Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: The Eternal Smile

The Eternal Smile, written by Gene Luen Yang, art by Derek Kirk Kim, 2009, First Second, 170 pages, $16.95

The three stories in this collection are separated by wildly different genres and subjects, but are linked by the central conceit that all is not as it seems, or perhaps everything you know is wrong. The walls between fantasy and reality are not so strongly constructed here, and the three main characters, engaged in self-deceptions of one sort or another, all undergo consciousness-raising events. Remember "The Truman Show"? This is like that, only not as good.

I'll try to give you a sense of what is going on without giving too much away, so forgive me if this is a little oblique. In "Duncan's Kingdom" (actually previously published by Image Comics in 1999), the titular character is a member of the Royal Guard in what appears to be a standard-issue medieval fantasy setting. But all is not well in the land - and I'm not just talking about the frog-men who have murdered the king. Nope, something is wrong with the very reality of Duncan's life, something that Duncan is hiding from himself. All is not as it seems!

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In "Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile," Gran'pa is a frog with an Uncle Scrooge complex, complete with an overwhelming desire to fill his swimming hole to the brink with gold coins. But - again! - all is not well, and when Gran'pa engages in violence that is just a little too over the top, he learns that his entire world is not what it appears to be. Everything you thought you knew is wrong!

And in the final story, "Urgent Request," Janet is an office worker who decides to respond to the classic scam e-mail from a Nigerian prince seeking access to her bank account. How will this affect her self-confidence? Don't answer that e-mail -- NOOOOOO!!!!

The Eternal Smile has a similar feel to writer Gene Luen Yang's earlier book, American Born Chinese: a candy-coated, cartoony shell contains a tougher center of difficult themes and issues. All three main characters are presented with a choice of realities to inhabit, and all three learn about themselves merely by recognizing that there is a choice to be made.

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Unfortunately, I can't say that I was very taken with this one. It was just a little too saccharine, and I wasn't blown away by the "twist" in each story. While each story has a hopeful outlook, they come off as kind of sugary because not enough is done to earn that feeling. There just was not enough meat on any one of the stories, enough space to get to know the characters, enough stuff that felt new. "Duncan's Kingdom," for instance, does very little to differentiate itself from a run-of-the-mill Dungeons & Dragons adventure, until the twist happens and the story ends abruptly afterward. My thought process on that one basically went: dull, dull, dull, hey this might be interesti-oh it's over.

The art is attractive and has a nice airy, cartoony look to it. Derek Kirk Kim adopts a different style for each story, but you can tell it's the same artist on all three, which helps to both differentiate and link the stories. The creators made an interesting choice by changing paper color for the final story, going from a bright white to an off-white, yellowish color. This softens things up a bit and adds to the dreamier quality of Janet's tale. Plus, the colors on her story are quite pretty.

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It's not a bad book, and although I was not bowled over by it, the book is appropriate for (and will probably be most enjoyed by) high school students. It does contain some graphic violence (including decapitation) and discussion of Second Life genitals.

Read excerpts from all three stories here. Purchase from the publisher here or from Amazon here: The Eternal Smile: Three Stories

Related: my reviews of other First Second books:

Disclaimer: This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

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