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Comics - Comics Reviews - Review | by Pedrovmoura in Comics - Comics Reviews on 05/07/2009 - Comments (0)

The Eternal Smile / Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim / First Second

If we drop the simile, the image, and try to find the facts, we will come to understand that there are no facts, and thus come to the conclusion that what we thought was something was actually nothing. An illusion. And, puff!, it’s gone.


Is there anything real behind the images we create in order to make us walk towards an idea of happiness? Here’s a quote from Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics. “[…] all religious terms seem […] to be used as similes or allegorically [“God is our father”, for instance] […] But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be a simile now seems to be mere nonsense.” 

If we drop the simile, the image, and try to find the facts, we will come to understand that there are no facts, and thus come to the conclusion that what we thought was something was actually nothing. An illusion. And, puff!, it’s gone. 

The Eternal Smile seems to be a research on this topic. However, it is not a book that seeks only to prove it, but also to contradict it. In fact, it even makes an effort to find the forces that illusions may contain. 

Both Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim are Asian-Americans, so it comes as no surprise to understand some common ground between the books they are most know for, respectively American Born Chinese and Same Difference and Other Stories. But if these two books explored very specific, personal issues – identity, conformity and homogeneity versus personal expression and individuality, relationships with several circles of complexity (friendship, family, love relationships, school- and city-wise relationships and so forth) – they did not end up presenting a self-centred, parochial agenda, but rather a collection of concerns that expresses itself as a mirror of human worries and endeavours. Whether understood as auto-fiction or as any other related genre, these two books were intimately related to their author’s biography, and could easily be integrated in the autobiography comics tradition of the last ten to twenty years. To a certain extent, The Eternal Smile abandons that personal intimacy. However, it retains some of the themes extant in the previous books, namely issues of identity, self-expression, frank-and-direct relationships and the need for fantasy and a free imagination in order to cope with the dross of everyday life. 

Now, although the colophon page states that the text is attributable to Yang and the images to Kim, I do believe that we are dealing with a book in which the result stems from a firmer collaboration. I am therefore conflating the two separate authors (in this case, a “writer” and an “illustrator”) in a two-headed authority. 

The Eternal Smile is actually a trio of stories (and I will spoil them for those who haven’t read the book), seemingly unrelated to one another, that present manners through which people deal with their own imaginings, fantasies, fears and escapisms. I’d also like to add that this is a trio in its musical sense, as in which three different instruments and/or players act out a certain piece to reach a specific harmony. “Duncan’s Kingdom” is the story of a young man trapped in a coma-induced dream, and the strategies he himself devises in order to break away from it. “Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile” is a riff on Disney’s and Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck stories: the main character, a money-thirsty frog tycoon, discovers a floating “smile” on the skies and tries to make a buck out from it through the biggest business in the world: religion. Afterwards, he will discover through it that is nothing but a character in a kid’s show, and meets his copyright owner (Elias McFadden, which is also a riff on money-thirsty Disney himself; to a certain point, we could say that Yang and Kim’s story is a sort of parodic criticism of Bark’s stories, which would lead us into a different discussion that would make clear this though: although the Disney empire is in fact money-crazed, Barks’ stories within it were not), and finally breaks free from his chip-induced personality, and returns to nature, or so we surmise. The last story, “Urgent request” is about a slightly dull, uninteresting young woman, Janet Oh, who embarks in a strange fantasy: first, she falls into one of the most common email phishing scams, the “Kenyan prince” one; she really believes in this scam and then plays along it, pretending to be courting a wonderful prince charming. She will discover the truth (or she knows about it all along) and force the scammer to “play out” the fantasy with her. In that fantasy-induced life, she will discover her true, stronger personalty. 

As you see, I’ve repeated three times the word “induced” in relation to each main character. The fact is that the behaviour of them all, at least throughout the main plot and before the awakenings, they do act under the influence of something external, and not according to their own, true and free personalities. In the last story, we have the exact opposite situation: it is by engaging willingly and knowingly in the fantasy that Janet will tap into an unsuspected power. That is the main purpose of these three fictions. I mentioned earlier that these were “seemingly unrelated” stories. Seemingly. Not because there are crossover bridges from one story to another, which, when it does happen, is very faint (when Greenbax escapes he jumps over Duncan and his mother). To play once again the musical metaphor, The Eternal Smile is as three variations on a theme. And the theme is very simple: be true to oneself by coming in harmony with one’s fantasies, imaginations, desires. 

The authors play with this theme in a very light-hearted manner, though not frivolous. Each story draws heavily from well-known and established genres of fantasy and comics, from high-fantasy to funny animals, to small patches of superheroes, science fiction and even North American teen TV shows (the alternative fantasies of Duncan). The styles are somewhat different from story to story, but always done on a cutesy, toon-like vein, especially “Urgent request”, in which the characters are rounder and fluffier. Page composition also follows known patterns, but the third story presents each panel with rounder corners, as if we were watching it in a Viewmaster or something similar, a simile which gains its entire strength when Janet’s Kenyan fantasy is formed right before our eyes. 

If the first two cases shows us characters that manage to “break free” from the shackles created by their imagination (gone awry and out of control), Janet’s story reveal a character that s able to regain the reins of her existence precisely through an active exercise of her own power to fantasize. The problem addressed by the authors, then, it seems, is not that illusions exist or that some people will give up, even if momentarily, their “real” lives to live them (but never to live them through). The problem is that it is impossible to share these illusions. They are inalienable. When we are confronted with people that are way too serious about, say, Star Trek, or that are shattered with the crisis and death of imaginary characters more than worried but real, world-class events, our problem is not solely the fact that we think that our view is better or superior of freer… the problem is that we really don’t understand, as much as other do not realize why we dedicate so much time of our lives dedicated to something that is absolutely uninteresting to them, like, for instance, comics. 

The Eternal Smile is a simple, clear-cut book. I don’t think we can wish it were something else (a stronger, deeper relation between the stories, narratively speaking, bold, new page designs, what have you); we must look at what it is. And what it isn’t is a complex work of art that reinvents the potential, whether literary or visual (if you wish to separate its domains), of comics. It is neither a heavy-handed look into these problems or conundrums of human life. No matter, for it is precisely through its fantasy-ridden, whimsical candour that it reaches some of the most convoluted features of human life.

A thank you note is due to First Second, especially Gina Gagliano, for sending me a copy of the book.

© 2001, 2014 SuccoAcido - All Rights Reserved
Reg. Court of Palermo (Italy) n°21, 19.10.2001
All images, photographs and illustrations are copyright of respective authors.
Copyright in Italy and abroad is held by the publisher Edizioni De Dieux or by freelance contributors. Edizioni De Dieux does not necessarily share the views expressed from respective contributors.

Bibliography, links, notes:


pen: Pedro Vieira de Moura



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Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim - The Eternal Smile
Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim - The Eternal Smile
Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim - The Eternal Smile

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