The Stumptown Comics Fest came and went in a blur of MacTarnahan's and mini-comics, but it's still officially "Portland Comics Month." Powell's is catching the tail end of the comet with a reading headlined by indie comics superstar Derek Kirk Kim, whose 2004 book Same Difference and Other Stories snagged both an Eisner and a Harvey.
Kim illustrated the new collection The Eternal Smile (it's written by Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese), and fans who pick up The Eternal Smile based on Kim's previous work may be surprised. Both Same Difference and Good as Lily (the young-adult title Kim penned for the Minx imprint) are confessional in tone and smart-assed in humor—but the stories in Eternal Smile look at the ways in which people (and frogs) mediate their realities, and at the escape valves and petty deceptions that get people (and frogs) through the day.
In the book's most successful story, an office worker knowingly falls for a Nigerian email scam, entranced by the prospect of adding meaning and excitement to her life, even as she knows that her checks aren't really going to deposed Nigerian royalty. Kim's art here is at its best—as the office worker scrapes the bottom of her bank account to transfer money to her desperate "Nigerian prince," a muted color palette suffuses the character's previously black-and-white life, and where once her loneliness was represented by scant panels arranged sparsely against a blank page, a lush imagined romance unfolds like a fairytale in a children's book. In Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile, a frog plots and connives to increase his fortune, dreaming of a pool of money so deep he can swim in it. I won't spoil the story's big reveal, but it's a surprisingly touching reconciliation of real and constructed realities that borrows equally from Scrooge McDuck and The Truman Show.
These are self-aware little stories, hip to their own participation in the very pop-cultural means of entertainment and escape they're critiquing—and perhaps that's why they feel gentle, even as they consistently reject escapism in favor of engagement. Yang's writing is over-partial to the "gotcha" moment, in which a grand gimmick is revealed with a flourish, but the stories are otherwise clever and sensitive.
Kim will be joined at Powell's by local cartoonists Sarah Oleksyk (saraholeksyk.com) and Jesse Reklaw, whose Slow Wave runs weekly in the Mercury.