Friday, August 11, 2006

Same Difference and Other Short Stories

Same Difference and Other Short Stories, July 2005, Top Shelf Productions (second edition)
by Derek Kirk Kim

I decided to take a break from my Comic Con stash, which still has plenty of sustenance for the A Comic A Day challenge, to explore what the local library boasts for a comic book section. To my surprise, the selection was incredibly diverse, with representation from every major comics publisher on the market today, from the “big two” to Dark Horse, Image, and Top Shelf. The superhero fare didn’t dominate the independent stuff, and the varying dimensions of the lesser-known material (from digest to tabloid sizes) made an impression against the standard sized trade paperbacks. Even as an old, hardcore fanboy, as much as I wanted to read those Batman graphic novels I’ve been too lazy or broke to read, I was drawn to indie digests, the stories I haven’t even seen in specialty shops. I can honestly say I was drawn to Same Difference and Other Short Stories.

Today is another first for A Comic A Day, because I do not have the book I’m reviewing here in front of me. No, I didn’t check it out; I read it right there in the library, several hours ago now. Yet, I remember the digest’s minimalist cover, its meek but enticing book design. And the art . . . fairly cartoony, but drawn with a steady, confident hand. The characters were distinct and expressive, and the backgrounds were detail oriented and oftentimes more impressive than the foreground. Kim spreads a few silent moments throughout his main story to establish mood and imply the universal nature of his themes. The story was mainly dialogue driven, but the art kept me anchored and guided me throughout the protagonists’ respective introspective journeys.

As for the characters, Same Difference stars friends Simon and Nancy, both of whom travel to Simon’s native Pacifica, California, to experience two different but thought provoking encounters. For weeks, Nancy had received mail from a previous tenant’s tenacious admirer, Ben Leland, and in amusement, began a correspondence on the lost love’s behalf. When Simon reminds her that his family lives in the same city as the dedicated Leland, she persuades him to take the trip home so they can see what the futile romantic looks like. In Pacifica, Simon bumps into Irene, a blind classmate from high school he rejected before the Sadie Hawkins Dance. Plagued by guilt because of his consuming lies toward her, the unexpected encounter offers the chance to mend fences, ironically not with her, but ultimately with himself.

Now, this story is exactly what I expected to find in a deliberate search for indie comics material: an existential allegory littered with aren’t-we-hip pop culture references and in woe-is-me soliloquies on the strife of twenty-something life. What I didn’t expect was to like it as much as I did. Although the story had a rocky start, with its primary characters huddled around a helping of pho like Seinfeld and company sipping coffee at Tom’s Diner, once Simon and Nancy hit the road, their snappy dialogue was reactive to their surroundings and circumstance, thus less contrived and seemingly peripheral to the artist’s core. Kim explores the nature of time throughout his tale, encapsulating the grandiose force through a layman’s discussion on the disappointments of the future (the old it's-2006-so-where’s-my-jetpack argument Warren Ellis has been bouncing back and forth in his on-line forums), through the irony of domesticity as both a catalyst for stagnancy and change, through the tumult of true love and loss.

As much as we often ponder the elusiveness of time, these situations are all too familiar. How many times have you bumped into burned out acquaintances from high school? Even if you’re confident that your job is better than theirs, if they seem enraptured by marital bliss, you can’t help but envy that maturity. Well, if you’re single, anyway. It’s that quarter-life crisis, life-passing-me-by thing. You know what I mean.

Honestly, I didn’t spend much time with the other short stories in this compilation. Same Difference was eighty solid pages, a “single issue’s worth” by my estimation of the original A Comic A Day regulations. The other tales looked a bit lighter in nature anyway, and I wanted the sophistication of Same Difference to stick with me a bit. Most of the indies I’ve read so far are high concept pieces, featuring anti-superheroes or surreal pretenses to propel the story. I enjoy those books, but sometimes, I like a comic that drags me into it, that makes me think about its context in the real life experience. What better place for some quiet introspection than the library, eh? Patrons that pass up material like this for another Spider-man tale are really missing something.

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