The Eternal Smile

A collaboration between two new American comics artists; Gene Luen Yang, creator of the National Book Award-winning "American Born Chinese" (which I found to be wonderful), and Derek Kirk Kim, who did "Good as Lily" (which I found to be good but not great), "The Eternal Smile" is made up of three separate stories, each dealing with the struggle between dreams and reality. It doesn't say who did which (I'm pretty sure Kim did the first and Yang did the second, but I can't say for sure), but all three feature that is subtle but powerful and art that is utterly beautiful.

"Duncan's Kingdom," the first story, opens with the king of a fairytale kingdom being killed by assassins from his enemy, the Chinese-inspired Frog King. His daughter the princess declares that whoever brings back the head of the Frog King will win her hand and kingship of the realm. Duncan, a young soldier besotted with the princess, leaps at the chance and, armed with a mighty sword given to him by his mysterious monk friend Brother Patchwork, manages to succeed in his quest. But something he discovers there will shatter his very reality...

The title story, "Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile," starts out as a pastiche of "Ducktales," except instead of ducks we have frogs: the incredibly rich old frog Gran'pa Greenbax is constantly searching for Profitable Adventures (tm) in order to fill his Pool O' Cash enough that he won't hit bottom when he dives in. Discovering that he doesn't have quite enough gold, he threatens his beleaguered assistant Filbert to come up with a new plan. Desperate, Filbert takes Greenbax out into the desert, to show him something he had discovered: a mysterious smile suspended in the sky which indicates to Filbert that the foundation of the world might be joy rather than indifference. Greenbax,being the miser he is, sets up a church in order to extort money out of parishioners attracted by the miraculous smile. But Greenbax soon discovers that the smile is not what it appears to be...

"Urgent Request" has as its hero a drab and timid office assistant named Janet Oh. Dissatisfied at work and at home, she responds to a spam email from a supposed Nigerian prince asking for her bank account number, striking up an odd relationship via email with the "prince." But when she decides to meet the prince in person, he isn't quite what she was expecting...

Of the three, the first is unquestionably the best. It is relatively simple, short and sweet, but with a surprising level of complexity underneath its simple exterior. I liked how tiny details turned out to be wildly important, in ways that are both surprising and comprehensible. What's off about Duncan's world is revealed early on (it first appears on the sixth page of a 55 page story), but its significance needs to be slowly but surely built up in order to understand what it means. All in all, it is a wonderful story.

The second story is all right, but in truth it feels like two stories, divided by the revelation as to what the Eternal Smile actually is, and that kind of bothers me. The first is a surprisingly dark satire not only of "Ducktales" and similar funny animal cartoons, but organized religion, while the second is a "Truman Show"-like examination of the perception of reality. The first could function quite well on its own (granted, the reveal of what the Eternal Smile is would probably be interpreted very differently without the second part to explain it), and the second part added to it kind of drags the first part down, This is a shame as the second half is also the more sophisticated half, and has a beautiful end. It felt like there was too much in this story.    

As for the third...it was only OK. It wasn't bad, but to me it was too drab and depressing. Even those bits in color (most of the rest is intentionally colored in drab grays) are washed-out pastels, and this just accentuates similar problems with the narrative. Janet Oh is a rather pathetic character, who is at least on some level conscious of what is going on with the Nigerian prince, and yet she does nothing to stop what happens. I found it hard to sympathize with her, because she doesn't stand up for herself enough, which makes it hard for me to care.

All in all, find this book at the library. All three stories are worth reading, but really only the first is worth buying. I look forward to see what Yang and Kim turn out next, and I hope it'll be more of the quality of "American Born Chinese" than this book. 

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