Eternal Smile

Written by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Derek Kirk Kim
176 pages, color
Published by First Second Books

Two and a half years ago, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was released with huge (and well-deserved) critical acclaim. While he’s had a few books from other publishers years ago, since then the wait for a new Yang book has begun. Fans of American Born Chinese will no doubt be eager to hear that his new book, with artist Derek Kirk Kim, is now out. And, happily? There’s a lot to love here, too, with three stories that one-by-one tear the veil away from their initial situations to reveal something slightly different.

The first of the three stories, "Duncan’s Kingdom," was originally a two-issue mini-series from Image Comics published back in 1999. I remember reading it then (and writing a review of the first issue then) and really enjoying Yang and Kim’s story that begins with a medieval knight fighting frog creatures and turns into a hunt for a mysterious artifact known only as "Snappy Cola." What struck me upon the re-read of "Duncan’s Kingdom" a decade later is that it still really holds up as a story. While the basic idea behind Yang’s story is nothing new, it acquits itself well because of how Yang actually tells it. There’s a lot of emotional heft to this story; from Duncan’s early fumbling attempts to woo the Princess, to the later revelations of Duncan’s life, Yang keeps you interested and caring about Duncan and how his story unfolds. For a story that’s only 55 pages long, it’s impressive how well Yang is able to grab your attention.

It’s the second story, "Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile," that worked the least effectively for me. An homage of sorts of Uncle Scrooge and the other Disney ducks, Gran’pa Greenbax is a frog determined to have so much money in his swimming hole that when he dives into it, he won’t hit his nose on the bottom. When his hapless assistant Filbert shows Gran’pa Greenbax the Eternal Smile, a mysterious smile hovering up in the sky, Gran’pa and his granddaughters see their chance to make money in the most effective way possible: religion. I think part of the problem I had with "Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile" is that it feels slightly scattershot, going after so many targets simultaneously that it’s hard for it to really connect with any of them. There are good points to be made here about religion, creators, blind following, people using other’s beliefs for their own gain, and the working world. None of them really stands out as one over the other, though, and it’s a little frustrating.

I think the big stumbling point here is that "Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile" (unlike the other two stories in this volume) really needed to be an entire book in its own right. Everything’s overly compressed, so the shifts of the girls from accomplices to believers seems a little too sudden, the nemesis of the frogs feels like we missed an earlier introduction, and Gran’pa Greenbax’s big confrontation with Filbert lacks the sort of punch that it really deserves. 30 pages just isn’t enough to hit all of the ideas that the story is brimming over with; this could have been two or three times as long and have not felt padded or overly long. On the plus side, Kim’s art hits both halves of the story with strength, shifting from cartoonish to realistic so well that I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers didn’t initially realize they’re both by the same artist.

Closing out the book is easily my favorite story of the three in The Eternal Smile, "Urgent Request." Yang takes something we’re all familiar with—spam e-mails where a Nigerian prince is asking for monetary help in exchange for a fraction of his immense fortune—and asks the question, "What happens when someone answers the e-mail?" It’s here that we meet Janet Oh, an employee at CommTech who is routinely ignored, discarded, or looked down upon by everyone who meets her. It’s funny because until the halfway point of "Urgent Request" I really wanted to strangle Janet because of her extreme passive nature; looking back on the story, that’s clearly the kind of reaction that Yang wants to get out of the reader. Like the other two stories of The Eternal Smile, "Urgent Request" starts with one premise and then halfway through transforms it into something slightly different, letting us see that our perception of our lead character was not necessarily correct. With Janet, though, it’s different and more satisfying—perhaps because more so than Duncan or Gran’pa Greenbax, she’s not really fighting against some sort of outside force that has made her what she is, but rather her own perception of herself. Her gaining a spine in "Urgent Request" is the sort of moment that really made me sit up in my chair as I was reading and start taking notice of her. As we learn more about why she replied to Prince Henry Alembu, she becomes more and more interesting to read about. It’s a wonderful reversal of character for Janet, and it’s all the more impressive on how adeptly Yang is able to reasonably achieve that moment.

Kim’s art in "Urgent Request" is also at its strongest here. The art here is delicate and subtle in its beauty, with each two-colored panel having a gentle air about it. I love how Kim draws Janet, with her almost perfect mass of hair having individual strands of hair sticking out of it, or her delicate, graceful smile. Panels like Janet running through the rain show such a beautiful grace to the character, while keeping her true to that initial, slightly dowdy look that Kim creates for the character, and having the two able to co-exist makes her that much more interesting. Even something as simple as the page layouts are impressive here, with Kim often using just part of the page to help tell the story. There’s one page in particular where Janet overhears a co-worker and her boss talking about what they really think of Janet, and having the panels on that page just stop entirely halfway down the page is a smart visual shorthand to not only end the scene, but to help drive home what a crushing moment it is for Janet.

It’s great to not only have a new book from Yang and Kim, but to see their collaborations—especially "Urgent Request"—come across so nicely. Hopefully it won’t be ten years before the two work together again; they’ve clearly got a good understanding of how to bring the best out of each other’s contributions. Fans of Yang’s American Born Chinese (or for that matter, Kim’s Same Difference and Other Stories) will be really pleased with this book. It’s been well worth the wait.

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