I found my copy of The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam in Powerbooks Midtown. I wandered over to the nonfiction section and was looking for Persepolis (which like Maus is frequently shelved with the other "biographies") when I found something bright bluish green. I looked at the cover and was fascinated by the little drawing:
It was drawn by Ben Gibson and the inside pages suggest that it be shelved under the categories of "Magicians-China-biography-comic books, strips, etc." and also "Long Tack Sam-Comic books, strips, etc."
So is it a book about magicians from China, or a biography of a magician from China, or a comic book, period? It is all three, but the weird shelving contributes to the confusion. If I'm into comic books, I'd look at the comics shelf, or if I'm into biography, I'll head into the nonfiction section, where I'll find this between the biographies of Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Meanwhile, the review from Entertainment Weekly recommends this for fans of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. Wtf? But anyway, who reads EW for the book reviews, right? Also, the American Library Association lists it as part of their Top 10 Comic Books for Teens. So what is this book really?
But anyway, I liked the cover and when I looked inside the book, there was this rather crude drawing of a girl telling me that her life was all about messing with the proper borders. Ann Marie Fleming was born in Japan, but couldn't get a birth certificate because her parents were not Japanese. Her mother is from HongKong, but they couldn't go there and so it happened that her birth certificate was issued by Korea. All her life, this is what would happen.
Then she discovers that she has a great-grandfather who was a magician with a touring company at the height of Vaudeville. But she knows almost nothing about this man because her grandmother wouldn't say anything. So she travels around the world trying to find out who Long Tack Sam is.
She pieces together old photographs, playbills, posters, and drawings of herself as "Stickgirl" interviewing various people who had known or had known about Long Tack Sam. There are pages drawn in the style of the Golden Age of comics which detail the origins of Long Tack Sam. There are many versions, but the gist is always this: that Long Tack Sam was from a poor village, and he was training to be an acrobat, or had a mean older brother so he ran away and went hungry but saw this young boy/old magician and became his apprentice and that's how he came into the magic trade.
From there he goes around the world, marries an Austrian girl in 1908, has two little girls who later join his act, and when the moving pictures came, refused to join the circuit because the movies put Asians in a bad light. After two world wars and a bad wound, he got gangrene in his leg and died. And now, nobody knows who he is until his great granddaughter stumbled upon an old costume, playbill or photograph. And I didn't know this book existed if I hadn't wandered over to the nonfiction section in a big chain bookstore.
What makes this book interesting is the mixing of different styles to tell the story of the girl looking at her family history. It's a collage of photos, posters, playbills, drawings, etc. On some pages, there's a sidebar detailing the things happening around the world on a certain year: the news headlines, historical events, popular movie or song, etc. It's an attempt to contextualize the world beyond Long Tack Sam's traveling act. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes I just wish the author could blend it with the narrative.
It's also interesting that it was first a documentary before it was a comic book/graphic memoir/whatever it wants to be. There's a note from the author saying that at first she didn't know how to tell the story on the page after doing it on video. I haven't seen the docu, but I have a feeling that it pretty much retains the humor and the collage of different elements and fusing them together into a coherent narrative. And that for me, is ultimately what it should be: a well-told story. And in that aspect, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam succeeds as a good read.
EDIT: Caleb Mozzocco of Every Day is Like Wednesday has a good review of the book. He shows page scans (which I can't do as I have no scanner and zero scanning abilities) detailing the different styles employed by Fleming in the book. Here is a sample from the Golden Age of Comics section: