Monday, July 01, 2013

The Eternal Smile

              I picked up The Eternal Smile this past weekend as part of my effort to fill in some gaps in my graphic novel reading.  Published back in 2009, it was a collaborative effort between cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Luen Yang, lauded authors of breakout works Same Difference and American Born Chinese, respectively.  As a fan of Kim’s elegant work on Same Difference, The Eternal Smile was a must-read for me. 
            The Eternal Smile is a collection of three short stories, only loosely linked by thematic elements: each story features protagonists struggling to derive solace and personal strength from fantasy, even while realizing that it can only be a temporary refuge from adversity.
            Our first story, “Duncan’s Kingdom,” introduces the eponymous young knight, who is on a quest to avenge the slain king and win the hand of his daughter, a lovely princess.  Duncan seeks his vengeance in the Swamp Lands, where the Frog King presides with a firm, if slimy and webbed, grip.  Thereabouts is where the story starts to dive into its jarring plot twist, where Duncan starts to link anachronisms in his medieval kingdom (in this case, soda bottles) to his perspective on his quest, his princess, and himself. 
            The second story, “Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile,” begins as a satirical take on 1940’s children’s comics and, halfway through, abruptly turns into something else entirely.  We begin with a wealthy frog embarking, along with his twin granddaughters and his bumbling assistant, on yet another profit-gathering adventure (very like Scrooge McDuck, yes?).  The tone of the story shifts dramatically when Gran’pa Greenbax’s assistant introduces him to the “eternal smile,” a disembodied grin hovering, Cheshire Cat-like, in the sky.
            “Urgent Request,” the last story in the trio, is really the reason to pick up The Eternal Smile, however.  While Kim’s art is crisp and beautiful throughout, it’s at its very best here, and Yang’s writing is at its strongest in this understated story.  “Urgent Request” follows Janet Oh, IT office drone, as she suffers a series of quiet personal and professional defeats with no sign of triumph visible on the horizon.  When Janet receives an email from a Nigerian prince begging for her financial assistance, she does the unexpected, and responds.  The story is rendered in subdued blues and inky blacks, apart from a brief and stunning series of watercolors towards the story’s end.
            Having read Kim’s and Yang’s later works prior to reading The Eternal Smile, I admit that I expected an equally ambitious effort.  While The Eternal Smile is a more unassuming outing for both authors, it’s certainly worth picking up.  At 170 pages, it makes for a quick read, with beautiful art and able storytelling throughout.


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