Wednesday, May 20, 2009

First Second Books Review: THE ETERNAL SMILE

First Second Books Official Site

Ah, youth.

There's a lot of crap from my pre-teen years that I never want to revisit ever again- puberty, sexual terror, shame. But if there's one thing I miss it's the sublime thrill of discovering remedial philosophy.

THE ETERNAL SMILE is a hopelessly, charmingly sophomoric look at the nature of fantasy and reality. It's most profound thought is simply that life is a state of mind and reality is what we make of it. Whoa.

These are three short stories, each better than the last, about a character's journey out of their own narrow realm of experience. A teenage boy, a cartoon frog and a timid young woman are all forced to face reality. Will they recede deeper into their own denial or face the world and find a happiness they never expected?

The first story is a beautifully illustrated tale of a young knight who battles these really cool looking frog people and courts a pretty princess. His life hits an all time high, but he's got this nagging feeling that something just ain't right. Here's a spoiler for those not older than twelve- It turns out he's really a teenager in a coma living the RPG life of his dreams rather than wake up and face his own shitty life. The story spends too much time building a mystery (and not enough time with those really cool looking frog men) before clumsily connecting every dot in the perfunctory exposition loaded climax. But hey, Derek Kirk Kim's art - dynamic anatomy, feather light ink lines, full attention to detail - is pretty great.

But the next one is better. In some kind of bizarre salute to Carl Barks we find Gran'pa Greenbax, a filthy rich frog in love with making money. As rich as he is, he still isn't quite rich enough to amass enough gold coins to swim through. So with the help of his wacky frog relatives he comes up with a religious scam designed to exploit a mysterious smile that has appeared in the sky. Then things get really crazy. There's frog murder and existential angst and a climax of Truman Showesque proportions. In a nutshell, froggy also discovers his life has been a lie. But where will he find true happiness?

The final and best tale speculates about what would lead a person to respond to the Nigerian Prince email scam. Aside from stupidity, that is. For a while it takes itself a little too seriously as it follows the life of lonely, meek office drone Janet. Things eventually loosen up and some comedy is introduced as she emerges from her shell. I wish the comedy had been worked into the entire story because it cuts the melodrama and makes it all a lot more charming and subversive.

I'm 37 years old and quite frankly well beyond this stuff. But there's a truth to these stories. It's a truth that any mature adult would take for granted. But the 12-year-old me would have been blown away by the deep ideas introduced. I had a similar reaction to writer Gene Luen Yang's popular graphic novel AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. He's writing a comics intro to philosophy for tweens and doing it well. This is inspiring material for a kid just beginning to realize that there's an entire terrifying, wonderful world out there.

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