Smash Pages Q&A: Trung Le Nguyen on ‘The Magic Fish’

The creator known as Trungles talks about the creation of his newest graphic novel, fairy tales and the nature of stories, and more.

Trung Le Nguyen, aka Trungles, has been making comics and illustrations for years, and this year released his debut book as writer and artist, The Magic Fish, which is one of the year’s best graphic novels.

The story of a relationship between a mother and son, it’s also a story about fairy tales, about the meaning of stories and how we use them. It’s a coming out and coming of age story that’s about immigration and loss. It is a small story about two people that opens up onto some many ideas and concerns in beautiful ways. It is a strikingly beautiful book with Nuguyen’s finest artwork to date, and a deeply moving story for people of all ages.

I interviewed Nguyen in 2018 about Twisted Romance, the Image Comics anthology, and I was thrilled to get to talk with him again about The Magic Fish.

I’m curious where this story started for you.

It started as several disparate art projects. I wasn’t planning on ever making it into a unified narrative. This was my first time writing a script for anything longer than four pages! So it was daunting but reading about researching fairy tales, I started to get interested in the common threads that wove them together. From that when I approached [my agent] Kate saying I want to do a graphic novel and things started to coalesce and come together.

There’s that old Bruno Bettelheim line about how we tell children fairy tales not to teach them that monsters exist, children already know that, we tell them fairy tales so that they know monsters can be defeated. I feel that has resonance for you.

It really, really does. 

The Magic Fish is about stories and when the mother goes back to Vietnam after the death of her mother, you write about “I’d always imagined – hoped, really –that I’d return under happier circumstances. I’d introduce Tien to his grandmother, and she’d tell him all the stories she used to tell me. And Tien would finally know we come from the same stories.” I feel like that line is the heart of the book in many ways.

Definitely. One of the things that I experienced growing up was that my parents would always get really excited whenever I encountered a story or fairy tale that they knew. They would jump on that opportunity to explore that with me. That line in particular comes from understanding a certain level of yearning that immigrant families often have to connect with each other in spite of cultural barriers. Finding common ground through fairy stories and common narratives – or at least, common narratives threads – was something I was really interested in exploring in the book.

Right after that, she talks about her passport, “This little book took me eight years to earn. Was it worth the last eight years of my mother’s life?” Thinking about the passport as a book forced me to rethink the mother’s relationship to books and stories and that she knows that there’s a gap between her and her son she’ll never cross.

When I was writing it, that was one of the saddest moments in the book for me. We think of liminality in terms of culture and place, but time is something we don’t discuss a whole lot when it comes to things that divide people. One of the more heartbreaking things about trying to become a citizen in a new country, particularly in the United States, is that it takes quite a lot of time and quite a lot of resources. A lot of things change over the course of that time. I couldn’t do this because of deadlines, but I wanted to weave a Japanese fairy tale with an Irish fairy tale about the passage of time. There are a lot of really compelling narratives about fairy lands and the way that time passes differently there. There’s also this element of Christianization that comes into a lot of those stories. I didn’t include that in the book but it was a reference to the ways that things change when you leave and then come back. That you can never really go back to the same place. You miss out on large swaths of people’s lives and experiences together that can never be recovered once they’ve been lost. I think that sort of loss is something that isn’t necessarily unique to an immigrant experience, but is particular to it in a really profound way. That moment with the passport I know it’s a very quick panel but I’m so happy that you picked up on that because that one in particular was a really strong melancholic beat in the story for me.

Those few pages as she leaves and returns home are the sad, quiet heart of the book. I thought about how we use stories for escape but also how we use stories to anchor us. And your book tries to explore both aspects. But for all the big ideas and themes, it’s a small book in other ways. It’s about the relationship between a mother and son.

Yeah. [laughs] I did not set out to tell a story that was this emotionally heavy. I wanted to keep the focus very small and it got away from me – in a really nice way, I think. I didn’t want the book to be an “issues” book. I wanted it to be told at eye level, from the perspective and priorities of the characters involved. The smallness of the story, and the fact that it’s about one relationship, was a way to keep me really focused and not tell too many different disparate fairy tales. I think that having the story be very small helped make the emotional beats more pronounced. It wasn’t something that I was doing consciously until much later on. Keeping that focus really small helped me make sure that the other framing device stories were in keeping with that. It helped me stay on topic, because I have a tendency to ramble.

I’m sure going from 4 page stories to a 200 something page book, you’re like, rambling can’t be bad, I need to throw lots of complexity at everything!

Exactly! And then you write it and go, no! [laughs]

The grandmother we never meet is another central character and you reveal when the mom returns to Vietnam that she wanted to return and get acceptance and approval from her mother, but her aunt gives her that.

