Teen Thursday: Like Two Sides of One Coin

Griffin (like the monster) shares two graphic novels he recently read, The Magic Fish and Flamer. Both titles are available now at bookpeople.com.


A few years ago, my wife and I traveled through eastern Europe where I enjoyed the National Marionette troupes of both Austria and Czech Republic. Both marionette shows were in their nation’s national playhouse, both performed Mozart operas, and both were delightful. Yet they were so vastly different! The Austrian troupe’s performance in a spacious house, with a deep stage and broad special effects exhibited refined craft, and detailed marionette acting, highly polished. The Czech group played more broadly, marionetteers joining the puppets on the stage in an older, more intimate setting with a more improvisational tone. A similar dynamic appears between two YA graphic novels I recently read: The Magic Fish and Flamer; like a dinner of sushi, neatly arranged, highly crafted, followed by a big ole plate of Sloppy Joes.

Both Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish and Mike Curato’s Flamer tell the story of young men seeking and understanding their identities in a culture often problematic for such questions, and each is presented in unique graphic novel form. Tien, of The Magic Fish, fears revealing his preferences to his mother, but becomes resolved with her through their shared story of a magic fish. Aiden, of Flamer, feels uncomfortable with some of the jokes and play among his scouting friends but also comes to terms with his own identity. But there the likeness ends.

In fine line style and emblematic color supporting the emotional content of the artwork, The Magic Fish represents much of what is prized among manga; solid panel work and storytelling, a refined line, a lovely color palette that reflects the delicacy with which Tien picks out a path to resolve his fears about his mother’s acceptance of his newly discovered identity. It is beautiful, charming, and sensitive.

Curato and Nguyen remind us how we can all be the same and all be different, too.”

In contrast, Curato’s Flamer is almost all emotion, bold, highly cartooned in broad pencil strokes and expressive blasts of red and yellow, as if Aiden himself has drawn a journal of his experience with his fellow scouts. Where Tien is sensitive and a little withdrawn, Aiden engages in the rough and tumble of scouting with gusto, but is still affected by comments and prejudices of his fellows. In the end, too, he is resolved to the confusing signals surrounding him and prepared to pursue his own identity despite them.

So, while both stories recount a similar experience, they approach from angles as different as those in reality, each artist able to express that experience in styles expressly suited to their stories. Curato and Nguyen remind us how we can all be the same and all be different, too.

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