The Eternal Smile (First Second)

eternalsmileheader.jpgThree trips into the human imagination with Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) and Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference and Other Stories).

176 pgs., color; 16.95

(W: Gene Luen Yang; A: Derek Kirk Kim)

Gene Luen Yang burst on to the comics scene in 2006 with American Born Chinese, a graphic novel which detailed his experiences growing up Chinese in a largely white American community, intertwined with tales of the folklore character the Monkey King and the story of the fictional character Chin-Kee. American Born Chinese made history as the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and was also the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award (given by the American Library Association) for young adult literature.

Yang’s latest work is The Eternal Smile, a collection of three short stories written by Yang and illustrated by Derek Kirk Kim, whose debut graphic novel Same Difference and Other Stories won both the Eisner and Harvey awards in 2004. Although this is their first book together, it’s not their first collaboration: in 1999 a black-and-white version of "Duncan’s Kingdom" (the first story in The Eternal Smile) was published as a two-issue miniseries by Image Comics.

Each story in The Eternal Smile examines how people use fantasy to escape the reality of their everyday world, and the beneficial effects that can come from such flights of fancy. If I were to give the book a tagline, it might be "Escapism: It’s not all bad!"

"Duncan’s Kingdom" begins in the heroic land of fairy tales, where knights in shining armor compete to perform glorious deeds in order to win the hand of the fair princess. Our hero Duncan, aided by the mysterious Brother Patchwork, slays the Fu Manchu-like frog king and claims the princess as his bride, but finds himself distracted just as it’s time to complete the wedding ceremony. Could it be that real life lies elsewhere? "Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile" is about a maniacal frog that will do anything, even exploit other people’s religious faith, in his unquenchable drive to accumulate wealth. It is the most self-consciously cartoonish of the three stories, and explicitly plays with the multiple levels of reality which exist in even a simple cartoon. "Urgent Request" tells the story of a downtrodden office worker who falls for a Nigerian email scam yet comes out the better for it.

Kim shows his versatility in illustrating the three stories in three contrasting styles, each of which is complements the theme and mood of the story in question. For "Duncan’s Kingdom" he adopts a colorful, semi-realistic Prince Valiant style which suits the medieval setting of the fantasy sequences, and retains this drawing style while shifting to a darker palette for the modern-day setting. "Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile" looks more like a kiddie cartoon (think of Scrooge McDuck as a frog) with color shifts to signal changes of locale and levels of reality, while "Urgent Request" uses small monochromatic ink drawings with a violet hue for the sequences set in grim reality, opening up with more colors and larger frames to indicate the main character’s imagined world.

 The Eternal Smile is intended for a YA audience, and I’m trying to keep that in mind when evaluating it. But to me it seems a big step back from American Born Chinese, which was more complex and at the same time more grounded in human reality. In contrast, the stories in The Eternal Smile often seem self-consciously clever, and sometimes use the narrative devices which are just clumsy and obvious (Snappy Cola, anyone?). There’s also an uncomfortable layer of didacticism in The Eternal Smile, particularly the second story: but maybe a younger audience will eat it up. On the plus side, Yang and Kim take us where graphic novels seldom go, to the innermost workings of the human imagination, and examine how our reality is constructed by our expectations as well as by the constraints of the external world.

The Eternal Smile is recommended for ages 14 and up. Further information and an online preview are available from | Sarah Boslaugh

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