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Review: The Magic Fish

Cover of The Magic Fish

The Magic Fish
Writer/artist: Trung Le Nguyen
RH Graphic; $23.99

Although Helen and Tiến are mother and son, they sometimes have trouble relating to one another. This is the result, perhaps, of coming from different worlds. Helen is a Vietnamese refugee who came to America as an adult, while Tiến was born and raised in the United States.

But every night after dinner, the pair take turns reading fairy tales to one another, a practice that originally began so that Helen could work on her English, but which they never entirely abandoned: By experiencing the events of the stories together, mother and son build up shared experiences, even if they are vicarious ones.

In The Magic Fish, Trung Le Nguyen’s extraordinary debut graphic novel, the artist dramatizes the fairy tales that Helen and Tiến read within the narrative, so that readers also participate in their shared experiences. It proves an intimate and incredibly effective way to connect reader and character.

Nguyen’s story takes place in three different times and spaces, and though the art is essentially black and white, each of these settings is represented by a different color, which sometimes fills in what would otherwise be empty backgrounds with solid planes of color and takes the place of shades of gray. The present is in red, the past in yellow and the fairy tales in purple, with a few exceptions, as when one setting overlaps with another, or something needs special accentuation within an established setting (the peaches or blood in a fairy tale, for example).

In the present, Helen feel a bit lost, as she struggles with feeling separated from her own ailing mother in Vietnam and works hard to earn enough money to return to visit her without sacrificing any element of the life she helped build for Tiến.

Tiến, meanwhile, has a crush on the boy in his little circle of friends at a private Christian school, and he struggles with if or how to come out to his parents, as he doesn’t even know if there is  a word for “gay” in Vietnamese.

The three fairy tales they read reflect their conflicts in various and, admittedly, sometimes pat ways. For example, the first story they read is
“Tattercoats,” a Cinderella variant that thus prominently features the attendance of a series of balls…which unfolds around scenes of Helen sewing patches on Tiến’s coat, and of he and his friends preparing for a school dance.

The other stories are a Vietnamese version of Cinderella and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” the latter of which is presented here as a story of a frowned-upon relationship (“My sweet child, this is transgressive,” the sea witch tells the little mermaid when she learns of her love for a mortal), albeit one whose ending is rather radically changed in a twist resolution to Tiến’s anxiety regarding coming out.

Nguyen’s art is drawn in a style that seems a wonderful compromise between Golden Age illustration of the sort one might find in Andrew Lang’s fairy books or collections of Brothers Grimm or Andersen fairy tales and modern, realistic manga. The designs seen within the fairy tale passages, passages set mostly in modern milieus, are all quite striking, perhaps none more so than the climactic retelling of Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” in which the people of the sea are given elaborate Asian fashions and the sea witch has the shape and silhouette of a giant hammerhead shark, while land-dwelling mortals wear 1980s fashions.

The storytelling is impeccable, and if having the stories within the stories do a lot of the heavy lifting serves as a sort of shortcut, so that the “real” characters of the story can be more subtle and circumspect in their emotions, well, what of it? By structuring his story as one that revolves around the sharing of stories, Nguyen makes these narrative shortcuts into the very bones of the book. No wonder then that The Magic Fish proves so compelling.

J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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