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Good things happen

When I saw that Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim had collaborated on a new title, I was ecstatic. I had loved American Born Chinese (written and drawn by Yang) and Good as Lily (written by Kim, drawn by Jesse Hamm). I only expected the best.

The Eternal Smile cover

Here’s from the flap copy of The Eternal Smile:

MEET DUNCAN. Charming and brave, he’s the Princess’s favorite—and he’s on his way to winning the throne. But lately, the walls of reality in Duncan’s kingdom are wearing a little thin. . .

MEET GRAN’PA GREENBAX. Nothing seems to satisfy this greedy old frog’s longing for a pool full of gold—until, one day, a mysterious smile appears in the sky. Has his chance at happiness come at last?

MEET JANET. Her nine-to-five life takes a turn for the romantic when she learns in an email from a mysterious prince that she has been chosen to liberate his family’s vast fortune. All he needs is her banking information.
 
The three stories are riffs on fairy tales, on Disney’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck, and on the “what-ifs?” of spam email. On a surface level, these are simple stories—parables about life, greed and hope. But scratch that surface just a wee bit, and they are disquieting tales about how our fantasies affect real life. How what we hope for colors what we see, what we want, what we expect. And they made me think long about what life might be like if we took our fantasies along with us every day. Although each story is independent, themes and art motifs repeat, making each story a complement of the other two.

The art deserves special mention. Kim delivers a different genre for each tale, providing a superhero comic layout for the first, the feel of old-fashioned kiddie comics for the second, and a more modern, sparser esthetic for the third. The superhero layout, although gorgeous and most familiar to this comic geek, is ultimately the most disturbing art of the three—playing havoc with stereotypes and taking me out of my comfort zone. The hero is a traditional European/medieval/fantasy knight. The villain is the Frog King whose looks and kingdom are a series of Chinese stereotypes. Kim made me wonder who creates stereotypes and for what purpose, and how these are used to mislead and redirect my expectations.

In the next two stories, the art is used differently but to equal effect. The second story plays on my discomfort with the stereotyped Frog King by making all the main characters frogs. And not particularly nice ones. But then Kim surprises us, twisting the story with that visual punch only comics can provide, and the world and the villains look completely different. Even if the main character is still a frog.

The last story is perhaps the most deceptive. It is quiet and sparse compared to the other two. But the images carry the story even more than any of the words. (Not that any of the words are out of place, let that be clear.) With a brilliant change in palette and texture, we move from reality to fantasy and back, hoping that the two meld in the end.

The Eternal Smile is a book worth having to read and reread. Yang and Kim’s collaboration was fabulous. Thank you

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