A Top-Flight Debut

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Derek Kirk Kim's debut book, "Same Difference and Other Stories," appeared last year as a self-published paperback, and with a small print run and zero name-recognition it flew under most radars. Suddenly, though, Kim has swooped into our airspace, receiving nominations for two of the top honors in comix: Eisner Award nominations for Best Short Story and Name Deserving of Wider Recognition, and a Harvey Award nomination for Best New Talent. The hat trick: Top Shelf will be reprinting the original book next month in a spiffy new edition. Here is your chance to catch up on this artist's sharp comedy, thoughtful characterizations and cartooning pizzazz.

'Same Difference and Other Stories' by Derek Kirk Kim

A collection of short works that originally appeared on the Web (and still do, at http://www.lowbright.com/), they run a gamut of styles, from serious short fiction to satire to autobiography. While "Same Difference" has the quality of a young artist looking for his own voice by mimicking others, Kim adds enough smarts and talent to make it all seem fresh. One of the most important ingredients is a frisson of Asian American spice. Born in Korea and raised in the States from the age of eight — Korean Americans call such immigrants "1.5"s — Kim's comix stand virtually alone in their depiction of Asian American lives. Only Adriane Tomine, author of "Optic Nerve" and obviously a major influence on Kim, has attempted to explore the subject.

Kim is wise enough to avoid making race the central theme of his work. Instead he just puts Asian Americans into funny, compelling stories that would typically feature "white" characters. The titular tale, for example, owes far more to Dan Clowes' "Ghostworld" than to Amy Tan's "Joy Luck Club." The longest and best of the book's pieces, "Same Difference" features Simon and Nancy, two dorky twenty-something best friends living in Oakland, California who bicker over pop-culture and local weirdoes. The story follows the two of them as Simon semi-reluctantly drives Nancy to Pacifica in order to spy on Ben, a man who writes obsessive love letters to a woman he thinks lives at Nancy's apartment. If the structure seems a bit amateurish — it has a few too many talky interludes and lucky coincidences — all is forgiven by the deep characterization. Simon and Nancy feel real, with complex, sympathetic personalities that make them compelling in spite of their self-absorption.

Ben confronts Nancy and Simon in "Same Difference"

Among other highlights, "Super Unleaded" sketches a devastating portrait of dysfunctional family dynamics in just a few short pages. The unnamed teenage narrator has become the reluctant communication bridge between his non-verbal parents. That he is the child of a Korean mother and Caucasian father only adds to the story's complexity without making it strictly about cultural gulfs. On the opposite end of the comix scale is "Oliver Pikk," featuring a walking, talking skewered olive who complains about his sex life. Why doesn't he believe in aliens, for example? Because, "the thought of an entire species of sentient beings having sex while I'm sitting at home alone picking at my scabs is enough to kill myself…faster."

Among other things, Kim has an impressively varied cartooning style. While "Super Unleaded" gets rendered with a cinematic look that underscores its naturalism, "Oliver Pikk" has a zany, Saturday morning cartoonishness. "Same Difference" deftly combines these two styles, blending a realistic approach with some silly caricature. For a debut, "Same Difference" shows a remarkable level of accomplishment at comicbook craft. Although many web comics transfer badly to the printed page, only a few minor pieces in the book suffer, mostly due to blurry typeface.

"Same Difference and Other Stories" and Derek Kirk Kim well deserve their nominations. Kim shows a lot of promise in his varied styles and subtle but subversive Asian American angle. Don't miss this impressive debut.