Cartoonist: Trung Le Nguyen
Publisher: RH Graphic
Comics are littered with fairy-tale retellings, but rarely are those stories so personal as The Magic Fish, the YA graphic novel debut by Trung Le Nguyen.
Set in 1998, The Magic Fish is the story of Tién, a boy who always seems to have his face stuck in a book. He’s got a crush on one of his classmates, and he isn’t sure how to talk about that with either the object of his affection or his family. If you think you’ve heard this one before, you haven’t, but you can be forgiven for the mistake: The Magic Fish is the kind of story that will repeatedly make you consider the familiar from a whole new perspective.
The evolution of words and stories
From the very first pages of The Magic Fish, language is foregrounded. While words are meant to be a means of communion, Tién and his mother, Helen, find themselves on opposite sites of a divide: while Tién communicates mostly using English, Helen mostly speaks Vietnamese. We swiftly learn that Tién and Helen seek to close this gap by building a bridge using stories.
Over the course of the graphic novel, the reader is made privy to three of these stories, each one serving an important purpose in the broader narrative of The Magic Fish. Each of these trio of stories is told by a different narrator: one by Tién, one by Helen’s aunt (who significantly still lives where Helen grew up in Vietnam), and one by Helen herself.
Each of these fairy tales is likely to be familiar to the reader (or at the very least, certain elements from each story will be). This is because of a phenomenon that Helen notes early on in the story.
Citing the various genres in which local theater performances have staged Hamlet, Helen observes that fairy tales recur around the globe wearing “different clothes.” As the story will go on to demonstrate, these echoed stories provide a viable avenue for connecting with one another, even when our differences have created what seems to be an impassable chasm.
Queerness in The Magic Fish
Tién wants to come out to his mother, but he doesn’t know how. While that sentiment is likely to be somewhat familiar to any queer readers, Tién literally doesn’t have the words to communicate it to her (even after he asks for the librarian’s assistance in looking up the Vietnamese word for gay). Tién’s challenge is intersectional: he isn’t just dealing with coming out, he’s also dealing with a language and culture barrier.
And as if things weren’t already complicated enough, when Tién tries to go to his teacher for guidance, rather than give him any sort of helpful assistance, she subjects him to a meeting with a priest who spews some archaic and harmful ideas (and take it from Auntie Avery: priests can tell some awful stories that really stick with you).
The Magic Fish depicts Tién struggle to come out especially well by ensuring the narrative provides not just his viewpoint but also Helen’s point of view. Not only does this afford a much more nuanced perspective on Tién’s complicated coming out, it also gives the reader a deep understanding of Helen’s feelings about her son – a frame of reference readers don’t often get to see in these types of queer narratives.
Throughout the story, color is used in a meaningful way, with shifts to a new shade differentiating between layers of narrative. Other visual flourishes include the symbol of a star, which gleefully dances between fairy tale and reality to create its own pattern of meaning by the conclusion of the story.
Nguyen is a sartorial virtuoso, and those abilities are present in each layer of narrative, although they play out in different ways. In the fairy tales, the characters often wear the sort of incredible dresses you’d expect from outright fantasy, and these outfits are revealed on pages that are likely to make you audibly gasp. Meanwhile, in the “real world,” Tién’s patched-up jacket plays an important narrative role, as well.
From page layout to star flourish, every visual element of The Magic Fish serves to communicate Tién and Helen’s story – and every panel looks incredible as it accomplishes that goal.
Reel in The Magic Fish
While the books in the RH Graphic line typically have excellent back material, The Magic Fish nevertheless stands out. Nguyen’s insightful, in-depth essays about the graphic novel provide significant revelations into the craftsmanship that went into the comic.
Included among the details revealed by Nguyen in this section is the degree of consideration they put into designing the costumes for each fairy tale: the clothes worn by the character were influenced by who was telling the story, and how they might imagine the outfits based on their personal experiences – for example, the story told by Helen near the conclusion of the narrative carries many elements of her personal story encoded within its images. Yes, this is a comic where the creator has considered what would comprise each individual character’s personal visual vocabulary.
On the one hand, these details are aesthetically amazing, and contribute to why it is so hard to look away from these pages. But understanding that the story Helen tells is so personal also serves an important narrative and thematic purpose, especially when the reader understands her motivation (and method) in recounting the particular fairy tale she choses to tell Tién.
The Magic Fish is a book that exists between two points: fairy tales and personal experiences, Vietnam and the United States, mother and child, words and pictures, signifier and signified. It incorporates all of these elements into its whole, and rather than diminish any of them, the ultimate effect is to amplify them all.
The Magic Fish is available now from a bookstore near your, or from your local library.