Reviewed by Matthew Lickona
The Eternal Smile: Three Stories
By Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim
First Second, 2009
176 pp., $16.95
Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang writes on his website, “I’ve always struggled with how to incorporate my faith into my comics in an authentic way.” (Yang is Catholic; the line comes in a description of how he came to write The Rosary Comic Book.) He also writes that The Eternal Smile: Three Stories, his collaboration with artist Derek Kirk Kim, is about “the relationship between fantasy and reality,” and how “geek fantasy media can suck the life right outta ya.”
As a rule, I don’t think it’s helpful to start off by gainsaying an author—to argue that, contrary to his claims, his book is really about something else. So I’ll take Yang at his word regarding The Eternal Smile’s theme. But I will argue that the way he goes about tackling that fantasy/reality relationship testifies to his success in that struggle to “incorporate faith into comics in an authentic way.” (Like the prophet Homer Simpson says, “It works on so many levels!”) In a number of places, Yang’s treatment of faith (and its handmaiden, religion) is flat-out masterful. At times, the reader may even be tempted to gainsay the author . . .
The book is composed of three stories: “Duncan’s Kingdom,” about a young knight who sets out to slay a Frog King and win the hand of the princess; “Elias McFadden’s Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile,” about a moneygrubbing frog’s effort to make religion pay; and “Urgent Request,” about a mousy young woman who actually responds to a Nigerian prince’s email request for money. (All three are tricky to review, because all three hinge on a deception, and the nature of that deception, together with the protagonist’s reaction to it, is pretty much the point of the story. I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.)
Why pay so much attention to the religious aspects? Because Yang himself does, right from the start. The Eternal Smile of the title is one timid believer’s image of God, a sign that “the underlying pr-principle of the universe isn’t m-m-monotony or fear or c-competition, but j-joy.” Then, in “Duncan’s Kingdom,” our hero’s best friend and chief aide is one Brother Patchwork, a monk whose face is hidden behind a mask of rags. The monk mentions greatness more than God, but he goes so far as to wear a cross outside his habit, and his unmasking begins Duncan’s discovery of the ugly truth behind his beautiful fantasy. He’s a complicated character, but a thematically Christian one. Christianity, of course, is not supposed to be a beautiful dream in which we play the righteous hero. Patchwork’s revelation spurs Duncan to tackle the hard work of real, ordinary love.
In the Gran’pa Greenbax story, things get more complicated. Here we have the founding of not one but two churches—the first corrupt but drawing its appeal from the suffering servant at its heart, the second simply corrupt, full of promises of divine favor for the faithful. The righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, and the fanatics take over, chanting Latin as they cast judgment on sinners. And that’s just for starters. It turns out that God isn’t quite what anybody thought He was—not even the true believers. And it turns out that even the foulest wretch longs for heaven. It’s a dizzying ride, outfitted with Inception-esque levels of reality, and rendered in the inviting style of Carl Barks, the man behind Disney’s cheerfully greedy Scrooge McDuck.
That brings us to “Urgent Request.” Most of the reviews I’ve read of The Eternal Smile give the first two stories cursory treatment on their way to rhapsodizing over this one. It’s easy to see why—its protagonist, Janet, is easily the most appealing of the bunch. And the story has the most human feel. (Small surprise that it won an Eisner Award for Best Short Story at 2010’s San Diego Comic-Con.) I’ve read it maybe a dozen times, and I still get stomachaches and goose bumps in the appropriate places. (Also: this story, like the others, is a marvelous example of the virtues inherent in the graphic novel form: read it and tell me there’s a more perfect way to represent Janet’s Nigerian dream.)
But while The Eternal Smile is made from three disparate stories, it remains one book (as opposed to a collection). However good “Urgent Request” may be on its own, it’s useful to remember what came before. Here, there is almost no explicit reference to faith or religion, save for the “prince’s” mention of God and grace. The deception is more mundane—a nerdy college kid pretending to be a Nigerian prince in an effort to bilk a sucker out of enough money to fund his dream business: selling virtual genitalia to Second Life’s online avatars. (Hey there, life-sucking geek fantasy media!) But for anybody who’s ever looked life square in its nasty, brutish little eye and wondered what exactly the Psalmist is singing about when he praises God’s creation, the sequence that follows the deception’s exposure is pretty much perfect. Maybe we haven’t strayed too terribly far from the path we’ve been on . . . .
Janet flips it on the nerd—makes him dress up like the African prince and take her out to Denny’s. Heart-rendingly, their conversation leads to an astonishing fantasy in which nerd really is the prince, and they really are in Nigeria, and he loves Janet and marries her and makes her his queen and . . . and . . . she breaks down. Reality bursts through, and she blurts out the ugly truth: “It isn’t real . . . all of this is just a . . . an escape.”
But the prince, God bless him, disagrees: “You are wrong about why you are here. You did not come here to escape, but to see. Some truths can only be seen clearly beneath the light of the Nigerian sun.”
We’re back to the discovery of truth, though contra “Duncan’s Kingdom,” this truth is beautiful. The problem is, it can’t be seen by focusing on the mundane world around you. You have to see it “beneath the light of the Nigerian sun,” even if you’re not in Nigeria (contra Gran’pa Greenbax, who actually makes it to paradise). If there’s a better image for the eyes of faith, I don’t know it. Those are the eyes you need in order to see yourself as the beloved heir to a crown even when you’re an insignificant cubicle monkey. To recognize your human dignity under all your very real and distorting flaws. To find the courage to face the world. As Janet writes to “Prince Henry” at the end:
“Life looks so different now.”
It’s listed as a Young Adult book. I’m old, but no matter: I recommend it highly.
Matthew Lickona is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. He is the author of the memoir Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic and of the comic series Alphonse. He lives in California and blogs at korrektiv.org.