Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference was originally self-published in 2003 (with the aid of a Xeric Grant) and distributed by the now-defunct Alternative Comics. Then Top Shelf picked it up and republished it in 2004. Now, First Second has brought the story back into print in an attractive hardcover edition with a distinctive dust jacket of transparent plastic. (In the book cover, shown here, the fish are printed on the overlay, with the figures on the book itself, giving a three-dimensionality to the image.)
There’s one other significant difference between this new version and the previous. This one omits the “Other Stories”, a dozen short pieces ranging from two to nine pages each. Many were throwaway, but if you’re a Kim completist, you’ll want to track down one of those earlier editions. This book instead has a new Afterword by the author showing character design sketches and location photos. In it, he talks about how meaningful this story is to him, given all that’s happened since its creation. I found that short section revealing enough to justify keeping both editions of the work.
Kim is an immensely talented artist with a beautiful line and great skill with shading for depth. This autobiographically influenced story features Simon and Nancy, two Korean-American friends. Even though they’re relatively young adults, they spend a lot of their time reminiscing, showing us who they were and incidents in their past that they still obsess over. One would think they’d be looking forwards, not back, but they don’t have much idea of a future for themselves, and they’re coasting through the present. The past is safe. It happened, whether they like what they did and who they were or not, and as they find out, it can have continuing ramifications.
Nancy has been playing a mean game. At her apartment, she’s received a lot of letters for a Sarah, no longer there, from a Ben who’s clearly besotted with her. Nancy responded, encouraging Ben to more creative yet disturbing depths, and now she and Simon decide to go find him, since he’s writing from Simon’s home town. Much like in the movie Young Adult, Simon prides himself for getting out of his loser small town, but his life isn’t noticeably more successful or exciting than those left behind. Some would argue, since he’s wasting time traveling to laugh at someone he doesn’t even know, his accomplishments are distinctly less significant, a realization he struggles with during a late-in-the-book speech to Nancy.
It’s Kim’s art that makes this worth reading, his expressive faces and gestures. Even when the characters are being authentically self-indulgent, wallowing in their superficiality, they’re so real they look like they’re going to move any minute. The story itself is the kind you respond to differently depending where in life you are. Younger than the characters, it seems kind of edgy and mature. Their age, you’ll relate to the pain of aimlessness and how easy it is to thoughtlessly hurt other people. Older, there’s a certain precious innocence to their cruelty and self-absorption. They aren’t likable characters, but they’re honest and legitimate personalities.
The introduction is by Gene Yang, who collaborated with Kim on The Eternal Smile: Three Stories. It’s out of tone with the rest of the book, portraying Kim and Yang as superheroes, and I would imagine that the audience for this work wouldn’t get much out of it.
The marketing information makes much of how Same Difference won Kim the Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, the Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent, and the Harvey Award for Best New Talent. I looked those up because the press materials attribute the awards to the book, but the recognition was actually for the artist himself. Voters clearly wanted to see more from him, although that promise has yet to be fulfilled, with this being the only major work he both wrote and illustrated. He’s since moved into filmmaking, and his current comic work is writing Tune, a webcomic described as “a sci-fi slice-of-life romantic comedy adventure”, illustrated by Les McClaine. A print edition of Tune is planned from First Second in 2012. (The publisher provided a review copy.)