{comic} same difference

Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim ; (deluxe edition) First Second Books, 2011

When Derek Kirk Kim published his debut graphic novel back in 2003, it made an immediate stir. The story about a group of young people navigating adulthood and personal relationships is told with such sympathy and perception that the book was immediately hailed as an important new work.
Seven years later, it’s clear that Same Difference has won a place among the great literature of the last decade. […] Derek’s distinctive voice as an author, coupled with his clear, crisp, expressive art has made this story a classic. And this classic is now back in print, in a deluxe edition from First Second.—publisher’s comments

I was not sure what Same Difference was supposed to be about. As you well know by now, First Second is a favorite publisher, but that the comic won the Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz Awards I really couldn’t resist giving it a try. Yeah, I felt that excited, but seriously, I was worried it would be something I could only appreciate from the outside looking in, from way outside looking in. Then there is that vague description that alludes to young people angst. BoingBoing’s synopsis: “Same Difference is the story of Korean-American 20-something slackers in San Francisco who wrestle with the stereotypes and ambitions that they feel guide their lives.” I thought that might be the case. It seems Derek Kirk Kim was keeping Zach Braff company in the early 2000s (but with a different cultural twist). So I put it off like it was some kind of chore. No one told me it was going be funny.*

In an entertaining “Introduction” written by Gene Yang, he talks about how Derek Kirk Kim wanted to retire from the superhero business, “maybe try his hand at making funnybooks.”

“Why don’t you do a memoir?” I suggested. Maybe drawing little doodles of his adventures would make him realize how silly it would be to give them up. “You’ve lived a pretty interesting life, and memoir graphic novels sell like hotcakes these days.” Derek didn’t look up.  “Nah,” Brent said, mid-cartwheel. “He’s gonna do something REALLY amazing.”

and his graphic novella is. You’ll find it listed with memoirs for company, and while, according to the “Afterword” by the author, a key event was lifted from his own youth, Same Difference is something else. Which quickly brings me to the title. I use this term much to the annoyance of some who are sure I only use it to try and save face. However, there is more to it, and it is not just geeky fun to think about the title during or after the read.

I liked a couple of Urban Dictionary’s definitions for “same difference:”

Another way of saying “whatever”. It is often confused with “same thing”, but you’re really saying “OK, I admit that they’re not the same thing, but they’re not different enough for me to really care about it.”

Same difference refers to two subject matters which are not equal yet share similar values.  For instance: Apples & Oranges. Both are fruits, but are not equal.

Friends (not lovers) Nancy and Simon have plenty the same, and plenty of differences. It is where the same but different intersect that engage another level of interest when pairing characters in the story, not just Nancy and Simon, though they are our protagonists. Gender is one (and the nerd in me would love to do or read a reading on this). Nancy and Simon are both Korean American and the author slips in expectations both mutual and non-. For instance liking Pho versus Nancy lying to her mom that she is still a virgin and not being terribly delicate ala the “taking a dump” scene. Add Ian in to compare with Nancy then Simon. The novel engages the reader in considering where the hypocrisies and/or paradoxes lie. Nancy teasing Simon about his high school uniform is comedic, and provocative.

The level of comfort between Nancy and Simon is awesome. It lacks a self-consciousness that makes the story possible. And what is the story? Two “Korean-American 20-something slackers in San Francisco who wrestle with the stereotypes and ambitions that they feel guide their lives.” Nancy wants to know what the face of “pathetic” really looks like in lonely and desperate romantic terms. Simon hopes he’s moved beyond immaturity without losing too much of himself to adulthood; and when does he move from High School relationship antics to achieving a mature intimacy with a girl—without marriage (which he doesn’t like the idea of). And could he have found it, but he just doesn’t know it? If you are thinking Derek Kirk Kim would go where Braff or Hollywood would, here’s a difference.

Same Difference has the organic feel of a day in the life of two really interesting people, the kind you find in indie-films and/or geekdom. There are plenty of pop culture references, many of which should make those who were at least in their early 20s in the early 2000s smile, certainly anyone who experienced Real Science and can name the character Simon is talking about before he can. And Tom Waits, anyone? They are defined by their culture and their experiences and Simon worries that he isn’t progressing, that fear and ineptitude may be holding him back, so the references have both the trap of nostalgia and the ability to draw a generation together in commiseration. It’s lovely.

As far as the art: No fancy tricks or clever play, nothing obvious in the art and form anyway. The segues alternate between text and frame, or a combination of both during travel; the pacing steady on; the dead pan humor and self-deprecation ubiquitous. For all the text at the beginning, you miss how well the author/artist utilizes the understated until you consider how beautifully it is implemented there nearer the end. And I kept returning to those wordless sequences; Ben, in particular, was entrancing. And what a mood to leave the book off in.

Derek Kirk Kim grows his characters in a remarkably short period of time without compromising their inherent awesomeness. He paints a different image of maturity, one that doesn’t compromise or create hypocrisy for those who do not fit and refuse to conform to certain molds and expectations. He doesn’t seat his hero in an Architecture Firm for an interview replete with suit and tie at the end. He doesn’t marry his heroine off to someone else going from quirky to dinner party sophistication before it’s over. What does “growing up” look like?

When we speak of an author possessing their own voice, Derek Kirk Kim exemplifies this. One may find similarities with other works or characters thematically or illustratively, but it isn’t quite the same. It’s that difference that sets this novel apart.


*Nancy brought an old friend Victoria so vividly to mind and Simon as a younger John Cusack as if he were penned by Nick Hornby instead of the 80’s screenwriters.

**last paragraph references indie film (500) Days of Summer. I know I was talking Braff earlier, but this film came to mind here.


recommendations: ages 14 & up, due to language, and because when Simon says he felt like a dick, he looked like one… and really, why borrow this kind of angst, it’s a perfect post-High School read. Fans of American Born Chinese will have to read this one, a well as those who are skeptical of graphic novel’s storytelling power and ease. The art is accessible to most and this should be a part of all our comic-loving libraries.

of note: this edition includes concept sketches with the Afterword by the author/artist. the inclusion of the Introduction and Afterword are great, and the transparent cover with the hard cover binding? a very nice touch.

{images belong to Derek Kirk Kim, the last one from his site not the book, one I couldn’t resist including, a sketch from a Comic-Con apparently}

BoingBoing’s brief write-up, “though it’s a quick read, it leaves a lasting emotional coal smoldering in its wake.”

and I liked San Francisco Chronicle‘s blurb: “Kim illuminates the emotional bear-traps and intricate dishonesties of our everyday interactions with a clarity that should be more painful than it is.”

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

2 thoughts on “{comic} same difference

    1. the cosplay isn’t in there, but it should give you a really good idea of the kind of author we’ll dealing with here aka awesome!

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