Ten years ago, two little-known comics creators collaborated on "Duncan's Kingdom," a two-issue series published by Image. Since then, Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Luen Yang have become some of the most acclaimed creators of the past decade. Kim's first book, "Same Difference and Other Stories," won him the Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz awards. Yang's most recent book "American Born Chinese" received an Eisner Award, a Michael Printz Award, and was the first graphic novel nominated for the National Book Award.
Their new book, "The Eternal Smile," is a First Second collection of three very different stories written by Yang and illustrated by Kim that explore the relationship between fantasy and reality.
The two friends took time out from their busy schedules to talk to CBR News about the book, what else they're working on, and their own relationships with fantasy.
CBR: "Duncan's Kingdom," which is the first part of "Eternal Smile," came out about ten years ago from Image. What was it like putting that story together?
GENE LUEN YANG: "Duncan's Kingdom" was a lot of fun for me. Derek was going through writer's block. He was working at this animation studio at the time, doing really tedious work that was eating away at his soul. I'd just started teaching. Summer began, and I was looking for something to do in addition to "Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order." Derek proposed that we work together, with me writing and him drawing. He wanted to do something fantasy-oriented, as he had all these fantasy character designs that he wanted to use. Duncan actually started as a sketch in Derek's sketchbook. I came up with a story, and things took off from there.
Eventually, with the help of our mutual friend Jimmie Robinson ("Bomb Queen"), Image published the story as a two-issue miniseries. I still remember how I found out that Image had picked us up. I came home and the first message on the answering machine was Derek yelling "GOOOOAAAL!" for like ten minutes straight.
DEREK KIRK KIM: Gene lies. I have no soul. Also, I have no memory of most what Gene just said. But I'd take his word for it since I have the memory of a gnat.
How did the "Eternal Smile" project come about, this idea of creating stories unified by theme?
GLY: Both of us have really,Â really personal projects that we're working on ourselves. "Duncan's Kingdom" was always meant to be a break for us from our other stuff, but it always had a special place in our hearts. We talked about collecting it into a graphic novel from time to time, but it's too short to stand alone. We toyed with the idea of doing a couple more stories that featured Duncan. Eventually, we hit on the idea of exploring that same theme of fantasy and reality from a couple of different angles, in a couple of different ways. I wrote two more stories and Derek drew 'em.
Gene, what was the writing process like and what was the challenge of coming up with stories that connected thematically but were also interesting stories in their own right?
GLY: I wrote the stories in thumbnail, but Derek had the freedom to change stuff if he wanted. He's a phenomenal storyteller all on his own, and I completely trust his instincts. He had the strongest influence over the last story, which most folks think is the best story. He came up with that art style, colors, and character designs, of course, but he also figured out the layout of the panels on the page, where the page turns fell, and the pacing.
Derek's art styles shift for each story. What kind of tone or style were you trying for in each?
DKK: Well, with "Greenbax," Gene wanted the feel of those old Barks' Duck comics, right down to the four-tier panel structure. It was a fun exercise. And it gave me newfound respect for what Barks did and how deceptively easy he made it look. For "Urgent Request," I suppose I wanted the feel of a stereotypical "indie" comic, hence all the cross hatching and the looser, cartoonier style. It was Gene's wonderful idea to have each story sort of mimic these different comic book factions. Hence the very different "covers" for each story.
For both of you, "The Eternal Smile" is very different in a lot of ways from your previous books. How intentional was that?
GLY: Well, I don't know if it's all that different from my other stuff. I was on this twist-ending kick for a while. It showed up in ABC, and it plays a smaller part in another project I'm working on with Thien Pham. In "The Eternal Smile," though, I'm hoping that the twist isn't the main attraction of the stories, that it's really more about how the relationship between fantasy and reality changes from one story to the next. I don't know how successful I am in that. As for Derek, I just think he's a really versatile storyteller. He's versatile in his art and he's versatile in his writing. For each of his projects, he changes his art to suit the story.
Do you have a favorite story of the three?
GLY: My favorite is probably the second one, only because I'm deeply nostalgic for those old Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge stories. Gran'pa Greenbax doesn't really have Scrooge's charm, but he's my homage to The Richest Duck in the World. Visually, though, I think the last story is the most stunning. Derek really went to town on that one.
