Review: The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim
The Eternal Smile: Three Stories
By Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim
First Second, May 2009, $16.95
Three years ago, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel [[[American Born Chinese]]] – a three-stranded partly autobiographical and partly allegorical story of growing up Asian-American – was published to massive acclaim (National Book Award nominee, Michael L. Printz Award winner) and success. And two years before that, Derek Kirk Kim’s debut comics collection, [[[Same Difference and Other Stories]]], was also highly lauded, winning the Eisner, the Ignatz, and the Harvey. But five years before that, Luen and Kim collaborated on a two-issue series for Image called [[[Duncan’s Kingdom]]].
The Eternal Smile collects Duncan’s Kingdom, along with two other stories – [[[Gran’pa Greenbax]]] and [[[the Eternal Smile]]] and [[[Urgent Request]]] – which seem to be new work, though the book never says that specifically. The three stories are held together only loosely by theme; they’re all about escapism and greed, in their own separate ways.
Duncan’s Kingdom is a medieval fantasy – Duncan is a young knight in the service of a king, who is killed by the agents of the (presumably evil, though the plot is so quick and straightforward that a lot of things are left as “presumably”) Frog King on the third page. The Princess declares that whatever knight can kill the Frog King and bring his head back to her will have her hand and be the next king, so Duncan sets out on the quest with his magic sword.
There’s a twist in the story – there would have to be, with such an over-used premise like that – and I’ll be discrete enough not to tell you what it is. But things turn out not to be just what they seem, though Duncan does show more than enough heroism before it’s all done. Duncan’s Kingdom is a bit facile, though, even with the twist – it’s one we’ve all seen a dozen times in earlier stories. This version of the story is told reasonably well, though Duncan never becomes a specific person rather than “our hero.”
Gran’pa Greenbax starts off looking like a parody of Barks’s “Unca Scrooge” stories, with the characters transformed to frogs: Gran’pa Greenbax is a nastier, greedier version of Scrooge, Filbert his hapless Donald-esque minion (without even a hint of Donald’s temper), and Molly and Polly are his cute little kid-identification characters, with their own version of the Junior Woodchucks Manual. But it veers away from those expectations almost immediately, as Gran’pa’s newest scheme to make money involves what looks like a giant grin in the sky.
Filbert names the oddity the “Eternal Smile,” and soon there’s the usual giant cathedral, and the usual swarm of people to be swindled, and then the slightly-less-usual old nemesis who horns in on the scam. The plot follows the religious theme very faithfully, and we’re expecting to see how Gran’pa finally learns his lesson when…there’s a big twist in this story as well. (And it, again, is one we’ve seen many times before, with some over-used parallels thrown in for spice.) Gran’pa does eventually find peace, in a sense, but the story doesn’t end in anything like the way it begins, and the transition is jarring.
And then the third story, Urgent Request, is about a mousy office assistant, Janet Ho, whom no one respects at work because she’s a doormat. (The art for most of this story is in moody blue tones, with few panels scattered across the pages, to add to the depressed, isolated feeling.) But then she gets one of those Nigerian-prince scam e-mails, and gives her banking information to her “Prince Henry.”
Urgent Request has some twists itself, but they’re all on the same level as the original story – the first two stories in Eternal Smile have immense, game-changing, everything-you-know-is-wrong level twists – so this story feels more plausible and down to earth than the first two.
But, still, when all three stories in your collection have serious, major twists in their plots and your name is not O. Henry and the year is 2009, the reader feels a bit of whiplash by the time the book is over. All three of these stories are reasonably successful – though Urgent Request is easily the best of them – but they work less well all in a row than they would in different contexts.
According to the copyright page at the end, Yang wrote the stories and Kim drew them. Kim’s work is particularly impressive there, since the three are in quite different styles – Duncan in a pre-Fables mainstream high fantasy look that owes something to Bill Willingham’s ‘90s work, Gran’pa in the crisp, clean-lined style of Gold Key animation comics, and Request in a very rounded look (an essentially American, indy-comics version of chibi, perhaps) and with those sparse, carefully placed panels. To my mind, he comes off somewhat better than Yang from this book – Yang’s stories are OK, but Kim’s art is impressive.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He¹s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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