Drawing the Line Stage Magician Turns Tragedy into Art

Drawing the Line Stage Magician Turns Tragedy into Art
Stage magic is, if you'll pardon the pun, tricky business — proper planning needs to be extensive and invisible; correct tools must be employed yet seem natural; and of course, when the unexpected does inevitably occur, one must be able to react quickly and without panic. Especially if one of those turns could cost you your life.
Suley Fattah is a self-confessed non-conformist who recently faced just such a turn when a routine medical check-up revealed cancer in its early stages. "The next words out of my mouth were ‘Is it terminal?'" Fattah says. "The doctor said ‘No, it's curable' so I said ‘Fine, I'm going to do the show.'"

The show in question was traditional illusionist David Ben's theatrical magic performance The Conjurer; Fattah serves as an on-stage assistant to the man he considers a close personal friend. "He was devastated," Fattah says of Ben's initial reaction. "He was basically the first person we told, because we were doing the show; a lot depends on me and we'd have to find a replacement."

Fattah's "the show must go on" attitude is admirable, but not necessarily shared by his wife or friends around him. "Dealing with Suley's cancer was really an education and an adventure," says his wife, Julie Eng, also a stage magician. "Suley's insistence at sharing with people around us immediately was jarring at first. My first reaction was to be hush-hush and not talk about it. I guess it was a reflex to keep something that I had no control over under control."

He responded well to chemo and radiation treatments and Fattah missed only one performance of Ben's The Conjurer; it led some friends to suspect he wasn't dealing with the reality he faced. "Because of his fairly cavalier and open attitude, a lot of people came up to me saying he's delusional or he's in denial," according to Eng. "I had to reassure them ‘No, he's actually okay having cancer in his life. He realises, left untreated it's fatal. So he's getting it treated and following the advice of oncologists, but refuses to let cancer run his life."

Enduring this kind of battle never happens alone, but for Fattah, specific inspiration came in the form of a gift: his friend Ron Boyd gave him a lovingly drawn and painstakingly inked piece of art. It showed a man waiting for a streetcar, cradling in his arms a bright, red package — the only splash of colour in the black and white picture. It came to symbolise everything he had received through his ordeal, the "intangible" gifts of love and support.
It was while taking a course through Landmark Education that Fattah conceived of a way to give back in the same spirit as that artwork — in the form of a comic book. "At that point in time, I was at the third level of the course," explains Fattah. "We were assigned a project to do, and my project was a bit more ambitious — I decided to tap into the comic book world."

Entitled Drawing the Line, Fattah's book collects original art from artists all over the world (see sidebar); it also won a Shuster Award, the Canadian equivalent to an Eisner. Fattah worked ceaselessly to gather art and cash donations. Eng, his wife, marvels at his tenacity. "I'm a control freak and love to have all the details worked out well in advance. But Suley is a more ‘Let's see what happens' kind of guy. As he contacted people and got positive responses and as a result, contributions, we were constantly amazed at a) how many people in our lives who have already been touched by cancer and b) how generous every one was either by contribution, or purchase of the book. The book project was a good kind of stress to see Suley under."

Like a magician performing for an unbelieving audience, Fattah had to deal with some scepticism along the way. Two co-ordinators that he worked with who were involved with the hospital he'd received treatment at couldn't believe that a comic book could actually raise money for charity. Proving people wrong and doing the seemingly impossible happen to be what Fattah does best.

Exclusive Cerebus and Other Tales
Drawing the Line drew a lot of attention when it was first released, not only because all proceeds went directly to charity, but for who was featured in the book. Fattah went to great lengths to make sure that everyone who could participate was given the opportunity to do so. Surprisingly, even though Fattah is relatively unknown in the comic scene, the artists responded with gusto and in one case, gave Fattah something he didn't expect.

One of the biggest surprises Fattah received was the participation of legendary Cerebus creator Dave Sim. Fattah contacted Sim at Asquith's suggestion to invite him to do a piece for the book. What Fattah didn't know was that Sim was 17 pages away from finishing the 300th (and final) issue of Cerebus when he called him. "He yelled at me," laughs Fattah. "What he really meant was ‘give me few days to think about it and I'll get back to you.'" The piece eventually donated to Fattah's book by Sim is actually issue #301 of his award-winning series. It takes place directly after the last issue Sim said he would do, and is only available in Fattah's book.

When Drawing the Line was completed, Fattah left the path of conformity again. He decided on Indigo for his launch party, something that had never been done with a graphic novel, let alone a self-published one. "What I really wanted, aside from the fundraising, was to bring new readers into the world of comics. Working with Indigo allowed people who had never taken comics seriously before to view them from another angle. It was a very interesting combination."

With the second volume, Drawing the Line Again, due this spring, Fattah is even more excited. With almost 150 pages of original content by newcomers and veterans of the comics and graphics world, the second volume, again with all proceeds going to charity, will be distributed across the continent.