DKK: It's hard to say because the three stories are integral parts of a whole from the way I look at the book. But if I had to say at gunpoint, I'd have to agree with Gene and go with the Gran'pa Greenbax story. I love the way the story ends.
Is it a coincidence that both "Duncan's Kingdom" and "Grand'pa Greenbax" involve frogs?
GLY: It was kind of a coincidence. We did that first story so long ago, I don't really remember why I chose frogs. I think I wanted to do anthropomorphic pineapples and Derek nixed the idea. For the second story, I needed an animal that was land-dwelling but still partial to lakes. Frogs seemed like the natural choice. I wanted to work frogs into that third story, just to continue the theme, but as I progressed in the writing, I realized there wasn't really a natural way of doing that.
DKK: Gene has got the most tripped out straight-laced guy I've ever met. If I didn't know him, I swear I'd think he was on drugs. "Anthropomorphic pineapples?" Dude, seriously?
Fantasy is portrayed as an escape and a distraction from what's important in the first two stories, but in the last story, fantasy has a very different purpose. It's about escape into something meaningful and more vital than her daily life, but it's also destructive. What were you going for with this ending?
GLY: I wanted the book to reflect my own progression in thinking about escapist fantasy. The first two are intentionally negative. I see the third as a... maybe a refutation of the first two. Or a broader perspective.
Geek culture has heavily influenced mainstream American culture. Escapist culture is all around us, and it's big business. I think it's easy, especially for teachers like me, to just look at the ways it interferes with real-world relationships, goals, and personal growth. But many of the roots of modern escapist fantasy - myths, fables, and even the more modern Tolkien novels - weren't really about escaping reality. They were about illuminating it. I think fantasy videogames, movies, and comic books can do the same, if crafted well.
What else are you working on?
GLY: I have a couple of projects that just got out the door. Last year, I had a short story in a YA fiction anthology called "Up All Night." The story is titled "The Motherless One," and it was previously published as a minicomic. I also have a short story that I did with Sonny Liew in "Secret Identities, the Asian American Superhero Anthology." I'm working on two graphic novels at the moment. The first is illustrated by Thien Pham. The working title is "Four Angels," and it's about a video game addict who decides to go to med school after a divine encounter of sorts. The second I'm writing and drawing all on my own. It's a historical fiction piece set during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 called "Boxers and Saints."
DKK: I've read the first five chapter of "Boxers and Saints" in thumbnail form and it's blowing my brain. It may even be better than "American Born Chinese." It's that good. I can't wait for it to come out! As for me, I'm also going back to writing and drawing my own stuff. I have two big projects in the works, one of which is already signed onto First Second Books. It's called "Tune" and it's about an art school dropout who gets into all sorts of trouble. I'm also working on a story about the first year in the life of a child immigrant which I'm serializing in my one-man mini comics anthology series, "Lowbright." I'm probably going to serialize parts of it on my site lowbright.com as well.
What kind of fantasy or escapist stories do you enjoy?
GLY: I'm a geek. I could give you a list as long as my arm. I love Jeff Smith's "Bone." I love Jay Stephen's work. And I love most of Osamu Tezuka's stuff. Like most comic book geeks my age, I grew up reading superhero comics. Nowadays, superhero comics confuse me more than anything else, but they still hold a special place in my heart. I also have fond memories of old '80s cartoons like "Transformers," "Dungeons and Dragons," and "Gummi Bears!" Remember "Gummi Bears?" So awesome.
DKK: As I grow older, it's getting harder and harder for me to really get into escapist stuff, but I do have a few exceptions like "Lost," "Battlestar Galactica" (I'm a newbie to that), and of course, "Avatar, The Last Airbender." (The animated TV series, not the upcoming live-action movie with the racist casting.)
But I find that my enjoyment of such things is always sort of tongue-in-cheek now. Sort of like enjoying and accepting that crazy uncle for what he is. Fully recognizing how ridiculous he is, but still letting yourself enjoy his company. When I was young, it was just full-on immersion, no irony or awareness of anything other than what was being fed to me. No matter how hard I try, I can't take myself back to that mentality -- innocence? -- anymore. One of the downsides of being a creator yourself is seeing the real Oz behind the curtain. And you can never take it back.
Kind of like Gran'pa Greenbax, now that I think about it...