Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim, The Eternal Smile (First Second, 2009).$16.95, paperback.
By Jared Gardner
I have been looking forward to this one for a while now. Yang’s first book, American Born Chinese, was one of the very best books we have ever reviewed here at guttergeek, and it has held up over numerous rereadings in the past few years. Kim’s first book, Same Difference and Other Stories, is tragically out of print at the moment, but it unveiled a talent for graphic short narrative that promised great things in the years to come. So the thought of these two remarkably talented young creators teaming up for a collection of three stories had me all a-twitter, especially knowing it would be coming out from First Second, which had done such a beautiful job with Yang’s first. Unfortunately, I was in for a disappointment here, one which I must ultimately lay at Yang’s feet as the one responsible for the writing in this collaboration. Try as I might to fall in love with this book, I could not ultimately shake the deep conviction that the writing was a series of false notes followed by still more discordant and overlabored twists at the end of each story.
I worried that maybe I was just not the right reader for the text, which is in many ways clearly directed more to young adult readers (as was Yang’s American Born Chinese). But my 12-year old native informant had much the same reaction I did, even openly wincing at the desperate pleadings of the third story—a tale of an underappreciated woman working in a telemarketing firm who finds a particularly strange kind of romance by responding to a “Nigerian” email scam. Actually, this one was my favorite, if only for the deep perversity of the story. The first two tales, however, were the most pat and predictable of Twilight Zone reject scripts, so predictable I don’t even feel the need to put a SPOILER flag up when I tell you that the young adverturing knight turns out to be a dreamer in a coma and the talking frog who discovers that he had been a reality show all these years discovers that he ultimately prefers life back at the old pond to all the money and fame Hollywood had given him (say it ain’t so!). No matter how I try and slice and dice this one, it is a seriously underwhelming sophomore slump of a performance from Yang—hopefully the kind that ultimately shames him into remembering where his head was when he wrote his first book. And while it may seem unfair to bring expecations from one book to the next, setting up the reader with three seemingly disconnected stories only to have them become even more disconnected at the end seems an odd choice, formally, for an author who had used a similar structure to such very different and infinitiely more successful ends in his first book.
I am laying all the blame here at Yang’s feet, and I am not sure that is completely fair. But Kim’s efforts as an artist are a real virtuouso display, showing how much he has developed his chops in the five years since the first book. He brings a completely different style to each story, and in each case one appropriate for the tone and feel of the very different tales. Even so, there is something a bit cold about his art in each of them, none of them containing the warmth of the best stories from Same Difference (with the possible exception of his art for “Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile,” which is a delicious homage to the great Carl Barks).
My expectation is that this is a book that both will look back on in a decade with some fondness and more than a trace of the kind of shame I feel when I see pictures of myself in the 1980s. I also expect that it is an unsuccessful project that will make them both better graphic storytellers. So, I am once again looking forward to Yang’s and Kim’s next work, and if this was not the book I was waiting for, I am still glad to have had the opportunity to watch them grow along the way.