Artist and comics creator Trung Le Nguyen produced one of the most important comics works of 2020: The Magic Fish. Speaking as someone who had it on their best-of list, I was amazed by the artistry, the beauty of the story, and the importance the work has — and will likely continue to have –on everyone who reads this magical book. It’s one of many fabulous graphic novels from the newly-minted comics publisher Random House Graphic, an offshoot of Penguin Random House — a list that also includes The Runaway Princess.
In continued celebration of the The Magic Fish, I had the opportunity to ask Le Nguyen a few questions about the project, his creative process, and any new work we can look forward to in 2021, among other topics.
AIPT: Hi Trung. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions! We are nearly six months since The Magic Fish has released, and while we’ve been under house arrest due to the pandemic, how has the reaction been to the graphic novel?
Trung Le Nguyen: I’ve been absolutely blown away by the reception, frankly! It’s somehow garnered six starred reviews from trade publications, and it’s been nominated for a handful of awards, including a Lambda Literary Award, a Cartoonist Studio Prize, and a GLAAD Media Award. It’s all very exciting, and I still haven’t fully wrapped my head around it. It’s neat.
AIPT: In many ways, The Magic Fish is a story of discovery for both Tiến and his mother Hiền, about themselves, about the world around them, and their relationship. What was the inspiration that inspired this work?
TLN: The most obvious one is that I just have a lot of fond memories of reading library books with my parents when I was a kid. The ways that activity facilitated language learning has always been an important part of my sentimentality around books. Underneath it all, I’m very interested in how dialogues about identity and queerness shift over time. I wanted to tell a story about what happens when families are motivated by a desire for connection while lacking the tools to build those connections. How do you cobble together a meaningful kind of support and protection for a kid experiencing something in a culture you don’t know, in a language, you don’t speak, and facing problems you never previously felt any cause to consider? I went in trying to figure that out and what my ideals around it look like.
AIPT: Told within the story are three fairy tales, two from Cinderella and one from The Little Mermaid. Did you write and draw this story chronologically or did you move around?
TLN: I hopped around a little bit in the early stages. I had to figure out why these individual stories mattered to me and to the main characters, why they would choose these stories as a placeholder for direct dialogue. I wound up doing a lot of research to figure out what each character’s imaginary worlds looked like based on the things they might have seen in their own lifetimes. Once I had all the pieces, it wound up being a pretty linear process.
AIPT: Were there any special considerations you took before embarking on a YA book?
TLN: I don’t think I thought that hard about what makes this book a YA book, honestly. YA readers, to my mind, are smart and compassionate people who can clock when someone is attempting to pander to them or condescend over them. They can readily extend their imaginations and their empathy far outside of their own experiences, so I didn’t even bother putting the protagonists within a traditional YA age range. One of them is a thirteen-year-old boy, and the other one is his mother, a woman in her mid-thirties. I like to joke that those two ages average out to approximately a young adult character’s age, but I truly believe YA readers just want a good story, something thoughtful and lovingly crafted.
AIPT: What made Random House Graphic the best publisher for The Magic Fish?
I wound up going with Random House Graphic because they wanted me on for more than one book, and I admired Gina’s editorial hand in storytelling. Gina Gagliano’s reputation as someone who is just an incredible font of comics knowledge really helped sway my decision. My confidence in that decision was further bolstered when Whitney Leopard came on board, too. I’d worked with Whitney in a smaller capacity before and had a great experience.
AIPT: I love your approach to color, texture, and layouts. How did you decide on which color to use for fairy tales, Hiền’s memories, and Tiến’s scenes?
TLN: I like to credit my editors with the color consideration. I don’t tend to be comfortable working with a full palette, and my editors knew I preferred to work in black and white, so they suggested limited palettes. That way, the time skips, and story universes are instantly legible, and I wouldn’t need to use captions in those moments. The colors were actually pretty simple for me to decide. I liked yellow for the past because it looks like a morning color to me. The reds indicate the present tense in the story, an afternoon color. The blues are a nighttime color when bedtime stories take place. I don’t know if anybody else reads it that way, but that’s how I thought of it as it was happening.
AIPT: The hand-drawn panels and the layouts are gorgeous, how do you approach setting up a page and did you ever have to scrap a page for whatever reason?
