Bridging differences of culture by humorThe title of the English comic book “Same Difference” had a curious mistranslation that almost seemed intentional when it was released in Korean earlier this month. The book, which originally appeared on artist Derek Kirk Kim’s Web site, had its title literally translated as “Different Sameness” in Korean.
To careful bilingual readers, this almost seemed like an artful coincidence for a story by a young Korean-American comic artist who has won some of the industry’s top honors. Yet it only requires reading the first few pages to find that the book, whose title appears in both languages on the cover, has more to do with our “sameness” than our “difference.”
But, speaking about the release of his first feature comic in Korea, the 30-year-old artist, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is overtly humble. “I’d be surprised if anyone picks it up,” he says. “It seems so alien to the Korean comic book world.”
The book, which received the 2003 Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent, the 2004 Eisner Award for Best Short Story and a Harvey Award nomination for Best New Talent last year, deals with two young Korean-Americans, Simon and Nancy, who reminisce about their Korean heritage through the cheerful trivialities of their lives such as eating raw ramen and mingling over pho.
Race, however, isn’t a central theme of this book. In his work, Mr. Kim never explicitly deals with the dilemmas of fitting in per se, though he often clears the air by using banal jokes when it comes to serious moments.
He does touch on our sense of fear of differences through Simon’s guilt over Irene, his blind female friend from high school. He also questions the absurdity of the meaning of “Oriental” in commenting on the “Oriental flavor” listed on a package of ramen, saying, “Is there one specific flavor that encapsulates the entire ‘oriental’ sector of the world?”
But he doesn’t keep a straight face on any of these issues, as evident in his answer to the “Oriental” noodle question. Holding up different ramen packages, the character in the comic says, “Here you have chicken flavor and here you have beef. Deductive reasoning would indicate that they grind up ‘Orientals’ into that one.”
Despite the story’s facile tone, filled with mirth and sarcasm, the fact that Mr. Kim used non-Caucasian characters in his work inevitably makes this book read differently from other Western comics presented in similar styles. Even if he hadn’t deliberately used non-white characters as a cultural protest, this might partly explain why Mr. Kim’s comic has faced difficulty in penetrating the mainstream audience among Western readers.
But the difficulty lies not so much in that fact, as in its being a comic book instead of a movie or prose, he explains, “or the fact that it’s realistic fiction, or that it’s not really distributed in regular bookstores, or that the comic book readership is riddled with juvenile adults with arrested development who have no interest in reading anything that doesn’t have a McDonald’s toy tie-in, or countless other things that go beyond cultural differences.
“I mean, look at ‘The Joy Luck Club’ by Amy Tan. That sold pretty darn well despite a distinct dearth of white folks,” he adds.
Arguably, Mr. Kim’s greatest strength lies in his cinematic sensibility and his ability to build a story that avoids the linear narrative approach to storytelling. The use of unusual “camera-style” angles from scene to scene feels appropriate, adding tension to the story’s narratives. The passage of time, especially in scenes where a sequence is repeated over and over in an identical setting, is depicted in the style of a moving image rather than a comic strip.
Overall, the dialogue and the way scenes are visually presented on a page seem to be influenced by popular cinematic traditions. In his opening, for example, he introduces the faces of three friends seen through the glass of a fish tank at a Vietnamese restaurant.
A critic of Cine 21, a local film magazine, even described Mr. Kim’s dialogues as carrying “Woody Allen’s sense of humor.” Perhaps Mr. Kim’s list of favorite directors ― Woody Allen, Todd Solenz, Stanley Kubrick, Hayao Miyazaki and Zhang Yimou “before he totally lost it and did all these silly kung-fu flicks,” he adds ― may explain the neurotic, guilt-ridden characters from “Same Difference” set against the book’s nostalgic backgrounds.
A story seems to make up an important axis of Mr. Kim’s book, more so than an image sometimes. Indeed National Public Radio described Mr. Kim as “a novelist with a comic sensibility.”
Mr. Kim agrees, describing his work as “a graphic novel.”
“The drawing’s just labor,” he says. “It isn’t really that important to me. I don’t get influenced in that department much anymore. I just do what comes naturally.”
The problem is writing, and devising a presentation that makes a story that’s mostly composed of “talking heads” interesting for readers. At the moment, he says, his writing is mostly influenced by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author who is known among his readers for his scathing sarcasm, an element also evident in Mr. Kim’s works.
“I’d like to think I’m a ‘pessimistic optimist,’” he says. “I think in the long run ― in the big scheme of things ― I’m an optimist. But in my day-to-day interactions with the world, I think I’m a pessimist since I complain about things quite a bit. I’m making a conscious effort to break that habit, though.”
Currently, he is working on another book starring some of the same characters from “Same Difference,” which is a full-length graphic novel of around 500 pages, and which will take at least another two years to complete.
Though one might not typically be inclined to tell his stories to a child at bedtime most of Mr. Kim’s comics offer a warm belief in the goodness of man, as in the ending of “Same Difference,” in which Nancy sends an apology note and his favorite ice cream to Ben, a man who sends obsessive love letters to the ex-girlfriend he thinks lives at Nancy’s apartment.
Mr. Kim’s other stories in the book, which are mostly autobiographical, are spiced with humor, including his shorts based on his traumatic experience of teaching English to kids in a hagwon.
“The main problem is that the kind of person who would read the kind of stories that I’m writing would never pick up a comic book,” he says. “It’s maddening, but what can you do?”
by Park Soo-mee