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Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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Reviewed by Adam Ford

by Derek Kirk Kim
144 pages, black and white
Published by Small Stories
Distributed by Alternative Comics

Reviewed by Adam Ford

Warren Ellis recently mentioned Derek Kim in one of his Bad Signal emails, saying that Kim was someone who pretty soon would have lots of people claiming that they knew him when he was just starting out. Well, allow me to unabashedly jump on that bandwagon. I first saw the early instalments of "Same Difference", the story that takes up two-thirds of this collection, maybe three or four years ago when Kim was posting them regularly on his web site. I must have visited his site every day back then, hanging out for a new page to be uploaded. I never minded too much if there wasn't a new one up when I visited because Kim's comics were so good and the writing was so natural and funny and appealing that I could read them over and over and over without losing any sense of enjoyment.

When I heard that "Same Difference" was being collected in print form I was thrilled. When it arrived in the mail I was even more excited. Not only were the comics in there all together for me to carry in my bag and have with me for ever and ever and read whenever I want, the book itself is a beautiful object. It's small - about the size of a paperback novel. The cover illustration is done predominantly in subtle gold and olive-green, depicting the wall of a house with the slender branches of a white-flowering tree resting against a window. If you look closely you can make out someone's face as they stand in the dark room behind the window. The book also has flaps folded over on the back and front pages, the kind of things you use to mark your place when you stop reading. There's a lot of book-as-object love radiating from this gorgeous package.

But maybe we should get down to the actual stories themselves. What you've got here is the complete graphic novella "Same Difference" that was serialised on Kim's web site, as well as a whole bunch of shorter stories that make up the last third of the book. "Same Difference" is obviously the showpiece of the book, but the inclusion of the short stories gives a wider sampling of Kim's capacity as a comic storyteller and allows him to demonstrate the breadth of his talent.

"Same Difference" at its simplest is a comfortable and casually meandering story about two old friends, Simon and Nancy, going on a road trip to Simon's old home town. The road trip and its impetus, like most road stories, provide a framework for the two of them to encounter and make observations about all manner of things in our contemporary world like high-school reminiscences and the nature of friendship, all the while dipping into a seemingly inexhaustible supply of reverential pop culture namedropping. The pacing of the story is lackadaisical, and sometimes even feels a touch directionless, but the depth of detail with which Kim invests every step in the journey makes every digression feel important and relevant, and prevents things from ever feeling like they're taking too long.

The short stories in the back are a good demonstration of the breadth of Kim's range of drawing styles. For each of the stories he uses a different style depending on his dramatic intention. The bleaker stories take a photorealist approach, while the comedic and satirical stories are drawn in a more cartoony line-art style. What makes "Same Difference" stand apart from these other stories is the way that Kim uses the entire range of his artistic styles to illustrate each mood of the story as it is needed. His style of illustration changes from panel to panel to suit the mood of the story. In the more slapstick comedic moments he'll strip things back to a manga-style iconic approach and noses, mouths and eyes will become simple lines and dashes. The next moment the mood will snap back all serious and dramatic and the same character's face will be drawn in much more "realist" detail. This balance between the realist and the cartoony that draws the reader in and holds their attention. The transitions between more and less realist depiction are an effective device that Kim uses seamlessly and with precision. As well as this impressive artistic balancing act, there's a much more loving and hopeful air about "Same Difference" when compared to the rest of the stories, which as a whole are much angrier and cynical. This doesn't mean that they're less worthy, but for mine the gentle and kind touch of "Same Difference" is much more appealing by comparison.

There's a deft cinematic feel about the composition of "Same Difference" - the subtle use of moment-to-moment and scene-to-scene transitions show Kim to have a shrewd understanding of dramatic timing. The episodic way that the story progresses is also shrewd. Certain parts of the story are so complete in themselves that they could easily stand alone as short pieces of their own: the episode where Simon's old high-school friend talks about the first time she ever lied to her mother; the sequence of long-shot landscapes complete with "soundtrack" that depicts the actual road trip; the three-page 2x3 panel grid sequence where Simon and Nancy have a faux-argument in the front of Simon's car. All of these scenes and others have such a discrete and distinctive feel to them, but at the same time they all fit together as a whole.

The environments that Kim creates for his characters to inhabit are so convincing that you almost experience a physical sensation when the story moves on and that environment is left behind. When Simon and Nancy are buying ramen noodles and ice-cream in their local Safeway it could be my local Safeway that they're in. When they're sitting in their car in suburbia, it feels like the suburbia that I know from personal experience. Nancy's tiny bedroom in the shopfront house feels like any number of sharehouse bedrooms I've been in. The Pho restaurant the story begins in could be the one I visit regularly to get a number 22 with extra broccoli.

I could rave on for pages more about this book, I really could. But I think I've pretty much covered it. Derek Kim is one of the artform's true geniuses: a man with great ability as both a writer and an artist who has been able to bring the two together in a way that perfectly demonstrates the breadth, depth and true capacity of comics as a story-telling device par excellence. "Same Difference" is a real, honest and true story full of the best kind of everyday wisdom and insight, a story that is at once universal and unique.

It's Not Possible To Recommend This Highly Enough


Trapped in a world he never asked for, Adam Ford is a Melbourne-based author. His latest novel is called Man Bites Dog. It's a story about small press, unfair accusations and bad television. He knows it's been a long time since Godlings episodes, but life got in the way and he hopes to have something new for Godlings fans (all three of them) next year. Adam's web site can be found here.

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