Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Reader's Diary #743- Ann Marie Fleming: The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam

You hear so many musicians say, "I hate being classified as..." as if being referred to solely as a jazz musician or a heavy metal band would be the most creatively stifling sentence they can imagine. I've always been able to see their logic, but I'm a closet taxonomist and therefore my iTunes has such labels as "Dub/Reggae/Reggaeton" and "Protopunk/Punk/Pop Punk." So I if want to listen to a mix that contains Bob Marley and Daddy Yankee, I can. Likewise for the Ramones and Green Day. It's not perfect. I still don't know exactly where to put ska. With the reggae? With the punk? Should ska punk have its own label? Specials aside, the system has worked for the most part and classification hasn't steered me wrong. Until now.

I found The Magical Life of Sam, by Ann Marie Fleming, on the graphic novel shelf at the local library. (Raidergirl recently remarked that her local library did the same with John Gallant's Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea due to Seth's illustrations.) But The Magical Life of Sam is predominately made up of photos and captions and I found myself balking most of the time that this isn't a graphic novel at all, it's nothing more than a scrapbook!

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam
basically chronicles Ann Marie Fleming's genealogical research into her great grandfather, a world famous vaudevillian magician. Sam's performances took him all over the world back in the early 1900s and Fleming's search for knowledge and stories of the man, did the same. Her efforts were first put into a documentary, of the same name as the book, that won a few awards after it was first released in 2003. I have not seen the film.

However, in the author notes at the end of the book, Fleming writes that "the flavor and tone and subtext of the film [...] is essentially [of] a giant collage/scrapbook." And that's when I reconsidered my enjoyment of the book. While my library had classified the book as a graphic novel, and a graphic novel adaptation was indeed Fleming's intent (based on a request from her editor), it is best enjoyed as a scrapbook... and not, as I discreditingly suggested earlier, as "nothing more than a scrapbook."

I realized that, as one who dabbled in genealogy and family records before (made all the more easy with a rare last name like Mutford), as someone who enjoys traveling, and as one who enjoys biographies, I had been quite drawn into the story of Long Tack Sam. I also enjoyed learning about the early days of vaudeville. In hindsight, it was quite well put together. In the margins, starting with 1882 (three years before Sam's birth) and going all the way up to 2007, the year the book was published, Fleming has included the year's major global events, including political, technological and pop culture news. I found it provided excellent perspective.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of comics illustrated by Julian Lawrence. A fascinating discovery, and one which I can relate to from my own family tree, was the multiple versions of Sam's origins. As stories pass down over the years, story-tellers tend to embellish, put their own spin on it, sometimes create out right lies, sometimes just minor tweaks to keep things interesting. The effect, of course, is that reality is difficult to determine at best. But, instead of being frustrated with the various tales, Fleming embraces them and each story is given its own mini-comic, a la the many alternate universes and stories of say Batman or Spiderman. And while I said earlier the book is mostly photos, I still think Lawrence should have gotten illustration credit on the cover. The few illustrations by Fleming herself are poorly drawn, mostly stick figures.

While I did end up with a favourable impression of The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, I don't, without having read the other contenders that year (365 Days: A Diary by Julie Doucet, Spent by Joe Matt, and Southern Cross by Laurence Hyde), think that The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam was deserving of the Doug Wright Award in 2008. According to their website, this award "is awarded annually to the author of the best Canadian work and the most promising talent published in English in the cartooning medium." For all its merits, there just isn't enough cartooning, especially of the good stuff by Lawrence, to justify the award. Even the photos aren't particularly artistic, more of the simple kind you'd find in a box in your grandma's attic. I wonder what those jurors were thinking. Katrina Onstad, Ho Che Anderson, Marc Glassman, Mariko Tamaki and Helena Rickett-- any of you care to share some insight?


Barbara Bruederlin said...

It doesn't sound like a book that I would be in any great rush to swift through, to be honest.

And for the record, ska definitely needs its own category.

John Mutford said...

Barb: Okay, so where do the Pogues fit it? My punk category or my Celtic/Irish/Newfoundland category? Maybe I have to take it song by song.

Perogyo said...

This really sounds fascinating. I've never read anything similar.