The Eternal Smile, by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

Yang and Kim team up for The Eternal Smile, a graphic novel that uses three different stories to explore fantasy versus reality, and the ways in which the two overlap. It’s a fascinating theme that carries with it layers of potential meaning. While I believe both Yang and Kim collaborated on the storylines, the words in the book are by Yang and the illustrations are by Kim.

The first story features Duncan, a stereotypical hero in a sword-and-sorcery land who must save the kingdom (and the princess) from a terrible villain. It’s a great story to start off this trio of stories where things are never what they appear, since it seems at first that Duncan’s tale is simply one of those by-the-numbers fantasy tales we see so often. In fact, it’s not one of those at all, and the ending turns this little tale into a powerful story with a powerful meaning.

The second story is about an avaricious frog named Gran’pa Greenbax and his obsession with money. One day, Gran’pa Greenbax finds a smile up in the sky (from which the title of the book is derived), and his life is changed forever. Again, thing are not what they appear.

These first two stories are clever and thoughtful, but it is the final story, about a cubicle worker named Janet Oh, that really makes the book a worthwhile read. Janet works in an unrewarding job with a boss who degrades her. One day, she gets an email from Henry, a Nigerian prince, who desperately needs her help. All she has to do is give him her banking information, and he will give her a large cut of his family’s wealth and carry her away to Nigeria. What you think you know about Janet’s motivations is wrong. This last story is my runaway favorite – it’s so deceptively deep, and sweet too.

Unlike Yang’s Printz-winning novel American-Born Chinese, the three stories in The Eternal Smile do not all coalesce at the end. They are related only by their emphasis on a common theme. Their exploration of this theme is so well-done that I went back and re-read them the same night I picked up the book. This book especially lends itself to re-reading because of its emphasis on how we use fantasy in our lives – to escape from reality, to enhance our lives, to empower ourselves. Each story is more than just a fun romp – there is meaning there. This is what makes the book a good read, and one I’d recommend. While I feel I can safely recommend books that are fun but pretty devoid of meaning, I do try to attach a disclaimer to them (“Well, I enjoyed it, BUT…”). No disclaimer necessary for this one.

I admit that I’m a late adopter of graphic novels. I wrote them off as glorified comic books when they first started to make their mark in libraries, and when I had to read one for a school assignment, I dreaded the fact that I’d actually have to pay attention to the pictures in order to understand the story. I quickly got over this bias. I read Linda Medley’s lovely and clever Castle Waiting, and then I read Watchmen, and my prejudice against graphic novels was erased. In these two novels I read before The Eternal Smile, the illustrations were wonderful and creative and expressive and interesting. The same goes for the illustrations by Kim in The Eternal Smile. His illustrations for each story are so different in flavor that I initially thought they must each have been drawn by a different person. The drawings for the third story are particularly lovely, with each frame washed in a light blueish-gray hue – until, that is, Janet visits Nigeria, and the frames come alive with color (reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz film in more ways than one).

I still don’t see much of a difference between graphic novels and comic books, except graphic novels have the requisite beginning, middle, and end, whereas comic books are serial in nature (this is not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to be the main distinguishing factor). I’ve just come to realize that graphic novels can vary as much in quality as novels without pictures do.

Aside from clever stories and beautiful illustrations, the book itself is also a work of art. I read one reviewer describe the physical feel of the book as “solid,” and I agree with that description. It’s a surprisingly heavy book for its size, with thick paper that just feels wonderful in your hands. And it has that smell – you know, the “new book” smell that accompanies books with heavy, glossy pages and bright ink. It really belies my initial assumption of graphic novels as “comic books with a fancier name.” This book does not at all resemble the flimsy, thin-paged Archie comics I sometimes read as a kid. I’ve read some authors describe the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book as “the binding,” and that’s not totally wrong. But the binding makes a difference. This book is well-made, and I think that will go a long way in making kids want to pick it up. While younger kids may have a harder time understanding the levels of meaning in the book (the satirical nature of the second story in particular may go unnoticed), older kids and teens will likely get more out of it. Fans of fantasy stories may also come to see their favorite genre in a new light.

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  1. says

    I liked "American-born Chinese," so this is a great ploy to read this book. I'm also a late comer to the graphic novel, though as a child, I did check out every single Garfield comic and every single Family Circus comic from the library. Back then they were comics or integrated right into the normal books 😉

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