The Eternal Smile
By Gene Yang and Derek Kim
It’s a testament, of course, to Derek Kirk Kim’s abilities as an artist that, upon first glance, there are no immediately discernable similarities between the three short stories that make up The Eternal Smile. The artist adopts a vastly different aesthetic for each of the three pieces—three styles which might easily be mistaken for the work of three different artists. It’s a testament to Gene Yang’s ability as a writer, however, that despite the works’ clear differences, its the unified nature of the three pieces that ultimately stays with the reader.
On their face, the three works could hardly be more different. Duncan’s Kingdom is a fantasy story, set upon the backdrop of a medieval kingdom under siege by an army of glowing-eyed frogmen. A hero is tasked with the destruction of said army, so that he might win the hand of a fair maiden. Kim adopts a quasi-fantasy style for the piece, at times taking cues from artists like Mike Mignola.
The artist’s style shifts abruptly for the next story. Opening with a cover page paying a less than subtle homage to Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge, the second story, which lends its title to the book, uses aesthetics borrowed from American and Japanese funny animal comics to tell of a covetous frog who will stop at nothing in pursuit of fame and fortune.
The third story, Urgent Request, adopts a much softer style, telling Yang’s story of a lonely secretary through various shades of purple. It’s dark and stark, and despite the cartoonishly adorable appearance of the protagonist, Janet, the visuals do an effective job painting her lonely desk-bound existence.
Upon reading through the three stories the first time, one immediate thread begins to emerge: they all share Yang’s penchant for plot twists. All three open with a basic, largely familiar premise—nearly familiar enough to their respective genres to convince the reader to abandon the story, halfway through. After some build, however, Yang happily makes an abrupt shift, calling into question the reality he spent so many pages establishing.
It soon becomes apparent, too, that these two diametrically opposed forces—the real and the fantastic—are, in fact, at battle with one and other another for the heart and mind of the stories’ protagonists. The real, in each case, is fairly bleak scenario—the fantastic a technicolored escape from reality’s dregs. In each case, Yang offers up an ultimately redemptive outcome in the struggle between the two, imbuing his characters with good decision making skills when tasked with determining their own fate.
In the end, it’s easy to see why each of these tales was relegated to short story status. While Yang has a point to make with each, he’s careful not to let any overstate their welcome, like a set of modern day fables all more or less hitting upon the same basic truth. While none is strong enough to warrant its own book, grouped together, the stories that make up The Eternal Smile are a journey worth taking.