The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen Graphic Novel Review

Trung Le Nguyen (or Trungles on Twitter) has been one of my favorite artists since I found him in Fresh Romance. His art was just mesmerizing and really fit into a fairy-tale context, matching the weird tale of princess and beast that he illustrated. He’s done a ton of other stuff for Oni Press, Image Comics, and Boom!, but The Magic Fish is his first full-length graphic novel. I was super excited to see it when it was announced on Twitter. To get a full graphic novel, all of it being his art, just sounded so great and I knew it was going to be fascinating, visually beautiful, and a deep dive into some deep emotional conversation. Trungles did not disappoint. I think The Magic Fish has shot up to being one of my favorite graphic novels of these past few years, and that’s saying something. From what I noticed, Trungles does best when he is adapting or creating his own fairy tale or myth, and this graphic novel incorporates many different ones into its story of an immigrant family trying to connect through a language and cultural barrier.

The Magic Fish is a tale surrounding an immigrant family from Vietnam who came to the United States as refugees. Tiến, their second generation son, struggles to express his identity and come out as gay to his family and is not sure if they will accept him. He can’t seem to find the right words in Vietnamese, so he turns to something his family all shares, their love of fairy tales. Tiến uses these stories and the help of family and friends to navigate this confusing world and find a way to express himself and be accepted for who he is. 

I have to gush a bit about Trungles art here. I love his style and how it fits so well into the fairy tale motif going throughout the novel. His style is very Art Nouveau and I love it. Art Nouveau can be characterized by a focus on undulating line work, nature inspired themes and designs, and a focus on shapes and symmetry to bring out their natural themes. I feel like it is most commonly recognized in stained glass work, but it also translates well into graphic design and even architecture. The style has been around since the 1800s and I think it works well within the fairy tale stories told here. It gives the whole book an interesting feel, almost elegant as Trungles designs the dresses and long flowing hair of his fairy tale princesses. When used for character designs, this style makes characters and facial features both stylized and detailed, giving the whole book a very unique feel.

I also love how he sections off his pages and stories using colored backgrounds. The story is structured like a frame narrative, where the overarching main story of Tiến becomes the frame for the myriad of fairy tales that are shown and told throughout the book. In order to create clear differentiation, Trungles has created colored backgrounds to display when we are moving from the frame to the fairy tale. This is what I love about graphic novels that I often can’t get from manga: the use of color throughout the book rather than just a few pages at the beginning or end. You can do so much with color to add interest and structure to a work, and it was interesting to see how he used it here. The assigning of color backgrounds to the fairy tales, flash backs, and current time create a lot of chances to intersperse these different times and worlds in between panels. Jumping from fairy tale to Tiến reading is easy to understand with the switch of color.

I love the story that Trungles crafts through this novel. The main focus is on Tiến, a young boy who is coming to the realization that he is gay, but is having trouble expressing it. He is the son of a first generation family who came to the United states as refugees and are still trying to learn English. Tiến encounters a problem when he considers coming out to his parents, he doesn’t know the word for “gay” in Vietnamese. One of their nightly traditions as a family or just between Tiến and his mother is reading each other fairy tales. Trungles uses these as a way for the characters to indirectly express their feelings, memories, and struggles to each other, eventually culminating in Tiến’s mother understanding that he is gay through one of the stories. The frame narrative of Tiến navigating being gay with his friends, school, and parents is a great contrast to the traditional fairy tales told throughout the novel. 

The fairy tales, however, are not the Disney versions. There is a Cinderella-esque story and a Little Mermaid-esque story, but Trungles has chosen to tell different versions than what we are used to. Many of them originate from different cultures or hearken back to the original and slightly darker versions told in Grimm or Anderson. I honestly prefer this choice to seeing the over-used and over-censored fairy tales passed around today. It adds more depth and impact to see these darker and more complicated versions especially given the frame of refugees and conflicting identities we see going on in the overarching story. 

One of my favorite ones was the story of Tấm and Cám, a Vietnamese version of the more European Cinderella. It was a really interesting retelling, especially with Triangles’ art behind it. The story surrounds a young girl whose father passes away and leaves her in the care of her stepmother who hates her. The stepmother makes her into a maid and tries her best to steal every ounce of happiness from her, even making her eat her talking fish friend. As with many Cinderella stories, it moves onto a ball where the spirit of her magical fish friend grants her an awesome outfit which gets the attention of the Prince. Why I think it works is not only that we are seeing the Vietnamese version being told considering their heritage, but also it is being told while the frame narrative is telling the story of Tiến going to a school dance and struggling with what he’s going to wear and whether or not he will be able to dance with his crush. It fits in multiple ways. 

One of the other fairy tales featured in The Magic Fish is a retelling of The Little Mermaid. Only, this one is a version of the Hans Christian Anderson story. This one is more dark and serious than what we’re used to with the Disney version, but I love it. It is the last fairy tale told in the novel and helps wrap up the story of Tiến and his mother in a satisfactory way by Tiến’s mother changing the ending of the story to have the mermaid fall in love with a woman in the theater. I think the story overall matches the frame narrative pretty well considering that the mermaid is mute when she comes to the above world, her feet causing her a lot of pain, but still she tries as hard as she can to win the love of the Prince. To me, this mirror’s an immigrant story, with a language barrier and the need to work even through the toughest struggles. I love that Trungles crafted his retelling to culminate in Tiến being finally accepted and understood by his mother. 

If you’ve had a chance to read The Magic Fish let me know what you thought in the comments below! If I’ve convinced you to pick up a copy for yourself, let me know that too!

~~Thanks for Reading!~~

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