Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim on The Eternal Smile

Yang & Kim on The Eternal Smile

The Eternal Smile

Ten years ago, two mostly unknown comic creators collaborated on a two-issue fantasy series from Image Comics. Titled Duncan’s Kingdom, the series was just a hint of what its creators – Gene Luen Yang (whose American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel ever recognized by the National Book Foundation) and Derek Kirk Kim (of Eisner-winning Same Difference and Other Stories) – would soon produce.

Adding two more original short stories with similar themes about the conflict between fantasy and reality, the duo will finally get to see their formative series collected as part of Eternal Smile, a new book from First Second Books in late April 2009.

The talented creators and good friends took some time to talk to us about the trio of stories in Eternal Smile, what led to their collaboration, and their mutual appreciation society.

Newsarama: When did you both decide to put out a book of short stories together?

Gene Luen Yang: Derek and I did “Duncan’s Kingdom”, a two-issue miniseries about a young knight who fights humanoid frogs, for Image Comics about ten years ago. That was back when we were wee cartoonists. I did the writing, Derek did the art. We’ve talked about collecting it ever since, and we finally decided to do something about it after Derek finished Same Difference and Other Stories and I finished American Born Chinese. “Duncan’s Kingdom” isn’t quite long enough to stand on its own, so we added two more stories that explore the same themes and called the whole thing The Eternal Smile.

Duncan's Kingdom

Derek Kirk Kim: Originally the story Gene wrote for me a decade ago was totally different. It was about this cook and a dragon. But after he received a couple of lukewarm responses from friends, he scrapped the whole thing. He had already written the entire story and laid out a total of eighty pages or so complete in thumbnail form! I couldn't believe he threw away all that work. I thought the story just needed some tweaking, but Gene decided it wasn't worth it. That's how dedicated Gene is to telling a good story. Then he came up with “Duncan's Kingdom” which everyone agreed blew the first story out of the water, so we went with that.

NRAMA: What inspired “Duncan’s Kingdom”?

GLY: Derek wanted to draw fantasy, but he didn’t want to write it. He asked if I had any stories for him to draw, and I jumped at the chance to write for him because (1) he is an amazing artist and (2) he is sexy. It was my first experience working with another cartoonist, and it was awesome. Derek and I were living within blocks of each other at the time. I would go to his house every weekend and see these incredible pages based on my script. The most labor-intensive part of putting together a comic is the drawing. It’s nice when someone else is handling that part, especially when that someone is Derek Kirk Kim. Because the book ended up looking so good, Image agreed to publish it. If any readers out there are looking to break into comics, here’s my advice to them: get Derek Kirk Kim to draw your comic.

DKK: Here's my advice: weasel your way into becoming friends with a cartoonist who will later go on to win the Printz Award and be the first cartoonist ever to be a National Book Award finalist and ride his coattails like a barnacle on a whale's ass.

Gran'pa Greenbax, page 1

Also, to answer the original question, there was an impetus much more urgent than wanting to draw something fantastical that drove me to asking Gene to write for me. Namely, I was up against the most severe writer's block I have ever suffered from. For myriad reasons I just couldn't write at that time. I was completely constipated story-wise, and I didn't want to just sit on my laurels while I waited for “inspiration to strike.” So I asked the best writer I knew to collaborate with me, and luckily for me, he agreed. And it totally worked in alleviating my writer's block too. After “Duncan” I began work on the stuff I'm most well known for, “Same Difference” and all the various short stories. That tends to happen when you spend so much time talking shop and storytelling with such a talented cartoonist. Gene and I spent a lot of time together back in those days, and I have to say, despite our obscurity at the time (or maybe because of it), those were some of my favorite days in my career. Gene inspired me tremendously.

NRAMA: “Gran’pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile” mixes children’s television with corporate greed. What set you on that line of thought?

GLY: Isn’t children’s television always mixed with corporate greed? I think the idea behind that story is this: Often, our lust for material things is a misdirected desire for other, more important things in life.

NRAMA: Am I wrong, Gene, or do I detect a little bit of an Uncle Scrooge lampoon in Gran’pa Greenbax?

Gran'pa Greenbax, page 31

GLY: I love the Disney ducks. Carl Barks and Don Rosa are two of my favorite cartoonists ever. Gran’pa Greenbax is an homage to them. I don’t think our frogs have the same charm Barks’ and Rosa’s ducks do, but I wanted to play with some of the underlying dynamics that they had going in their comics. As a side note, I think it’s an absolute travesty that Don Rosa’s duck stories are no longer published in America. That guy is a national treasure. I don’t understand why only the Europeans can see that. Disney really needs to do something about that, even if it’s putting the stories up on the Web.

NRAMA: I’m with you 100%. And big, fat collections of Barks’ works too! The least whimsical of the stories is easily “Urgent Request,” which opens with tragedy and sadness, before building to something more whimsical, yet still somehow depressing. Janet, it seems to me, is clearly more alert and resourceful that she appears, yet there’s still a deep dissatisfaction to her. Would you agree?

