Same Difference and Other Stories is the first published book by Derek Kirk Kim, collecting stories he had originally serialized online. It’s a personal book, featuring one longer story of about 80 pages followed by a collection of shorts. In general the book seems fairly autobiographical, with one section explicitly coming from Kim’s own past and most of the other stories coloured from experiences in his life.

Writer & Artist: Derek Kirk Kim
Publisher: variably published by Small Stories, First Second and Top Shelf
Age: Teens
Kim is Korean-American and lives in the Bay Area. These are important aspects to who Kim is and have a heavy influence not only on his life but art as well. Even though the protagonist of Same Difference isn’t Kim explicitly, the fact that he reflects Kim’s background and home let us know that this will be a personal story. Same Difference begins with our protagonist, Simon, grabbing lunch with some friends named Nancy and Ian in a San Francisco neighbourhood. During the meal Simon notices a blind girl he had gone to high school with waiting for the bus across the street. It’s an odd moment for him as he hadn’t seen her in years and their home town is more than 40 minutes away by driving. Over the course of the meal he recounts how things had gotten awkward when she had asked him to a dance and his regrets surrounding it.

As the day progresses Ian splits off and Simon hangs out with Nancy at her apartment. While there she confesses that she’s been receiving unrequited love letters sent to the previous tenant and, after one especially boring afternoon, had opened them. One thing led to another and during another subsequent bout with boredom, Nancy ended up writing back. Coincidentally the letters had actually been sent from Simon’s home town and, as curiosity once again wins out, the two of them decide to drive back to try and discover their mystery letter writer.

While it’s only about 80 pages in length, the author manages to pack a lot into the story with many short and reflective moments on different themes. The initial driving force may be mystery mixed with a stranger’s unrequited love, but over the course of the story we’ll also deal with regret and returning to one’s past. These may seem like heavier topics, but in presenting the story Kim always manages to keep things light-hearted. While some aspects of the story could weigh heavily on either Simon or Nancy, the tone of the book is conversational. It starts off with friends hanging out and as it progresses this feeling is never lost. There may be a road trip and they may explore Simon’s past, but the narration always makes it feel like friends chilling and having a conversation. It keeps the book fun as you read it, giving it a bouncy tempo that mimics the laughter and pauses common to friendship and banter.

The subsequent stories are an interesting mix that can basically be broken down into three categories. As mentioned before, one section is explicitly autobiographical while another is fiction that seems inspired by Kim’s real-life experiences. A third section seems oddly out of place, comprising single-page shorts featuring a character named Oliver Pikk. Oliver appears to be an anthropomorphic olive stuck on a toothpick, filled with self-loathing and melancholoy. It’s an odd (although amusing) detour from the rest of the book, although interesting to see the differences in the stories that Kim writes.

Kim’s art style is a clean black and white, with solid lines and varying greys to add depth. The most interesting aspect is in it’s mutability, shifting between realistic portrayals and cartoonish representations as the scene dictates. It works incredibly well, providing a serious tone to important moments and conversations while also letting the story easily slide into a silly joke. A large part of why the book’s story flows so well lies in these visual cues, as they surreptitiously prepare the reader for each scene as their eyes first hit the panel.

The stories for the collection had originally been serialized online, garnering Kim some recognition as well as a Xeric award and grant. It was this initial boost that allowed the book to be published, subsequently garnering him more awards. Kim won an Eisner and Harvey when the book first came out, as well as an Ignatz for Promising New Talent. Since then he’s collaborated with Gene Luen Yang on The Eternal Smile and is working on TUNE with Les McClaine. You can see his work online at Lowbright.com.