fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Eternal Smile: Three Stories by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsI just finished reading The Eternal Smile for a second time to see if I would like it as much as I did the first time. The answer is, “Yes.” There’s no doubt in my mind that this work is a truly great comic book that is unique in presenting three very different short stories with overlapping themes. They are extremely different in look and in genre, but they come together to present some unified ideas about the dreams we have, the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories of our lives that we want to deny.

Artist Derek Kirk Kim, though perhaps not as well known as Gene Luen Yang, has written and illustrated several books I love and hope to review in the near future: Same Difference and Tune: Vanishing Point and Tune: Still Life. Author Gene Luen Yang is best known for his graphic novel American Born Chinese, which has won almost every award anybody could think up. It usually gets mentioned in the same duncans kingdom coverbreath as Maus and Persepolis, particularly by those who tend to have a distaste for superhero comic books and claim to read “graphic novels” only and not “comics.” American Born Chinese IS a great graphic novel — a label I save for comic books issued as stand-alone novels rather than collected monthlies. However, though I like The Eternal Smile even better, I can imagine that fans of American Born Chinese, Maus, and Persepolis who also do not like a wide variety of comics, will still like American Born Chinese better than The Eternal Smile. Why? Because this short story comic book collection plays with comic book genres in a way that I think will be best appreciated by those who read widely in this field of art.

The first story, “Duncan’s Kingdom,” is told as a fairy tale: Duncan is a young man who, haunted by dreams and in love with the daughter of the king, is a young member of The Royal Guard. When the King dies at the hand of the Frog King, the princess promises to marry and to make king whoever kills the Frog King. Duncan, assisted by a strange monk — Brother Patchwork — whose face is covered by a patchwork mask, decides to venture into “The Swamp,” to brave its dangers, in order to avenge the King’s death. His short series of quests begins there, but each quest is successively stranger than the one preceding it.

eternal11Something is odd in this fairy tale, and at first I thought the writing was just mediocre. Everything seems so clichéd and expected to a certain extent, but the ending comes as a complete surprise. And it’s a perfect ending, too. It actually makes clear why the story is so clichéd — the expected storylines cease to be a weakness and become the main thematic point of the entire tale! It’s got that Sixth Sense impact — you feel the sudden urge to immediately reread the story from your new perspective, your new awareness of what was really going on the entire time. The art, by the way, couldn’t be better — compared to the writing, it doesn’t feel like a purposeful parody of a fairy tale. Fans of the Princess Bride novel will get a kick out of this self-aware story.

greenbaxThe second story, “Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile,” is an imitation of a Walt Disney, anthropomorphic comic book about a greedy frog — Gran’pa Greenbax — who wants to fill a pool so full of gold that he can dive into it without hitting his head on the bottom. The comic we read is about a Walt Disney, anthropomorphic TV show featuring the frog.

[SPOILER ALERT for this one story] However, as we read the parody comic, the frog becomes aware of his surroundings by realizing that he lives his entire life in a Truman Show-like environment that broadcasts his goofy, greedy antics live 24 hours a day. Enabled with technology that gives him speech, Greenbax gets to meet and speak with his creator on whose personality his is based. What will this confrontation involve? And who will come out ahead when they start to bargain with each other? [END SPOILER]

urgent requestThe third story, “Urgent Request,” is drawn in an Eisner-like style. It’s black and white through most of the story, and the cover looks like it could be a cover for one of Eisner’s urban tales of pain and heartache. However, it does have a cleaner look than Eisner’s A Contract With God, for example (the first book ever labeled a “graphic novel” since Eisner coined the term when he wrote the book). The cover’s visual reference to Eisner’s stories really does let us know that this story will be a similar one to hi s— we meet a lone and young, shy and nervous tech-worker named Janet. She is isolated in her cubicle, mocked by her boss and co-workers, and forgotten by those who live near her. When she decides to be that person we all wondered about, the comic gets very interesting: “Who, we’ve surely asked ourselves, ever gives account money to the Nigerian prince who needs to transfer some blocked funds?” Now you have the answer, and her name is Janet. This is her story, and it will move you greatly. It’s not all tears and heartbreak. There is hope, but we find it in unexpected places and unexpected ways from the people we often overlook.

Eternal Smile 18If you can’t tell, I love this collection. For me, it’s a five-star book, with three five-star stories. If you’re new to comics, please give The Eternal Smile a shot. It does not depend on a previous knowledge of comics (though an appreciation for them helps) because each story stands alone and is self-contained. However, if you are new to comics, you might feel the stories are too slight, too short. Personally, I find that most great, thematically-rich comics require at least two readings so that I can fully take in the images and all they communicate. On a first reading, I tend to focus too much on the words to appreciate all the visual storytelling taking place simultaneously. The Eternal Smile, like all great literature, clearly rewards the reader who reads and rereads.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.