{comic} the eternal smile

on

The Eternal Smile : Three Stories by by Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim

First Second Books, 2009.

Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim are authors and artists who’ve teamed up in this collection of three short stories, or three individual comics. The three pieces find commonality in their use of cultural influences, like fairytales, products, childhood media, virtual reality, and technological communication. They play with cultural references in art and story as they explore what is real, healthy, manufactured, isolating, and malleable. They move from the psychological to the technological, finding natural cause to frequently blur the two, ultimately binding the three under an umbrella of escapist fantasy. And their sophistication regarding social commentary progresses with each story. The Eternal Smile is an excellent choice for Teen and Young Adult, but not to the exclusion of us who are older.*

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Duncan’s Kingdom. Duncan is not the most adept suitor to call on the Princess (“Your eyes glisten like wet marbles”), but with a magic sword from the monk who found him as a babe, how can he not win her hand by slaying the Frog King? Or will a haunting dream and an obsession with Snappy Cola ruin everything?

The title page has the appearance of a classic fairytale cover of a heroic adventure. It fairly blares a herald’s bugling. And with the turn of a page all is silent but for night sounds and someone snoring from a room in the castle. While European medieval comes to mind initially and is illustrated throughout in a fitting fashion, the Asian influence saturates the story in lovely ways—particularly in color. I would love to say more on that influence, but there’s my ignorance. The amalgam is a delight, and works from its fantastical start: a Frog Clan? There is little that is atypical in the tale actually, until Duncan dreams. The discovery of Snappy Cola takes the story for a truly bizarre turn.

The story has a really good and challenging moral for its young (and perhaps not so young) adult audience.

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Elias McFadden’s Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile. Gran’pa Greenbax strives to create a pool of money into which he dive into without busting his nose on the bottom. With the latest venture not producing enough depth to his pool, Gran’pa and his two granddaughters (Polly and Molly) demand another inspired business opportunity from his bullied, under-paid employee. Filbert has run out of ideas and hopes the sighting in the sky will be enough to soothe the savage beast of a boss. What it does is lead them on a path none of them could have anticipated—no not the decision to exploit the masses with religion, the other thing, the thing that has to do with that Eternal Smile.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” sports a title page reminiscent of Disney’s Duck Tales w/ Scrooge McDuck comics replete with volume number and publisher block in the corner and “Elias McFadden’s” in Disney-font. Referencing childhood television, its merchants and its merchandise is no coincidence as Duck Tales meets aTruman Show twist in an indictment of exploitation, whether the institutional interests are media-, corporate- or religion-driven. What would happen if you met your creator, finding echoes in the “outside” mirrored in your own life, and the realization of an influence most unnatural? Would you find relief knowing that you were made the way you are by someone or –thing other than you? What about those recurring (hardwired) desires that had to be manipulated or worked around.

There is a drastic move, and while the violence throughout comes across as startling (eventually), it makes more than a Fight Club sort of sense. Whether internal or external something painfully disruptive might lead to the kind of return to self a character needed. There are a lot of inner- and interpersonal dynamics at play in this cartoon-rendered tale.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” also includes a nice cameo from “Duncan’s Kingdom.” That hope-filled image comes at a key point in the story.

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Urgent Request. Where the other two brought more mainstream cultural images instantly to mind the third drew an indie vibe for me (Tomine meets Sunday comics section). The panels appear like screen captures, the dingy black and white apt. Beginning to read, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan came to mind, and I hoped “Urgent Request” would not reach that level of depressing. It seemed well on its way.

Janet has worked her CommTech cubicle job for 7 years, and a scheduled performance review with an vein and inconsiderate boss doesn’t look to change things. She lives alone and has no social life at or away from work. Eavesdropping on a conversation, a co-worker (the receptionist) describes her as “Awkward? Shy? Frumpy?…insignificant.” This is a pivotal moment as she decides to seize her chance to save a Nigerian Prince who has just started e-mailing her asking for monetary aid.

Janet would be difficult to deal with if the world around her did not seem as equally despairing. The opening panel is dark and rainy. The boss clings to a triumph years before and , the receptionist comes across as pandering to the boss at anyone else’s expense. And what about this Nigerian Prince? Of all the tables Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim turn in their earlier stories, this one is the most surprising. I was delighted even as I was initially baffled by the revelation. But then one has to get over the idea that Janet is so singular and other from the likely tech-savvy, tech-world-built readership of the comic. She is painfully familiar and very typical, except for the fact that she recognizes her life for what it has become and boldly claims her choices.

What appears to be rather unfortunate investment calls become complicated as Janet appears to be investing in herself at the same time. The sun breaks through, Janet begins to decorate her cubicle, becomes more animated and more musical when she moves, we get color. And what to do with that ending? “Urgent Request” transforms its central character into someone who is not awkward, shy, frumpy, or insignificant. The getting there is odd and complicated and did I say odd? I guess it really isn’t all so very odd, just watching someone open up in the face of incredible personal risk requires a massive lung capacity for all that held breath. You genuinely hope it pays off—in some form. And “Urgent Request” does calculate the expenses. Humor manages to find a way in, but the idea that a world has been robbed of passion either in their neutered avatars, or their ergonomic work closets is a delightful indictment in this piece. Janet decides to demand more.

A moment on the format with this one. I really enjoyed the speech bubbles and text (other than sound effects) were placed outside of the panels. The frames keep their (older) on-screen quality. And when they take up white space it makes all that white on the page more comfortable. The placement of the frames require more conscious attention, as their effect is disruptive in obvious ways; the composition had me wondering if there was more to it than the distancing, the emptiness (isolation), and “out of place”/ “out of sync” visual perception–not that that wasn’t enough.

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*Curious after reading Same Difference and noting Kim’s pop cultural references, I checked birth dates. Derek Kirk Kim was born in 1974, and Yang in 1973.

{images belong to Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Luen Yang}

Check out this 2009 interview I found when looking for images. Yang and Kim speak with Alex Deuben for Comic Book Resources, wherein Yang says,

“Geek culture has heavily influenced mainstream American culture. Escapist culture is all around us, and it’s big business. I think it’s easy, especially for teachers like me, to just look at the ways it interferes with real-world relationships, goals, and personal growth. But many of the roots of modern escapist fantasy – myths, fables, and even the more modern Tolkien novels – weren’t really about escaping reality. They were about illuminating it. I think fantasy videogames, movies, and comic books can do the same, if crafted well.”

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