GLY: My intention was for “Urgent Request” to end on a more upbeat note, but maybe that didn’t come across right. The first two stories are built on a negative view of escapist fantasy, I think. I wanted to end on a story that was a little more positive. “Urgent Request” was inspired by one of my students. (I’m a high school teacher, by the way.) Before I met this kid, I had a pretty negative view of escapist fantasy, even though I indulged in it quite a bit myself. It was probably a geek self-hate thing.

In any case, I met this kid in one of my programming classes. He was really quiet. He didn’t talk to anyone. When I gave lectures he would sit in the back and kind of stare off to the side. Then one afternoon, he came into my computer lab to work on a project and we got into this conversation about his hobbies. Turns out he was really into some online role-playing game … it was either EverQuest or … I don’t remember. But he was really into it. He told me about his guild and how he got to be the guild leader and how he had all these guys in their twenties and thirties following him around to kill dragons. When he was telling me this, he became outspoken, confident. He became a guild leader right before my eyes.

It got me thinking. That confidence was always a part of him, it was real, but it took a fantasy environment to bring it out. So maybe escapist fantasy isn’t always so escapist. Maybe there are ways we can use escapist fantasy to see things, real things, that our everyday world tends to hide.

Eternal Smile, page 110

NRAMA: All of the stories have a type magical realism, a magical vision of the world that is reflected or corrupted by a sadder reality behind it. What inspired you to explore that dichotomy?

GLY: Dichotomies are an inherent part of comics, aren’t they? Comics are both pictures and words. They blend time and space. Many feature characters with dual identities like Bruce Wayne/Batman. Cartoonists also tend to live dichotomous lives because many of us have day jobs.

NRAMA: What was the breakdown of work on each story?

GLY: Usually I do a script and a set of thumbnails. Derek does the pencils, inks, and colors from my thumbnails. Often, though, he’ll “reshoot” scenes in ways that are much more awesome than I’d originally planned. My brain subconsciously limits itself to panel compositions that my hand can actually draw.

DKK: Gene's selling himself short, as usual. Actually, it's heaven for me as an artist working with Gene because the hardest part of the job is done for me! Typically when I'm doing my own stuff, the stage of transition from the written word to the layout of the comic is the toughest part. I agonize over it. When I'm drawing for Gene, all I have to do really is make his thumbnails “pretty.” I would take more credit if I had a bigger part in the actual composition of the panels and layouts, but really I'm just a glorified tracer in this case. The stages that I was responsible for required a lot of labor and patience but very little mental application. When you read The Eternal Smile you're more or less seeing what Gene saw in his head while he was writing it. And to me that's the role of the artist. Trying to best capture what the writer had in his head when he wrote the story. There are a number of artists that could've done my job, but only Gene could have written those stories and presented them the way he did in his thumbnails.

NRAMA: You’ve both established yourselves as noteworthy individual talents. Why did you both decide to collaborate on these stories in this manner?

GLY: I know why I did it. Derek is an awesome talent and this is the best my stories have ever looked. Also, Derek and I have very compatible storytelling instincts. I really respect him as a writer and an artist. I learn a lot about the craft of comics every time I’ve collaborated with him.

DKK: It's the same for me, mad respect and a compatibility in our storytelling sensibilities. And as I said before, it was thanks to working with Gene that my writer's block was finally broken. It was a great learning experience. I actually consider myself more of a writer than an artist, so it takes a lot for me to draw for someone else. In fact, I don't have any plans to draw for anyone else ever again.

Eternal Smile, page 111

I think the kind of stories Gene and I tell and the facets of writing on which we focus are very different (Gene's more plot focused and I'm more character focused), but I think we rely on the same sort of signatures in terms of pacing and emotional cues. We have very similar instincts on that front and I almost feel like we “finish each other sentences” in that area. I think we compliment each other really well.

By the way, we'll be married in the fall. That guy who plays Chewbacca will be performing the service and everyone is invited.

NRAMA: What’s next for each of you?

GLY: I’ve got a few projects going on. I have a short comics story called “Prime Baby” that’s being serialized in The New York Times Magazine. I wrote and drew it, Derek colored it. It’s about a third-grader who’s intensely jealous of his baby sister, so he decides to prove that she’s an alien to their parents. I have a 12-pager I did with Sonny Liew in Secret Identities, an Asian-American superhero anthology coming out in April. I also have a graphic novel in the works with Thien Pham called Four Angels, about a video game addict who decides to go to med school after having a divine encounter. That will be out … I’m not sure. Within a year or two? Thien’s almost done. Or at least he tells me he’s almost done. And finally, I’m working on a long, long graphic novel all on my own. I’m writing and drawing it (though someone else will probably do the color). It’s a historical fiction piece set in China in the late 1800’s.

DKK: At the moment I'm in the writing stage for my next book for First Second 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, which I hope to have finished in time for Emerald City Comicon and the subsequent conventions I'll be attending this year. It's about bananas, break dancing and Michael Jackson.

Eternal Smile ships in late April from First Second Books. Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim can both be found online.

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