The Eternal Smile
Yang, Gene Luen and Derek Kirk Kim. The Eternal Smile. 2009. New York. First Second.
Printz award winning author Gene Luen Yang teams up with Derek Kirk Kim to create a graphic fiction work unlike the popular Manga genre of Japanese authors. In this Americanized version of the graphic novel, three distinct stories are told—each in their own unique way. The art and settings for each story are representative of three different fantasy worlds and each have underlying commentary about today’s youth culture.
Duncan’s Kingdom begins like any other medieval comic with Duncan, the lowly knave, courting the princess, having the opportunity to avenge her father’s death and winning her hand in marriage. The exquisite drawing of the characters, combined with the familiar technique of onomatopoeia/lightning bolt combinations drive the storyline. Just when it seems that the hero has it all, he is drawn by a desire to have more, and sacrifices all to pursue the new object of his desire. Fantasy collides with reality, and our knave enters modern day life and comes to grip with what is really important.
The Eternal Smile has a Sunday comics feel to the art and dialogue. Reminiscent of Scrooge McDuck and the young Huey, Dewey, and Louie of Disney fame, the main character in this story seeks riches above all else. Gran’pa Greenbax and his adoring and supportive grandchildren rely on his underpaid assistant, Filbert, to create ever increasing money making schemes to fulfill the fantasy of having a pond of gold deep enough to dive into without hitting bottom. As the story unfolds and Filbert introduces the greedy family to his source of inner peace, the Greenbax clan tries to capitalize on this by creating a religious experience intended to fleece unsuspecting flocks of believers. As in Duncan’s Kingdom, 21st century reality intrudes into the comic and reveals the true nature of the characters.
Urgent Request is set in modern day corporate life. Devoted, naive, and demure Janet is introduced when she is called into her supervisor’s office for a performance evaluation. After being on the job for seven years, she timidly asks for a promotion. This story introduces the reader to the reality and possibility of living two lives. Online interaction with an African prince, who bilks Janet out of all of her financial resources, provides her an online relationship with thisr virtual friend. Eventually, Janet decides to confront her “prince” at the local university dormitory. She declares that she has known all along about his farce, but inwardly admits that she was desperate for friendship. This story exists on many levels of self-realization and exposes virtual reality scams. Eventually facing her fantasy friend emboldens Janet to conquer her fears and become a stronger person.
These stories will appeal to young adults and savvy parents alike, as they provide food for thought. Stories within stories, concepts within concepts, and commentary on modern life invite the reader to visit the story multiple times, each reading revealing something new.
“A rousing and thought-provoking exploration of fantasy versus reality from the much-lauded comics veterans Yang and Kim. Three tales evince very different realities and viewpoints, though all are tied together by this common thread. Duncan, the hero of the first, is desperately seeking the approval of the Princess, though something in his kingdom doesn’t seem quite right. In the next, an anthropomorphized, avaricious amphibian named Gran’pa Greenbax seeks to be the richest frog in the land, only to discover that his domain isn’t quite what he thought it was. In the last, a painfully shy office worker distorts her own perception—and judgment—to create a reality more pleasing. Readers looking for another American Born Chinese (by Yang, 2006) may be pleasantly surprised: While a very different format both visually and thematically, this book offers similarly plotted ingenious twists. Begging for multiple readings, this exceptionally clever examination of fantasy and perception is one to be pored over and ruminated upon.”
Kirkus Book Reviews
“Yang and Kim are expert storytellers and work well together here to present three tales with fablelike takeaways. “Duncan” seems to be a hero story set in a lush medieval Europe, with the titular character embarking on an iconic quest to win the hand of the fair lady–except for odd visual details that crop up, such as the frumpy and definitely modern woman holding her bespectacled head in her hands and the apparently magic Snappy Cola bottle. The turn from fantasy to Duncan’s reality is made smoothly and doesn’t ask readers to appreciate its cleverness so much as to recognize how fantasy can, indeed, aid real healing. The volume’s title story starts off as a riff on capitalism and religious gullibility involving talking frogs and then makes a hairpin turn with the revelation that a broadcast tycoon has blended America’s tastes for Saturday morning cartoons and reality shows. In “Urgent Request,” a contemporary cubicle inhabitant allows herself to fall for the fraudulent Nigerian royalty email plea for cash, but thereby gains the strength she needs to confront her abusive boss. Artwork in each of the stories is stylistically different and wholly appropriate to the theme of the specific tale. Smart teens will enjoy this thoroughly and will push it into friends’–and hopefully even adults’–hands for discussions around topics ranging from political insights to how narrative creates personal identity.”
School Library Journal
Upper middle school and early high school students will benefit from the study of this literature. Talk about expectations, dreams, and desires and how they can rule, enhance, or ruin lives.
Discuss the transitions between reality and fantasy and the importance of both in today’s society.
For writers, explore the methods used in creating fluidity between the two settings within each story.