comic book as it is known in Vietnam dates back to manhua comics of Canton. For though there are a few examples of satirical comics prior to the 19th Century, the art truly came into its own between the years of 1867 and 1927. Illustrations began to appear in newspapers and periodicals in the 1870s. Shortly after that small books containing illustrations, known as lianhuanhua appeared popular in Shanghai.

In France, the comic book originated in 1827 with the publication of M. Vieux Bois by Swiss R. Topffer. The book consisted of a series of drawings with one or two lines of text underneath. It was a short step from the illustrated stories of Topffer and other French artists to assimilate the Chinese manhua and develop a form unique to Vietnam. With the invention and promulgation of lithographic publishing by the colonial powers in Asia, the artform pioneered by Chinese artists expanded throughout the region.

In Vietnam, cartoons became popular in newspapers and were known as hoạt kê họa, hí họa or the more vulgar biếm họa. As Vietnamese artists became more politicized against their French colonizers, they developed cartoons that were serialized in regularly published newspapers. These cartoons tended to be satirical and lampooned Vietnamese authors and French officials. One example was Bang Bạng – Xã Xệ – Lý Toét, a series of cartoons following the adventures of Ly Toet, a rural village official. The series ran throughout the Thirties and published its last installment in 1942. By the time the Japanese invaded Vietnam, the art form was called chuyện bằng tranh, or “stories by picture.”   

After the war, with the initiation of the First Indochina War, comics centered on propaganda against the French occupation. Possibly the most popular of these was Đông Sơn, by Hanoi based writer, editor and publisher Nguyễn Tường Tam. Other comics focused on history with stories of romantic liaisons or knightly exploits.

With the official division of Vietnam at the end of the First Indochina War, the comic book industry began to take separate paths. In South Vietnam the books were called Tranh-truyện Việt-nam, or Picture-stories of Vietnam. They tended to focus on many similar topics as American and French comics of the time, two countries which heavily influenced the culture of South Vietnam. Topics included family, friendship, adventure, detective stories, science fiction, wuxia, and fairy tales. While in the North, the chuyện bằng tranh continued to feature heavily propagandistic contents aimed against the foreign invaders and their “quisling” supporters in the South.

When Saigon fell in April 1975, the Hanoi dominated publications throughout the country and censorship was strong. This had a tendency to force writers and artists to conform with government policy and as a result the comic book industry stagnated. Not only were topics limited, but so were printing presses as the technology was tightly controlled. A few artists continued to work on traditional themes using paper, a traditional craft product made from the inner bark of trees. Artists tended to work on animations or illustrating novels by famous authors. Most prominent among these was Ngô Mạnh Lân who illustrated Dế Mèn phiêu lưu ký by author Tô Hoài.

In 1986 the Party government in Hanoi announced Đổi mới, or “Innovation,” and literature and art began to open to international influences. Initially, the comic book industry borrowed heavily from popular American culture and superheroes, creating Vietnamese supermen, dinosaurs based on Jurassic Park, or drawing on popular cartoons like Tom and Jerry. Eventually the popularity of these obvious knock-offs wore thin and Vietnamese comics returned to their early roots, looking to the other industries in Asia for inspiration.

With the advent of crowdfunding, Vietnamese comic books have moved further into the world of mainstream comics and independent artists and authors have developed their own projects to critical acclaim. The few projects that have come to fruition tend to focus on Vietnamese history and costumes, and feature characters popular from historical epics. Several of these have won silver at the International MANGA Awards held in Japan.

Vietnamese comic books remain a fledgling industry. It is a competitive sector, with numerous MANGA from Japan or Manhua from Hong Kong translated into Vietnamese and consumed by young and old alike. The format, however, lends itself to Vietnamese tastes as there is a long history of serialized storytelling in the country’s publishing world. As the art form matures, it will be interesting to see whether Vietnamese artists will branch away from global influences to create original work, or if they will continue to imitate art from rich, developed industries.

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