Sunday, March 29, 2009

Three Views of Escapism: The Eternal Smile

Rob reviews THE ETERNAL SMILE, a collection of three short stories written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Derek Kirk Kim (First Second).

With THE ETERNAL SMILE, Gene Yang cements his place as a sort of O. Henry of comics. He has a knack for setting up quickly identifiable characters and situations, then turns them on their head with a clever twist. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE had three apparently unconnected short stories that dealt with identity, shame and trying to fit into a foreign world that linked together in unexpected and touching ways. There were times in which the story's elements felt a bit too on the nose, a bit too heavy-handed in pushing its themes, yet there was no denying Yang's skill as a storyteller. THE ETERNAL SMILE has a number of the same virtues and problems, as it presents three stories with vivid characters, wholly unexpected plot twists (reality twists, really) and sometimes pat handling of the notion of escape and escapism. Yang is aided by the stunning visuals of Derek Kirk Kim, who draws each story in a style so dramatically different that it's hard to believe that it was the same artist all along.

The first story, "Duncan's Kingdom", was originally published a decade ago by Image. The concept is as strong and clever as ever: a young knight is sent to avenge the death of the king, hoping to win the hand of the beloved princess in marriage. All is not as it seems, as young Duncan wins a bit too easily and is faced with the bizarre specter of a bottle of something called Snappy Cola. Aided by the mysterious, masked Brother Patchwork, he starts to question his world and finds it crashing down around him. The story is undone at the end, without revealing its twist, by an unearned and treacly sentimentalism. The character details dumped on the reader toward the end just felt cliched, as Yang stacked the deck in creating the reasons behind the escapist scenario.

If "Duncan's Kingdom"'s main thrust is the way escapism can literally imprison someone, then "Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile" is about how a dream can ultimately push you beyond the limitations of your life. This story starts as an affectionate tribute to the Scrooge McDuck stories of Carl Barks and then starts to uncomfortably twist the greed of his stand-in (an anthropomorphic frog named Gran'pa Greenbax) until the story careens to a halt after a shocking acts of violence. Kim's skill really carries the story at this point, simultaneously making the violence both cartoony (and hence funny) and visceral (and thus shocking). The story is successful because it subverts the familiar elements of Barks ("profitable adventures", over-the-top set-ups, cute sidekicks and most especially a pool full of cash), taking them to their logical extremes. That level of attention to detail extends to the way the story's colored (evoking 4-color comics) and even the "cover", mimicking old Gold Key Disney comics. The real twist of the story (beyond the obvious deus ex machina halfway through) is that it's a scathing parody of religion-as-corporation and corporation-as-religion (specifically, Disney). Gran'pa Greenbax's burning desire to swim in a pile of cash winds up masking another, more primal desire--one achieved to the great surprise of the story's antagonist.

The most successful story overall was "Urgent Request", a story about a meek programmer named Janet who is pretty much made to feel utterly insignificant by everyone around her. Kim's visuals once again really stand out here, using a cartoony, blobby character design and a violet wash that gives the story a certain solemnity until the story turns and we are smacked in the face by vivid color. The story's about Janet falling for the old "Nigerian prince" internet hoax and plunging a bunch of money to a grateful "prince" in Africa. Feeling special for the first time in her life, even though deep down she knew it was all a lie, Janet goes all-out in her identification with Africa and imagines a romance with "Prince Henry". Yang walks a careful line with Janet, making her a sad sack that we can't help rooting for because she's trying so hard, but avoids making her completely pathetic. Even in the moment of what should have been her greatest humiliation, the good will that Yang built up for Janet allows him to instead make this a moment of transformation.

This story spells out Yang's view on escapism, that it's less an abandoment of how things really are and instead a different way of looking at the world, a shifting of perspective. Sometimes, this shifting of perspective blinds one to what's really going on, while at other times this shift is the only way one can extricate oneself from misery. Sometimes taking oneself out of character (and the story one's created) is the only way to achieve the happiness we seek, and sometimes creating a new story is what's needed. Yang implies that it's how active one is in applying this perspective is how positive it winds up becoming. Duncan's story was one of passivity, something that he had to shed. Gran'pa Greenbax was spinning his wheels in pursuit of happiness and had to think laterally and take a leap of faith to extricate himself from his life. Janet Oh created a reality around a hoax presented to her and made it become a sort of incubator for the person she wanted to become. For Yang, it all boiled down to faith in something beyond our immediate narratives and selves: escape as an activity, not a soporific.


  1. I like that notion that escapism is an activity or a pursuit (and one that changes us) rather than a passive undertaking. I haven't read the book, but is it really fair to label the "dreams" in the second two stories "escapism"? They seem more like hopes or goals for the real world, as you describe them, not a "subcreation" of an alternate reality.

  2. As they are presented in the book, the dreams in the latter two stories definitely seem to be escapism at first--it's only later that they are shown to be something else altogether. That's because the characters aren't conscious of what they're doing--the agency toward dreaming is at best subconscious here.

  3. Fair enough. It sure sounds like an interesting book.