The Eternal Smile – a nice idea that just doesn’t quite work.
by Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim
First, an admission. Like many other readers of comics, there are things I’ve always had on the reading list that I really, really should get around to reading but never have. Anyone who says they’ve read everything they want to and everything that interests them is either lying or profoundly dull. But it’s rare that my lack of reading comes and bites me in the ass the way it has now. Because I have to admit that I haven’t read either American Born Chinese or Same Difference and Other Stories. I meant to, I really did, but there’s only so many hours in the day and even with the 4 or 5 hours sleep I seem to survive on, I can’t read everything. However, I had heard so many very, very good things about both books that they’ve both been on the to-read list since they were published. I’ve looked at Same Difference and enjoyed the art, but never actually gotten around to reading it – one day, one day.
(For a quick view of just how highly regarded Same Difference is – here’s Kenny’s take on it: Derek Kirk Kim is a brilliant comics writer and artist; his ‘Same Difference and Other Stories‘ stands as one of the best Graphic Novels of the last 10 years, and should be in everyone’s library. He has a fantastic ear for dialogue and his stories have the ring of ‘real life’ experience because of that.)
Anyway, back to The Eternal Smile. Three relatively short stories from Yang (writing) and Kim (art) that all concern themselves with fantasy, wish-fulfilment, the nature of personal reality and the promise of a better tomorrow whilst making the all too-obvious point that, whilst a vivid fantasy life may be fine, sometimes you really should come back down to earth and enjoy reality a little more. Each tale starts one way and twists around by the ending to cleverly transform the story into something darker, fantasy turns to near reality and all three tell tales of simultaneous hope and despair.
(Duncan’s Kingdom, the first story in The Eternal Smile. Art by Derek Kirk Kim)
Duncan’s Kingdom, the first tale starts as a standard sword and sorcery fantasy epic, with Duncan, our slight and weedy hero vanquishing all comers to defeat the Frog-King and win the heart of the princess. But Duncan’s fantasy epic proves to be just that and reality starts creeping in to bring his world into harsh relief. Similarly, Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile, although told as a simple cartoon initially with a Barks’ style, soon establishes itself as something far different and Gran’pa Greenbax finds out he’s far more than a cartoon frog in a media driven world just like our own and maybe, just maybe, the simple world of just being a frog isn’t such a bad thing after all. In the final, and most effecting of the three, Urgent Request, office worker Janet seems to find solace from her desperate 9-5 lifestyle in the emails from a Nigerian prince. All he needs is her money and a life of romance and riches could be hers. Urgent Request has a slightly different structure to the others as the story starts in the dull monotony of Janet’s life and explodes into colourful fantasy as Janet’s eventual tracking down of the sender (no surprise – not a Nigerian prince at all) triggers a moment of happiness that pushes her to change her life.
Each of these tales serves up a twist in the ending with reality and fantasy finding a way to impose upon each other. To describe the mechanics of the reveals would rob the tales of their heart, so I won’t try to go any further. Suffice it to say that each tale turns on moments when fantasy and reality meet and the revelation spurs each character on to a life-changing moment.
(Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile, where the Barksian art masks a story with far more real world problems.)
The main problem with The Eternal Smile is that each tale reads as merely an introduction to a story, the first chapter in what could become a good body of work. Yet, as far as I know there’s no follow up planned, no ending to the three stories here. So each tale is merely a fragment, good ideas cut off in their prime with the characters on the cusp of doing something wonderful and positive with their lives, spurred on by the realisation that they’ve been both held back and empowered by their fantasies. I wanted more from this, more than just a series of nice, well told ideas that, in the final analysis, led nowhere.
(Urgent Request, the last of he three tales, and the most successful to my eyes looks at Janet’s world of dismal, dull relaity and a glorious, happy fantasy world.)
Credit has to go to Derek Kirk Kim for illustrating all three in radically different yet impressive styles, from the very mainstream look of Duncan’s Kingdom, to the high cartooning of Gran’pa Green bax to the “ugly-cute” minimalism of Urgent Request that starts in office monotony grey and explodes into colour in her fantasy sequence. Each one looks fine, and Kim proves just how good a storyteller he is through all three stories. I just wish he had a little more to go on. I really must read Same Difference.
(The fantasy in Urgent Request that shines through at the end of the story. Art by Derek Kirk Kim.)
So, sadly, The Eternal Smile is an enjoyable, yet disappointing work. What the two authors are trying to do, exploring the ideas of fantasy and wish-fulfilment is laudable, but their approach to it is that most frustrating of things, so very close to brilliance that it’s almost within reach, but in the end it just falls short. So each of these three stories ends up coming off as the opening chapter in a story that could have been so much more. Maybe one day we’ll get Eternal Smile part 2 where all three stories will find their feet, until then, a big disappointment.