Saturday, January 19, 2008

Review: The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam

So, have you seen the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens list yet?

They’ve got Laika, which was on my own top ten; Sidescrollers, which was incredibly awesome; the first two Blue Beetle trades from before it even got all that good; a couple of manga series I’ve yet to read (Emma, After School Nightmare, King of Thorn); The Wall (which I’ve never even heard of); and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival; which is still sitting there in my “to read” pile.

Oh, and they’ve also got The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (Riverhead) by Ann Marie Fleming.

This was released in September of last year, and, aside from a single link on, I don’t recall seeing any discussion of it anywhere. Did it fly under the comics blogosphere’s collective radar for some reason? Was it not sold through the direct market? Did the comics press not cover it much? Was I just not paying attention?

I stumbled upon it by accident (I really liked the cover design, by Ben Gibson) and checked it out from the library. I was actually pretty surprised to crack it open and see that it was a graphic novel.

According to the cover, it’s “an illustrated memoir.” According to the fine print on the back cover, it’s a “Graphic Memoir.” The title page suggests that it be shelved under the subjects “Long Tack Sam” and “Comic books, strips, etc.” and/or “Magicians—China—Biography—Comic books/strips, etc.” The suggested call number is “793.8092,” which would put it among books about magicians and stage entertainers, rather than graphic novels, biographies or memoirs.

Looking at the three library systems in and around Columbus that carry it, it seems to be shelved in three different places, depending on the system—one has it with memoirs, another with graphic novels, and a third with books about magicians.

However it was ultimately packaged, marketed and shelved in bookstores and libraries, Fleming herself indicates that she thinks of it as a graphic novel in the author’s notes that follow the work.

She had previously made a documentary film of the same name, and says that, “When the film came out, my editor, Megan Lynch, saw it on the Sundance Channel and contacted me, asking me if I wanted to adapt it into a graphic novel.”

And so she has.

I haven’t seen the film version yet, but reading this definitely makes me want to, as in the same passage Fleming discusses how difficult it was to adapt the heavily animated, personally narrated film into a static, 2D medium (film stills, with the subtitles translating foreign languages still on them, make up many of the panels of the OGN version of The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam).

I’m not very well suited to have one of those discussions where a commentator picks apart an official list of some sort, particularly not this particular list, as being a 30-year-old makes me a poor judge of what is and what is not good for teens (The best I can do is remember what I liked as a teen, and I know I wouldn’t like to have been told that I should read books on a list of graphic novels for teens, rather than a list of best graphic novels period).

I can say that this is a really great book though, and I’m down with any effort that gets folks to give it a looksee, particularly other folks like me who spend so much time with comics but may have missed this one when it came out.

So, who is this Long Tack Sam character? Well, he was China’s greatest magician, a prominent stage performer during the days of Vaudeville who didn’t make the jump to Hollywood (in large part because he disagreed with its portrayal of Asians as bad guys) and whose own life story coincides with the highlights of early 20th century history.

He was also Fleming’s great-grandfather, although she didn’t really know anything about him until later in her life, which plunged her on the quest that this book (and the film) chronicles/-ed. Fleming’s father was Australian and her mother was Chinese; her grandmother was half-Chinese and half-Austrian. They lived in Canada. Her family was therefore pretty spread out, and there were great big holes in her knowledge of her ancestry, despite the prominence of her great-grandfather, who she was as ignorant of as the rest of us (Although the surviving people who knew him, and magician aficionados around the world, seem to remember him quite vividly).

(Above: Fleming's avatar shares her own life's story)

Fleming introduces us to her somewhat crudely drawn comic avatar on the first page, and tells us a little about herself. Throughout the book, she’ll switch narrating duties off between this drawing of herself (which changes hair-length and color throughout to reflect the changes to the coif of the real Fleming) and a character she calls “Stickgirl,” a slant-eyed stick figure in a pink skirt and pigtails.

These characters talk to us in hand-lettered dialogue bubbles and blocks of narration, while panels of period photographs, stills from the documentary, and other print artifacts (posters, post cards, handbills, etc.) fill up the panels.

It’s a very interesting looking book, feeling at times like a graphic novel built around the edges of—and occasionally right on top of—a scrap book and family album. And yet it reads just like a graphic novel. Despite Fleming’s intimation of the difficulty she had in adapting the story form one medium to another, it sure seems effortless.

There are several passages where it becomes a more traditional looking graphic novel, when artist Julian Lawrence comes in to draw the secret origin of Long Tack Sam, or rather the secret origins of Long Tack Sam, as Fleming finds a handful of different accounts of how a little Chinese boy became a great magician.

Each of these sections kick off with a somewhat crude approximation of a Golden Age comic book cover, and then switch to pages of six-panel lay outs full of brightly colored art, telling different legendary beginnings of Long Tack Sam’s career.

(Part of one of Long Tack Sam's origin stories by Julian Lawrence)

Information gets much more solid after that, and you couldn’t have keyed his biography more closely into the major world events during his lifetime if you were making him up.

He meets his Austrian wife (and Fleming’s great-grandmother) in Europe and they marry in 1908. He travels the world, playing Vaudeville (sharing a bill with the Marx Brothers and running in circles with other famous entertainers of the day). When World War I breaks out, he and his wife are separated by an ocean, an ocean that he can’t cross due to submarine warfare.

To keep his family with him, he puts both his wife and daughters in his act. His wife’s Austrian nationality causes no end of trouble when World War II breaks out, and they spend parts of it in both Europe and Asia, wars and revolutions seemingly occurring all around them, shifting borders complicating their personal and professional lives.

(Stickgirl conducts an interview)

Fleming tells this amazing life story, but it’s not the focus of the book. Rather, the book is about her learning the story, and we discover it as she does (or at least, that’s how it’s structured…as if we’re looking over Fleming and/or Stickgirl’s shoulders as they uncover and flesh out Long Tack Sam’s life).

In addition to being a pretty thrilling and occasionally educational read, and an idiosyncratic graphic novel, the book seems to be an important one, particularly if it’s successful and saving Sam from the dustbin of history.

One of the things I found most exciting is that even at the end, Fleming still doesn’t seem to have completely nailed down Sam’s story, which leaves the readers with the sense that there’s so much more we’re not seeing. Which, come to think of it, is kind of what stage magic’s all about, isn’t it? Denying the audience the bulk of the information so they can take pleasure not only in what they do know, but what they don’t and can’t.

(An example of a page with no original drawings on it)


Regault said...

Okay, their taste in manga is a bit messed up.

Emma is good (Kind of an american-style regency romance, only in Victorian times, if that makes sense.)although the american release falls prey to my general boycott of CMX. King of Thorn however, is incredibly depressing. It's a post-apocalypse style story where people put in stasis to escape a fatal disease wake up to a world overrun by greenery and monsters, and are still slowly dying of the fatal disease. From the ANN description, After School Nightmare is similarly depressing.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Wow, this looks pretty good. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

tofuwillowlithe said...

I don't know what Regault is talking about but I do know that this book is excellent. Thanks for reviewing it Caleb!