As Ann Marie Fleming unveils the secrets and history from her uncle’s life in a manner resembling a scrapbook, she utilizes creative and entertaining methods to convey her story. The intertwining of her story with Long Tack Sam’s creates both an informative and well crafted biography for the reader, rather than a boring or tedious block of text. The details of her uncle’s life are gradually revealed as Fleming constantly discovers more and more about her uncle. In some instances, the information she receives contradicts her previous knowledge of her immensely talented uncle. She employs a variety of images and emotions to create a more interesting presentation of what she has learned about Sam, interweaving fact and fiction. For example, when she first learns of the origin of Long Tack Sam, the first interview she read by him displayed Sam as a poor child who wanted to eat and subsequently learn magic. Soon afterwards she uncovers another version with Sam as the son of an imperial officer who got into trouble and was forced into the circus life to survive.
The author who presents the story takes the form of a stick girl, roaming the world for simple scraps of information about Sam. As she interviews relatives and other civilians, she discovers pictures, posters, and extraordinary stories about her well respected uncle. Her interesting style of presentation makes the story more unique and appealing. The start contrast between her stick figure and the actual photographs of her uncle as well as the drawings of her uncle’s life separate the story into distinct fragments that creates a more bearable way of reading a biography. Fleming’s knowledge of her uncle’s life is in fragments, with bits of gossip here or an old family friend there. She accumulates stories of the discrimination that Sam faced because of his race, despite his status as a prominent entertainer, as well as stories of Sam’s vaudeville endeavors.
Throughout all of the exaggerated or imaginary myths surrounding Sam’s existence, some facts remain more reliable in his life. From his childhood, Long Tack Sam was trained in China to be a magician and acrobat. Shortly after, he toured Europe with his troop to perform and married an Austrian woman while buying soap and toothpaste. When he arrived in America, he performed magic with many of the most famous magicians, including Cary Grant, George Burns and Jack Benny. However, during this time there was intense discrimination and his traveling was limited by immigration laws from Canada. Long Tack Sam also refused to act in theatre because movies during this time only offered the Chinese roles as villainous, sneaky and degrading characters. Because of Long Tack Sam’s limited scope in terms of where he could perform and what he could do, his fame depleted as Vaudeville became less popular, until it deteriorated to the point where Fleming needed to scour the world for information about him.
In order to convey her findings of Sam’s life, Fleming utilizes a unique combination of real photos and cartoonish drawings further serve to personalize the history presented in this story. Indeed, it is mostly likely that the first thing the reader will realize is the unique method of presentation The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam offers. While a graphic novel, this book distinguishes itself by interweaving real photos from the time period into the story, often presenting contrasting panel's of the artist's personal work and historical images. This contrast allows for a more personal feel to the whole story, as the Fleming would show an actual photo from the time period, and then draw her own imagination of Sam's experience. Combined with a font that mimics handwriting, this entire novel presents Fleming's search for answers in a very casual way that becomes easy for the reader to accept and relate to.
Fleming also changes the balance of historical photos and her own drawings depending on the subject and the mood she wishes to convey. An example can be found on page 112, where Fleming describes the negative attitudes towards the Chinese during that time. On these panels, there aren't any of her own drawings. The first panel and the last two show Sam and his daughters, while the two in the middle column shows how Chinese were portrayed during the time; namely as bandits, opium smokers, and other villains. By using only film stills, Ann avoids to mitigate the seriousness of the racism during that time. Had she included the Stickgirl and other comical features, some of the severity in this issue would definitely have been lost. In stark contrast, the three “biographies” of Sam are presented in entirely comical fashion, complete with with crude approximations of Golden Age comic book covers. By avoid any actual photos from the time period, Fleming ensures that Sam's past is continually shrouded in mystery, and leaves the reader guessing as to how much is truth, and how much is myth.
Yet as the reader becomes engrossed in the life of Long Tack Sam, Ann Marie Fleming consistently maintains her narrative of genealogical discovery. By weaving into the biography the interviews of Long Tack Sam’s contemporaries and bits of her own life, Ms. Fleming not only recounts soundly the life of her great-grandfather, she also presents a strong, vivid account of how personal historical discovery can be. Rather than simply detailing his life, Ann Fleming has written an illustrated memoir to her discovery of Long Tack Sam. Fleming first explores her motivation in studying the distant exploits of a distant relative. As her grandmother’s death brought the stories of performance, fame and celebrity of her father back into Fleming’s mind, she happened upon some film connecting the Long Tack Sam she had heard little of to the great-grandfather she had seen nothing of. Ann Fleming conducts her biography with the curious mind that many come upon when looking through photographs of relatives or hearing stories of people long passed. In fact, many of the panels in the graphic novel are simply photographs of Long Tack Sam and his family. As his story progresses through the book, Fleming maintains the visual atmosphere of the young historian, pouring over snapshots strewn about an attic. Her interviews with Long Tack Sam’s colleagues are also accompanied with pictures bringing an air of reality to their accounts that would not be found in a standard biographical work. That Ann Fleming also includes, pictorially and in narrative, tales of her traveling to these knowledgeable treasures in her comic do much to enhance and make prominent the active aspect of history. Elaborating Long Tack Sam’s circumstances during the world wars ties those events to his person, and her recollections, such her Chinese hospitalization, ties him to a child looking towards his ancestors. Ms. Fleming does more than effectively make the reader and herself empathize with Long Tack Sam, she creates an accurate image of historical study most don’t envision.
Another noticeable feature is the lack of a uniform layout for the panels, which draws parallel to Fleming's wandering search of Sam's history. Indeed, very rarely will two pages feature the same layout. Instead, each page differs from the other, and by eliminating boundaries between the graphics, Fleming presents an open world for the reader to explore through. The random setup, sometimes featuring seven pictures on one page and one the next, also juxtaposed with the occasional historical timeline, deprives the reader of a sense of rigid path to follow. In fact, some pages, such as 100, lack even panels around the images. This loose and open format mimics the meandering path Fleming took in search of Sam's past, spanning from large American cities to remote Chinese villages. The reader, instead of viewing her experience through a strict setup, joins her as she drifts from hint to hint, lead to lead, with only Stick girl as a signpost, although at times she is just as lost as anyone else.
In The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, Fleming creates a fascinating tale about her exotic uncle while simultaneously creating another equally entertaining story about her adventures to discovering her uncle’s life. The intricate mixture of realistic and animated images helps to develop both plots in the clearest possible manner.
Fleming, Ann, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. New York: Penguin Group Inc, 2007. Print.