I’m glad you brought that up, because that doesn’t come up in a lot of interviews. The aunt gets shunted to the side but I think one of the things that is implied from the narrative is that she has a fraught relationship with her mother. There’s a lot of love there, but it’s articulated through this desire to come back and make her proud. It’s something that I think is a very specific immigrant experience. There’s a pressure to “make it” wherever you find yourself because wherever you were just wasn’t working out for you. It speaks to wanting to make the sojourn worth the sacrifice that we’ve made in terms of years. To have that sense of wholeness taken away from her is a different kind of sorrow that we don’t tend to explore. I think she needs to have that resolved before she can be a mother to the full extent.

The aunt gives the mom this moment that she needs on many levels. And in so many fairy tales there is an aunt or godmother who plays that role for a character.

She’s sort of the fairy godmother of the story. She’s there almost as a surrogate figure that helps her through a really difficult time where she doesn’t feel like she has any measure of support outside of her immediate family. Or she feels bereft of that. The aunt says, hey, we have a relationship of our own and I can help you through this. That’s her role in the story, the essential godmother character in the overarching story.

I kept thinking about fairy tales and stories about princesses and what they mean for children – and for boys. The princess story is always targeted at young girls. And it gets mocked and attacked for good reasons, but also these are characters without agency, whose lives are defined by their parents – I can’t imagine why children would like these stories! But mostly they’re aimed at girls and I’m curious why you used them.

True! The princess stories are stories that I personally found resonate when I was a lot younger. In all of my youthful queerness, i just loved princess stories as a kid. But also you’re right. Princesses occupy a place in the popular imagination of “unearned specialness” where they are precious to their parents or a kingdom, they’re held in regard for reasons outside of themselves. The other side of it is that, yes, children relate to the princess character because while yes she does occupy this space, she doesn’t have a lot of agency and she’s beholden to things outside of her control. The growth journey of a lot of fairy tale princesses is figuring out how to assert herself. In the US there’s a lot of pushback about what those stories do and what children take away from them. It’s’ not something that I’m super interested in exploring personally, because it’s an area that has been done to death, but I do find myself interested in the different ways that princess stories evolved over the years and how they find common themes between different cultures. The narrative arc of a princess is a common point for a lot of cultures so it’s a nice way to tie together a lot of different narratives at once.

We struggle to relate to a lot of fairy tales because they’re not power fantasies and heroism is something very different than in a lot of Western or American stories. It’s much more complicated.

Princess stories are often romances and of the three stories I chose, the first story certainly is. Since I told that story from the perspective of Tien, he’s a young kid and he would have the notion that fairy tales are romantic and princesses will find princes and fall in love. But the other two stories, one is a horror story and one is a tragedy – or, was meant to be a tragedy before Tien’s mother flipped the script. The way that we imagine princesses in fairy tales often relates to where they end up and not really the journey that it takes for them to get there. I wanted to explore the different themes that fairy tales take on and why prioritizing different things will shift stories around quite a bit. The first story is about getting away from an abusive home situation. The second story has a different situation, but it’s also a horror/revenge story as well. The last one is a story about yearning and emotional lack of fulfilment and the desire to move from one place to another. They’re all different kinds of transition stories but they all prioritize different things. 

That raises the issue I wanted to talk about with the last story. Like so many people, you changed the story, and it becomes transformed into a story of queerness and changing worlds in a way that both fundamentally changes the story and remains true to it. Which is what I think characterizes so many fairy tales.

One of the temptations that you get into when you talk about fairy tales is that people will try to find the source. What is the progenitor of this fairy tale? That’s not a terribly interesting question for me. The Little Mermaid is a perfect example of that. We recognize the Disney narrative and some people understand that the Disney version is not the version in the storybooks. The storybook version that’s most popular is Han Christian Anderson’s, which was changed quite a bit from its previous iteration as Undine which is a novella that was really popular and became an opera before Anderson wrote his version of the Little Mermaid. Even after the publication of the Little Mermaid, a story that Anderson probably wrote from a perspective of queer loinging, he changed the ending to make it more colorful for a Christian Victorian audience. That story has made a lot of transitions even before it got to the corporate Disney version. The Little Mermaid is such a beautiful example of the ways that a story can change depending on the priorities of the storyteller and the desire of the storyteller to impart certain things to the audience. This story changes so much over the course of its existence – and the Little Mermaid is about transitions and change and going from one space to another. That’s something that Anderson felt very strongly about in his creative struggles and his lifetime. And never feeling like he quite belonged. It’s this great example of storytelling.

