The Eternal Smile

Created by: Gene Luen Yang

ISBN: 1596431563 (Amazon)

Pages: 176

The Eternal Smile

I am a huge fan of Derek Kirk Kim. I adored Same Difference and was enthralled with the abruptly aborted Healing Hands. I liked Good as Lily okay, but couldn’t shake the desire to have it redrawn by Kim himself so that the art would be as delectable as the book’s cover. His art is just that good to me. I’m not as familiar with Gene Luen Yang, but I did enjoy American Born Chinese nearly as much as the hype indicated I should. ABC was well-crafted enough that it prompted me to seek out this more recent book. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect with The Eternal Smile, but I expected something worth my time.

The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

And The Eternal Smile delivered on that expectation—though perhaps not as powerfully as I would have hoped. That was my feeling the first time I read the book. I think I may have been expecting too much. Just tonight, I finished reading it for a second time, with perhaps two years intervening between reads and it was a much more enjoyable experience. This time I was well-armed with the knowledge that while The Eternal Smile wasn’t as ambitious a story as American Born Chinese, it wasn’t trying to be. While it wasn’t as straightforward and socially dilapidated as Same Difference, it wasn’t trying to be. The Eternal Smile was its own thing and it was happy to be what it was.

Broken into three short, ostensibly unrelated stories (though there is a panel tying Story I and Story II together, this may just be a cute cameo), The Eternal Smile focuses on the theme of personal identity—not so much ethnic identity, as in American Born Chinese—and what it takes to recognize who one truly is. Yang and Kim explore the idea of how one might find happiness in the skin of someone who until recently may have been a complete stranger. These three tales explore the substance of a person’s inner self and motivations. Who one is and who one is attempting to become.

The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

The art is wonderful across the board but finds best expression in the first and final stories. Besides drawing well and pacing his stories gracefully, Kim has one talent that just blows me away. The manner by which he renders expressions is possibly without peer. This is on full display in the first story, where Kim draws his characters to more accurately represent the human form. The third story, while employing more cartoonish character designs, still conveys a strong sense of emotional content through Kim’s use of eyes and mouths. It’s only the second story where the art loses its ability to express through any great range; homaging the style of Scrooge McDuck comics, Kim necessarily loses one of his greatest tools as a comics creator. (In this sense, I wish his homage wasn’t quite so accomplished.)

The writing of these stories themselves stands out less. Each involves interesting twists, but doesn’t really make superb use of the short story form. Only the final story is truly excellent. The ideas driving each (beyond just the worthwhile exploration of the theme) are inventive and seem well-planned, but again, it’s the final story that shines. Concerning a girl working low-rung in an ISP who falls for a Nigerian banking scam and the separation and bridge between fact and fantasy, this is easily the most heartfelt of the stories and the art here sings. Kim’s pacing and positioning of panels is inspiring and watching some of the intricacies of her correspondence take form is a reward for the careful reader.

The Eternal Smile by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim

The Eternal Smile is a good book but not a great book. It’s worth your time for 1) the experience of Kim’s art (which is almost always* worth your time) and 2) the well-forged final tale (one that stuck with me throughout the two years since I first experienced it). Oh. And I can’t figure out the reason why The Eternal Smile got the name it did. Sure, that eternal smile did take on a central role in the second story, but it did so as an element of fraud. I suppose that it is through the mistaken purpose of the smile that one character goes on an unwilling journey of self-discovery, but I’m not sure that’s what the authors are telling us through this titling.

*I will admit to being a bit disappointed in his contribution to Kazu Kibuishi’s Flight anthology.


Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:

3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad

I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.

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