Gene Luen Yang’s last book was 2007′s extremely well-received American Born Chinese, a book I feel quite comfortable calling “brilliant” without worrying if I’m over-praising it. Derek Kirk Kim is responsible for 2004′s whip-smart Same Difference and Other Stories, and for writing 2007′s Good As Lily, one of the better books from DC’s abandoned Minx line. The pair collaborated on The Eternal Smile (First Second), an extremely inventive and imaginative work that features a remarkable breadth of cartooning skills and styles, and I expect you’ll hear a great deal of well-deserved praise for the book in reviews of it.
So I’ll seize the opportunity to be contrarian: The Eternal Smile is a disappointment. It’s an anthology with three different, standalone short stories, with nothing in common between them save the creators and the fact that in each case, there’s a twist that reveals that they’re not about what they at first seemed to be about. Comparing it to American Born Chinese might be unfair, but the three narratives, one book structure begs the comparison, and in doing so underlines the new book’s greatest weakness.
In American Born Chinese, Yang started with what seemed like three incredibly disparate story threads, and braided them all together by the end. In The Eternal Smile, there are impermeable walls around each story, which would be perfectly fine if they managed to add up to something greater, or play off of one another in some way, but that never occurs. And the book certainly head-fakes that it’s going somewhere, what with two back-to-back stories prominently involving frogs. The whole is exactly equivalent to the sum of its parts, so what’s the point of adding them all together in the first place?
That’s the downside of Eternal Smile, that it’ s not a truly great work of comics. It’s still a long, long way away from being a bad comic though, and if a comic can’t be be great, well being pretty great isn’t too shabby an accomplishment either.
The opening story, “Duncan’s Kingdom,” deals with a young knight who goes on a quest to avenge the death of his king and win the princesses hand in marriage. In the process of doing so, he stumbles across something strange, and learns that things aren’t what they seem at all. I’d rather not spoil the twist, and I feel I’ve already sucked some of the excitement out of your reading by even mentioning that there is a twist, but suffice it to say that what’s really going on is rather banal. There are highly dramatic events, but they ring false, like someone’s ideas of what would be highly dramatic events. The style of this piece is a slightly-cartoony, boys adventure style, which makes the turn seem all the more subversive.
I think the second story may be the strongest, and perhaps the creators themselves would agree, as it’s where the book gets its title from. “Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile” is a one-for-one parody of Carl Barks‘ Scrooge comics, in which a greedy, miserly frog, his ill-treated and poorly paid nephew with a speech impediment and his nieces with rhyming names and color-coded costumes seek out a get-rich scheme, only to run afoul of Gran’pa’s rival greedy, miserly, rich rivall, who is more ethnic than our hero.
I enjoyed seeing how the pair systematically parodied elements of the duck comics, and their portrayal of the Scrooge character as a complete monster. After the twist—which will be quite familiar from other stories you’ve encountered in other media, but is used to great effect here—things get quite deep, and this is one story I had to read over again as soon as I finished, this time to see how the knowledge of the twist beforehand effects the pre-twist portions of the story. (A quibble: If the Disney analogies are meant to comment on Walt Disney, Carl Barks and the Disney corporation somehow, the meaning seems muddied by conflating the three, and likewise conflating animation and comics).
The final story is “Urgent Request,” the sad story of a shy, put-upon office drone woman who gets an email from a Nigerian prince requesting funds from her, and not only does she comply, she does so repeatedly, building up a relationship with the prince, even if it only exists in her mind. The character designs in this story are all short, stocky and cute, the characters having Hummel figurines proportions and soft, squishy looking features. The bulk of the story occurs in small, single-color panels, each far away from one another on pages dominated with open space, but when our protagonist sees her prince, the panels open up, growing bigger and gaining color.
Despite my disappointment that it wasn’t as good as I assumed a Yang/Kim collaboration might be, and that the book amounted to a collection of three single comics stories with little relation to one another, it’s still well worth a read for comics fans, if only to see what two important creators have been up to and to taken their extremely impressive formal accomplishments.