TLN: Yeah! I sure scrapped a few traditionally drawn pages when I realized the composition wasn’t going to work like I wanted. The speech balloons and the panels are such an integral visual element to the pages, and I needed to figure out how to treat them right. I worked out that I prefer to make sure room for the text was all there, and then I could compose the rest of the page and the panels around it. Everybody seems to do it differently, and it all seems to work out in the end. I love that comics are that flexible. Comic artists all seem to have different priorities that way.
AIPT: How do you approach staying creative while quarantined? Do you have a set routine?
TLN: I have no such thing. It’s not great! There have been a lot of life transitions happening around me during and after The Magic Fish. The universe truly took a look at my most careful planning, had a giggle, and went right on doing its worst. I think it’s a common experience for most people right now, so I don’t feel alone in it. I’ve been doing my best to sit back and try to enjoy other people’s work when I’m feeling stuck. We live in this incredible time where the enormous back catalogue of entertainment is readily accessible. Decades and decades of art and media are available to us, and I’ve been spending time exploring. It was so cool to see how movies changed as the studio system rose and then eventually sunsetted. I loved figuring out the relationship between children’s picture books, the evolution of print media, and the old gift book industry when those were a thing. Content is great, and I’m learning that I love sussing out where it comes from and how it happened.
AIPT: There is deep meaning to the human connection in this story, from a creator’s standpoint do you ever approach a scene knowing it may bring readers to tears?
TLN: The emotionality of the book surprised me a lot while I was making it. I originally set out to just draw what I loved to draw. I told myself I’d collect some fairy tales and draw some princesses and that would be that. It was very impersonal the way fairy tales are impersonal. Those stories are typically a bunch of archetypes motivated by the broadest strokes of their character. They tend not to have any psychology or pathos. They’re fun campfire stories, but they don’t make for terribly resonant lengthier YA stories where readers want to exercise their empathy and their thoughtfulness. And since it’s my debut, I gave myself permission, to be frank and personal because everybody’s debut is likely at least a little bit confessional. Even while I was drafting the script, it felt very matter-of-fact. It wasn’t until I drew the pages when all the feelings hit me. It wound up being so much heavier than I thought it would be, and I’m still surprised by that.
— Trung Lê Capecchi-Nguyễn (@Trungles) March 15, 2021
AIPT: The whimsical nature of this book is hard to resist, but then I’m wondering do you have any other genres you’d like to explore? What would a Trung Le Nguyen horror YA book look like?
TLN: That would be neat! I always think about modern horror stories as very close cousins to fairy tales. Even in The Magic Fish, there’s a dash of cannibalism that happens, so maybe a horror book wouldn’t be too huge a stretch for me. It does have its own history in comics that I’m not overly familiar with, though, and I feel like I’d need to know a little more about that before I could dive in and properly honor that tradition. That’s just how I prefer to work. I used to say that my work is not typically well-suited to superhero comics, but that’s changing.
AIPT: Perusing your Twitter, one might find a few Batwoman images. Is this a project we might expect at DC Comics or part of your Patreon?
TLN: Haha, yes! I’m doing a couple of short works for DC’s anthologies. So far, it’s been announced that I’m making a Batwoman comic for DC’s Pride anthology with James Tynion IV and Aditya Bidikar, and I’m doing a very short Green Lantern thing with Minh Lê. I’m honestly curious to see how I round up a superhero comic since they’re letting me do it how I like to work.
— Trung Lê Capecchi-Nguyễn (@Trungles) March 11, 2021
AIPT: Do you have any hobbies that are not comics-related that may inspire your comics work?
TLN: Since I finally got bookshelves for my house, I’ve been collecting old art books and children’s books. Most of my work is drawn from these instead of other comics, which lends a nice quirky texture to my comics, I think. I like reading about old folk tales from different places. Italo Calvino collected Italian fairy tales, and I love how he writes about them. I just got some annotated fairy story collections from Maria Tatar and Philip Pullman as well, and I’m excited to drink all of that in. I’m sure those will make their way into my comics in one form or another. Other than that, I just play a lot of video games, watch tons of old sitcoms, and take care of three very spoiled hens.
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