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The Eternal Smile
by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim
First Second, 176 pages, $16.95.
Ah the “twist” ending. Who can forget their first encounter with that well-used narrative device? For you perhaps it was The Twilight Zone or the films of M. Night Shyamalan. For me it was the revamped Alfred Hitchcock Presents back in the mid-80s. I stayed up late that night, expecting your usual man-accused-of-crime-he-didn’t-commit-type tale only to discover at the end that — OMG, Ned Beatty really was the killer all along! That revelation threw me into a paroxysm. Why, everything I had assumed up till then about the story was untrue! Now I had to completely re-examine my preconceived notions about genre fiction! Black was white! Up was down! Stories aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing, are they?
But of course, stories do that sort of thing all the time. Take for example, The Eternal Smile, the latest graphic novel from Gene Yan (American Born Chinese) and Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference). It’s a collection of three short stories that, in one way or another, all rely upon some sort of twist ending or surprise reveal. How much you enjoy the book, therefore, really depends upon how fresh that narrative conceit is to you.
All three stories in Smile deal with the perils and necessity of fantasy and escapism. In each tale the protagonist uses fantasy to re-evaluate his relationship with the world around him or her. For example, the first story, Duncan’s Kingdom, involves a knight lives in your basic cookie-cutter fantasy world of evil monsters and swords and sorcery. Of course, NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS, and it turns out that Duncan’s adventures may simply be a way for him to avoid his real responsibilities.
Then we have Gran’Pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile, which can best be described as “Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge meets The Truman Show.” Finally there’s Urgent Request,about a sad-sack single woman who willingly buys into one of those Nigerian email scams in a desperate attempt to add some color to her life.
Handling the art chores, Kim proves yet again what a fantastic craftsman he is, varying his style to suit the story from the conventional fantasy trappings of Kingdom, to the funny animal shenanigans of Greenbax to the squashed bodies and purple/yellow palate of Request. If nothing else, the book is a testament to his abilities
Sadly though, the stories themselves fail to engage. All of them rely too heavily on their third act revelation and belabor their pop psychology message (escapism can empower you, but it can entrap you as well, so beware). Duncan is the worst offender — the ending comes off as a more than a bit pat and wraps up a bit too quickly. Greenbax works a bit better, mainly due to the pair’s getting some comedy mileage out of parodying Barks’ work, but again, the reveal and underlying message has a real “been there, read that” feel. Request is the best of the lot, mainly because Kim and Yang are able generate a good deal of sympathy for their protagonist, although not enough to make her fell more like an individual and less like a stereotype.
Ultimately, I think The Eternal Smile will best be appreciated by younger readers of, say junior high or school age. It clamors for the sort of individual who isn’t overly familiar with the Twilight Zone-ish endings it peddles so fervently. Jaded readers, more familiar in such trappings, simply won’t be able to take the “everything you know is wrong” style at face value. They’ve been down that road before.