To switch to the technical side of things, I was curious about the color palette you chose for the book.

It was really practical. It took some workshopping with my editor to figure out how to tell a story in a comic book format. There are ways to do that and the color palette was a nice visual cue for readers to know where the story was taking place. It helps guide the reader along. It was a nice elegant and practical way to make sure that the story had different layers that flowed together really smoothly.

There’s a note in the front of the book about how most of the book was drawn in pen on paper, and the rest on a Cintiq. Why?

That was a logistical consideration, to be perfectly frank. I have been much more comfortable working traditionally. I love working with pen and ink and pencil and working on paper. It’s a bias that I have. However it’s great when you’re doing short comics, but if it’s doing a 230 page book, drawing and then inking and scanning and correcting and coloring, it starts to add up. I realized that if I wanted my editors to know that I’m serious about meeting my deadline, I had to figure out a way to speed up, so it was nice to transition to digital work so I could meet my deadlines. When I was done drawing the final line, I could just send it.

How did you find working digital? Your style is very ornate and illustrative and was it hard finding a way to do that on a tablet?

It was a very difficult transition for me! [laughs] I didn’t go to art school so I had no familiarity with any programs. I had a cintiq so I could start practicing on it and then I suddenly had this large project. I’d always been pretty comfortable with coloring digitally. It didn’t require the same precision of line required for my linework. It was really beneficial for me in the long run. It took a lot of learning but eventually it did make the process much more efficient and I was able to hit my deadlines more reliably. Now I’m a lot more comfortable working digitally. That was a really good choice but it was hard. [laughs]

I’d imagine drawing realistic scenes was easier than some of the fairy tales.

Yes. The fairy tales were a lot easier for me to draw traditionally. I could do some research and use some reference but I didn’t have to draw anything true to life. I was discovering that some of the real life snapshots that existed in real life needed a lot of reference so I had to figure out how to edit those parts digitally. It was a nice way to tie those processes together

I said that, but flipping through and I’m looking at page 188 and its this elaborate under water scene, you have characters ignoring panel borders, air bubbles everywhere, and doing it digitally may have saved you a step or three.

It saved me so much time! [laughs] Once I got used to figuring out how to use digital tools, my process was a lot faster. I could make the compositions a little more complicated as well. Which was really handy for the last fairy tale which has a lot of underwater scenes and everything is flowing everywhere so if I needed to convey motion or direction, I needed to be very specific. That process was easier. I didn’t have to do quite as much erasing.

As a last question, you grew up speaking two languages and you make comics, which are its own hybrid of different languages, and I wonder what that means to you and how you think about it.

Comics are special to me just because I am a visually oriented person. The notion that i should be able to tell a story with images and text is comfortable for me. I find visual storytelling a nice accessible way to encourage people to explore literacy. I had the experience, like characters in the story, of learning English alongside my parents. So we would read together and I would pick picture books because the pictures helped contextualize things in ways that are really helpful. I don’t mean to say that comics are for early readers or are easy reading. I think that developing an eye for visual language and how to dynamically interface with it is important. It helps you understand visual patterns. You walk around in the world and you can parse what advertisements are trying to sell you, you can be more intentional about being a consumer or watching television or the ways that people access visual language outside of book literacy. I think that a lot of that is taken for granted. Comic books and graphic novels are such a great way to continually exercise developing a dynamic understanding of what someone is trying to tell them. 

People often denigrate that. Picture books are something people associate with children and I think comics have a little brother complex with literature. There’s also an internal conflict about whether comics should be taken seriously. Even the semiotics around it have been fascinating to explore. I didn’t know there was a lot of tension behind the term graphic novel and what that implies. What is a novel? What is a graphic narrative? What does it mean? Would you still call an autobiography told in comic format a graphic novel? There’s a lot of different conversations happening within comics. And then outside of comics there’s a conversation about how serious they should be taken. It becomes so fraught and I find it frustrating sometimes but I think there’s a lot of benefit to making comics that are accessible to people who are not comics readers. I didn’t go to art school and I don’t have a strong background in comics. I come from a different visual tradition of children’s stories and fairy tales. A lot of comics that were presented to me as, this is a serious comic book and real literature, and I found a lot of them to be not terribly accessible. A lot of them are very self referential as well. So I had to think how I’m going to engage with this history and how I’m going to make my own thing. What are the hard rules and what are the soft rules of comics? I had to come up with my own ways sometimes and let go of the idea of a canon or an appropriate way to do a thing. Because at the end of the day, I’m just trying to tell a story and hopefully they will be accessible to another person who will be able to take it in and enjoy it. All those conversations around comics are things I find super helpful, but I just want to tell a story and I hope people like it!

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