Two of the most successful creators in comics, Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim, have teamed up to present a new work, The Eternal Smile. We’ve been previewing the book for the past month, and now comes the final installment, along with an in-depth conversation with the two creators.
The book's three stories pay tribute to some of the greatest memes in comics, including the legendary work of Carl Barks. Now, they talk to GNR about developing this work, how they came to collaborate, and what the book means to them. But perhaps most important, they answer the really burning question of who would win in a full-on Star Wars vs. Star Trek battle.
How did you two divide the work on The Eternal Smile?
Gene Luen Yang: Basically, I was in charge of the stories and Derek was in charge of the visuals. I wrote all the stories out in thumbnail form and then passed them over to Derek. Derek did the character designs, the drawing, the inking, the lettering, and pretty much every other visual element you see on the page.
Whose idea was it to work together?
Derek Kirk Kim: Well, I guess it was mine initially. About a decade ago, after a couple failed attempts at a comic book series, I was going through a severe writer’s block. So I asked Gene if he wanted to write something short for me to draw. That’s when we came up with “Duncan’s Kingdom,” which was originally published as a two-issue miniseries by Image Comics. We added two new stories exploring the same theme first poked at in “Duncan’s Kingdom,” and The Eternal Smile was born.
What was that process like and how did you enjoy it?
GLY: The process was great! I have to tell you, one of my favorite aspects of the comics medium is that a single creator can handle the entire project. One person can do all the writing, drawing, lettering, and even the publishing. It makes for extremely intimate work. That said, working with Derek has been really fun. We’re good friends, so at the very least, doing a book together gives us something to talk about when we’re not discussing the merits of the latest Studio Ghibli movie or debating who would win an all-out war between the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. (The answer is clearly Star Wars, by the way.) I think that comics created by multiple people can sometimes have a paint-by-numbers, work-for-hire feel. But they can also be the expressions of friendships between cartoonists…or maybe the commonalities of different storytelling voices. Like the darkened part of a Venn diagram.
DKK: Um, Gene, you’re embarrassing yourself. The lasers used in the Star Wars universe would have zero effect on the “deflector” shield of a galaxy class Federation starship in the Star Trek universe. Hell, those pathetic weapons in the Star Wars universe wouldn’t even put a dent in the polarized hull plating of the pre-Federation Enterprise! A few photon torpedoes and the Empire would be blown out of Uranus. It’s called research, Yang. Make it so.
GLY: Derek is a closet Trekkie. When he’s alone at his drawing table, he puts on plastic pointy ears and mutters, “Beam me up, Scottie” over and over again as he inks. At cons, I’ve caught him giggling to himself when folks nearby dressed as Klingons make jokes in Klingon, even though he swears up and down that he has no knowledge of the language. And like all Trekkies, Derek makes the fatal mistake of underestimating THE FORCE. “Polarized hull plating.” Please.
DKK: Gene, you are highly illogical.
These three stories incorporate fantasy and the many ways people delude themselves—but also the wise truths we all find. What made these three stories come to life for you?
GLY: I usually try to start my stories from my own life experience. For this particular set of stories, I started with my own geeky preoccupations. I’ve always loved fantasy worlds. I grew up reading superhero comics, funny animal comics, and high fantasy comics. Then in my early twenties, I began to feel a certain shame about them, especially as I started getting into alternative comics, comics that told more naturalistic stories. The fantasy stuff just seemed so escapist. More recently, though, I’ve realized that sometimes fantasy can be a tool for seeing the world as it really is, rather than a way of running from it. I wanted the progression from story to story in The Eternal Smile to mirror the progression in my own thinking about fantasy.
All three stories are done in very different styles—yet they all work together beautifully. Did you always know they would succeed this way or was it an experiment?
DKK: If you mean on the visual front, not really. I was just trying my best to evoke the most appropriate artwork for each story without thinking about the artwork in the other stories. I wasn’t really aware of how they would work together until I saw the three stories under one cover. But thank you, I’m really glad to know it worked for you as a whole package.
How difficult was it to combine these styles in this one book?
DKK: It was kind of tricky at the start of each story since much of it isn’t the way I “normally” draw. (However I’m starting to lose track of what’s “normal” for me as I like to experiment so much with each project…) But once I got in the groove, I gradually became used to drawing a certain way. It certainly took a lot of conscious effort though. For instance, if you saw the initial character designs I did for each story, you would see that they vary a lot from what actually ended up on the page. Heck, you can see the gradual change in the Gran’pa Greenbax design from the first page of that story to the last page. He looks very different if you go back and compare. The art in that story was probably the most challenging of the three. I had to evoke the feel of Carl Barks without ripping him off directly. I wanted to present an obvious tribute to him, but still retain my own “voice.” Unlike Gene, I didn’t grow up with Carl Barks or the Duck comics, so it wasn’t instinctive for me. I had to read a bunch of Barks’ comics to prepare myself for that story.
Both of you are coming off of major award-winning successes. Does the scrutiny your new work will receive because of that affect what you’re doing?
