The Eternal Smile is a collection of three tales by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim (two creators that I am not familiar with, though I’ve heard of Yang’s work American Born Chinese), and published by First Second. Each is told and illustrated in very different styles, but they are thematically connected – all have to do with the uncomfortable clash between fantasy and reality. It’s a compelling little collection of work.
The first story was my favorite, though it was in some ways the most simple. It’s called Duncan’s Kingdom and is about a young man in a medieval kingdom who is in love with the princess, and must slay the despised Frog King in order to win her. He does so, but realizes there is something more than meets the eye when the frog prince willingly gives his own life as long as Duncan does not peer behind a secret door. Why secret lies behind this door, and who is the crying woman in Duncan’s dream that he feels indebted to?
The second story is called Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile, and features an anthropomorphic frog who is a caricature of the money-obsessed Uncle Scrooge, minus the likeability. His attention is drawn to a mysterious smile that has appeared in the sky with no explanation, and in his efforts to draw a profit from it he forms a new religion, winning a legion of followers in faith with no bearing in reality. But the secret that the Eternal Smile holds is stranger than he could ever imagine, and will reshape his entire notion of reality. But it will also lead him to the true secret of lasting satisfaction.
The final story is called Urgent Request and tells the tale of Janet, a fear-filled low-ranking worker at a large computer corporation with no hope for advancement. She appears to fall victim to an email scam from a Nigerian Prince who promises her a fortune as well as the potential for romance if only she will help him with some much needed finances to allow him to travel to the United States to meet her. As her situation at work gets worse, how will she react when her fantasy world begins to crumble around her?
There is a progression to the three stories, all written by Gene Luen Yang, in the ways that they approach the themes of fantasy and reality. In the first, fantasy is clearly negative – it’s an immature response to the harsh realities of life. In the second, it’s a form of control – the protagonist is a victim of the fantasy, which in turn leads him to attempt to control others in a similar way. In the last, which is arguably the most complex of the three, the choice to indulge in fantasy, at least for a time, is a needed escape – it’s a way of coping with life that gives the protagonist the strength needed to attempt to better one’s challenging circumstances. So while each story is worthwhile on its own, when seen together they make for a strong and interesting mix.
Derek Kirk Kim illustrates all three tales, which is an impressive feat when you see how very different they each are from each other in style. I do not have a strong eye for art but even I can recognize the versatility of any artist who can produce the variety of type of imagery that is found in this book. There are a couple of images of cartoonish but gruesome violence in the first story, as well as a couple of inappropriate images (representing adolescent fantasies) which I don’t enjoy or recommend, but on the whole I find the collection to be a thoughtful and worthwhile exploration of the themes.