Shaenon Garrity reviews The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

Posted by on January 11th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

First Second; 176 pp., $16.95; Color; Softcover: ISBN: 9781596431560

Talk about a dream team.  Gene Yang’s previous graphic novel, American Born Chinese, was one of the most celebrated comics of 2006 and the first comic nominated for a National Book Award.  Derek Kirk Kim’s debut graphic novel, Same Difference and Other Stories, swept the comics industry awards in 2003 and established Kim as one of the most gifted of an up-and-coming generation of clean-line cartoonists.  (Since then Kim has written a second graphic novel, the Minx book Good as Lily, drawn by the criminally underrated Jesse Hamm.)  The Eternal Smile, a short-story collection written by Yang and drawn by Kim, was eagerly anticipated by fans of both creators, but anyone expecting a graphic novel on the level of their breakthrough works was likely disappointed; this is a strong, well-executed, but modest work that feels like a warm-up for more ambitious future comics.

Yang is the M. Night Shyamalan of cartoonists; his specialty is the third-act twist that redefines all that has come before.  In American Born Chinese, three apparently disparate storylines tie together in an unexpected way; Yang’s unfairly overlooked early graphic novels, Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks and Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order, also swerve at the climax.  All three of the short stories that comprise The Eternal Smile follow this formula, so forgive your critic for being vague when describing the plots; to tell more would be to risk OMG SPOILERS.  Beyond the plot twistiness, the stories share a similar theme: the value of fantasies and dreams, how they can be a powerful force to salvage or destroy the soul.  But this is a theme in much of Yang’s writing, and the stories don’t seem to connect in any deeper way.

The first story, “Duncan’s Kingdom,” is a colorized reprint of an early Yang/Kim collaboration, first published as a three-issue series by Image in 1999.  It tells the story of Duncan, a knight who wins the hand of his beloved princess by slaying the evil Frog King … but a strange recurring dream, the suspicious behavior of his mentor Brother Patchwork, and an anachronistic bottle of Snappy Cola clue him in on the possibility that something is amiss along his perfect hero’s journey.  Although the story is filled with clever details — a sequence in which a frog soldier swallows Duncan whole and spits him out at the Frog King’s feet is quietly marvellous — it has the marks of an early effort, a less sophisticated and more obvious exploration of some of the ideas Yang would revisit in American Born Chinese.  Kim’s art, however, is strong from the first page.  Kim continued to improve as an artist after “Duncan’s Kingdom,” by leaps and bounds, but even his early art, with its charming character designs and clean but friendly lines, is ridiculously good.

"Duncan's Kingdom"

It’s good to see “Duncan’s Kingdom” back in print after ten years, in a format where it’s likely to find a larger and more receptive audience than it did under Image.  Hopefully more publishers will take the opportunity to salvage good but forgotten small-press comics of the past, especially strong work that was lost in the indie glut of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The second story, “Grandpa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile,” is at once a parody of Carl Barks and a satire of organized religion (somewhat surprising, given the devout Catholicism expressed in Yang’s previous comics).  In a blobby, big-eyed world of cartoon animals, wealthy frog Grandpa Greenbax schemes to make enough money to fill his Pool O’ Cash.  When his nebbishy assistant Filbert discovers an unexplained phenomenon — what appears to be a Cheshire smile hovering in the sky — Grandpa hits upon the idea of founding a lucrative religion around it.  But this is only the first act of a story that changes direction several times in its short length before ending miles from where it started.  It’s almost too clever for its own good, albeit very funny along the way, and the big twist arrives abruptly, without foreshadowing.  The mendacity behind the classic Uncle Scrooge stories has often been parodied, but seldom so successfully.  Kim chooses an art style that recalls classic American funny-animal comics without directly copying them (there’s a lot of manga influence in the cutesy character designs), and the limited palette of bright reds, yellows and greens gives the art the right comic-book gloss.  (The coloring, by Kim and Elena Diaz, is excellent throughout The Eternal Smile, reflecting great sensitivity on the mood and style of each story.  Even the paper color changes as necessary.)

In the last and strongest story, “Urgent Request,” a mild-mannered office drone named Janet Oh answers a Nigerian e-mail scam from the apparently fictional Prince Henry Alembu.  Even as Prince Henry cleans out her bank account, their “relationship” provides an outlet for Janet’s fantasies of escaping her dead-end job and dishwater-dull life.  It’s impossible to reveal more without giving away key plot points, although the twists are less sudden, more organic here than in the previous stories.  Like “Duncan’s Kingdom,” “Urgent Request” involves a character trying to escape reality, but Janet is a more fleshed-out and sympathetic character than Duncan, and her story has more thoughtful — and ultimately more hopeful — things to say about the role of fantasy.  Kim matches the sweet, melancholic tone of the story with adorable artwork — all the characters have chubby super-deformed designs with big round heads — colored in somber violet-grey washes.  “Urgent Request” is a very strong story, some of the best work published by either writer or artist, and the collaboration between Yang and Kim is perfect here.

"Urgent Request"

The Eternal Smile isn’t the blockbuster readers have been awaiting from Yang and Kim ever since their respective breakthrough graphic novels.  “Duncan’s Kingdom” is an older piece, “Grandpa Greenbax” smart but unaffecting.  Only “Urgent Request” suggests a major step forward, with Yang becoming more subtle in his writing and Kim more flexible and imaginative in his art (it isn’t easy to make gray office cubicles catch the eye).  But it’s a solid collection of stories, and it’s always a great pleasure to see new work from either creator.

Images [© 2009 by Gene Yang and Derek Kirk Kim]

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One Response to “Shaenon Garrity reviews The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim”

  1. […] Over at the Comics Journal: Shaenon Garrity reviews The Eternal Smile; Rich Kreiner reviews last year's Humbug collection; and Rob Clough […]