GLY: We’ve both been doing comics for a while now. A decade each, I believe. I’ve always approached my comics with the same goal: tell a story interesting enough to keep the reader with me from the first page to the last. That said, I am intimidated. I feel like American Born Chinese really came out at the right time with the right people. It rode a wave that was created by Chester Brown and Lynda Barry and the Hernandez Brothers and Craig Thompson and Jeff Smith and all the other brilliant American, European, and Japanese cartoonists who have made people see comics in a different light. They made a place for comic books like ours in the minds of the American readership. HadAmerican Born Chinese come out five years earlier, I don’t think it would’ve enjoyed the same successes. The wave wasn’t as high at that point. Also, the folks at First Second Books really know their stuff. They got it in front of the right eyeballs, and they tackle everything with a genuine love of comics that’s contagious.
So I’m intimidated. There’s a certain element of any success that’s a fluke, that really isn’t in your control. And that’s why doing my next book with Derek is such a blessing. It takes some of the edge off. It’s like getting a friend to take a road trip with you. You might end up in a ditch on the side of some deserted highway, but at least there’s someone there bleeding with you.
DKK: Well, I’m not really coming off of an award-winning success myself. The book I did before this was Good as Lily, which didn’t exactly set the reading world on fire. So I don’t really feel that much pressure personally. I feel more pressure as the presenter, if you will, of Gene’s stories. I just hope I did them justice. But hey, if there’s anyone I would want to be bleeding with in a ditch, it would be Gene. Okay, it would actually be Zooey Deschanel, but Gene is a damn close second.
Which of these stories is your favorite and why?
GLY: I’d have to say the Gran’pa Greenbax story. I grew up with a deep, deep love for Disney that crystallized into a deep, deep love for the Disney Ducks once I got into comics. I’ve always loved Carl Barks’ and Don Rosa’s Uncle Scrooge stories. They’re all heart and cleverness. Gran’pa Greenbax, while lacking Uncle Scrooge’s charm, is an homage to him.
DKK: It’s the same for me but simply for the story itself. As I mentioned, I didn’t grow up reading the Duck comics, so I wasn’t swayed by any ingrown fondness or nostalgia for the material we were paying tribute to. (I didn’t even really like the “Duck Tales” cartoon growing up.) “Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile” is my favorite simply because I think it’s the strongest story. To me, it’s the most well told, concise, and metaphysically complex story of the three. “Duncan” and “Urgent Request” are flip sides of a coin, whereas “Greenbax” floats around in more murky territory. But then at the same time, I don’t really separate the three stories in my head. I think of them as integral parts of a single book. The stories may not be linked by plot like in American Born Chinese, but they are linked thematically, and I find that just as important as plot. Even more important a lot of the times. And that’s something Gene really excels at—there are few other writers in comics that marry thought-churning and page-turning as masterfully.
Which of these characters did you identify with most?
GLY: I don’t know. Janet from the last story, maybe? I’ve worked in a cubicle before. And I’ve also found love to be very, very expensive. Just kidding, honey! (Just so we’re clear: When I say “honey,” I mean my wife, not Derek.)
DKK: The polo player from “Duncan’s Kingdom.” I’m telling you, it’s like looking into a mirror. Right, honey? (And when I say “honey,” I do mean Gene.)
The first two stories pay tribute to two pivotal genres in comics history. Were you inspired by any works in particular while creating them?
GLY: I talked about drawing from the Disney Ducks for the second story. As for the first—I don’t know. I have fond memories of that old Dungeons and Dragons Saturday morning cartoon. I also remember Mike Mignola of Hellboyfame did an adaptation of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for DC Comics in the late ’80s/early ’90s. The visuals were stunning. But what am I talking about the visuals for? Derek?
DKK: Oh man, I totally loved that “Dungeons and Dragons” cartoon too. The fact that I played D&D in my misspent youth had nothing to do with it, I’m sure. Anyway, to answer the question—basically, I wanted the art in each story to feel familiar to the genre we were tricking the reader into thinking he or she was delving into. So for “Duncan,” there’s a lot of Jeff Smith, Mignola, Mobieus, and Miyazaki in there. Obviously in “Greenbax,” there’s Carl Barks, Don Rosa, and Walt Disney in the mix. In “Urgent Request,” you can probably detect hints of Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Chris Ware, and Laura Park.
What’s the next project for both of you? Will you be collaborating on a new project?
GLY: I have several projects in the works. I have a short story in an Asian American superhero anthology called Secret Identities. It’s illustrated by an extremely talented Southeast Asian cartoonist named Sonny Liew. I also have another book from First Second called Four Angels, about a video game addict who enters med school after a divine encounter of sorts. That’s being drawn by Thien Pham, another Bay Area cartoonist and good friend. And finally, I’m working on a project all on my own called Boxers and Saints. It’s a historical fiction piece set in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Secret Identities should be in stores when The Eternal Smile is released. We don’t really have dates for the other two books yet.
I don’t know if Derek and I will collaborate again. And I wouldn’t want to anytime in the near future. In addition to being his friend, I’m also Derek’s fan. And honestly, I’m a frustrated fan. He has several stories—stories that I’ve already invested in emotionally—that he’s started but hasn’t finished. If he doesn’t get them done soon, I might have to go Misery on him.
DKK: At the moment, I’m in the writing stage for my next book for First Second Books, tentatively titled Tune. (It used to be called Half Empty, which I was serializing online a long time ago. I’m finally going to finish it in a slightly revamped form.) I’m also hard at work on the next issue of my one-man anthology Lowbright. It’s about how Gene Yang draws all my stories for me so he can finally read them. Coming soon!
Reviewed by John Hogan on April 28, 2009
The Eternal Smile