In 2004 Derek Kirk Kim won both major comics industry awards, the Eisner, the Ignatz and the Harvey for his graphic novel, Same Difference and Other Stories. In 2007 Kim won a second Eisner for his collaboration with Gene Luen Yang, The Eternal Smile. Yang, who's most recent graphic novel is the superb Level Up with art by Thien Pham, is the creator of American Born Chinese which, besides being the first graphic novel ever nominated for the National Book Award, is the winner of the Michael L Printz Award, the Newbery of young adult fiction. Now, the outstanding publisher of graphic novels First Second has issued a redesigned deluxe edition of Same Difference with new cover art that includes a very cool clear dust jacket that is swimming with fish and an afterword in which Kim shares some early character sketches and influences.
I'm still new enough to the world of graphic novels and come from a place of ignorance (if not prejudice) so I feel a bit like I need to defend/explain why any given graphic novel I am reviewing is so amazing at the start of each review. I guess I assume that most of my readers are like me, older and parents and not necessarily in the loop of cool, as opposed to the bulk of graphic novel readers and creators who are kids or adults in their 20s. So, for those of you like me who need a reason (besides the long list of awards and accolades for Kim's work as listed above) to read this book or suggest a young person in your life read it, let me sum it up for you here: From the ordinary, Kim extracts an extraordinary moment and the mundane becomes magical for an instant.
It's 2000 and Simon Moore and his friends Nancy and Ian are hanging out at a pho restaurant in Oakland, CA when Simon sees a girl he went to high school with - and treated badly - over seven years ago. As he tells his friends about Irene, the images flashback to high school and the story unfolds. While Simon was a jerk to Irene, it was really one of those moments of youth and inexperience that are regrettable but forgivable and yet they are often the moments that we carry with us in shame for most of our lives until Facebook or a chance meeting allows us to unload and maybe even apologize. Since Same Difference is set before the dawn of Facebook, Simon needs a random act to bring about his catharsis and his friend Nancy seems to have entangled herself in just the situation to bring this about. After moving in to her new apartment, letters to the former renter begin piling up quickly. Ben Leland sends letter after letter to Sarah Richardson and Nancy means to do something with them so that at the very least she can let Ben know that Sarah has moved, but she never does. When Simon and Nancy head back to her place after pho she is surprised and upset to find a package from Ben to Sarah has arrived. To make things worse, Nancy has written a letter back to Ben, pretending to be Sarah, in the hopes of relieving some of his misery over their break up. When she finds out that the letters were sent from Pacifica, some forty miles away from Oakland, Nancy convinces Simon to return to his home town so that they can check out Ben Leland to find out just how pathetic he really is.
The trip home for Simon is not what he expected at all, nor is it for Nancy. Kim does a great job setting the scene and developing his characters but he really shows his skill at storytelling as he weaves their stories together. I don't want to give too much away, but Same Difference is the kind of book that, when you finish it you close the covers, pause, maybe even sigh a little, then think about life, the past, mistakes and forgiveness. As the quote on the back of the book from the San Francisco Chronicle states, "[Kim] illuminate[s] the emotional bear-traps and intricate dishonesties of our everyday interactions with a clarity that should be more painful than it is." I think that it must be Kim's artistic skill with the graphic part of this novel that takes some of the edge off the sting of the story. His characters, although in their mid-twenties, are very funny, especially Nancy who has a playfully wicked streak, or maybe a wickedly playful streak, that brings levity to the novel. And, while Kim's story is rich with text, he often portrays some of the most intensely emotional moments with images and not words, making the moment even more powerful. This is one of the main reasons that I have come to love the storytelling medium of graphic novels. And Derek Kim's Same Difference makes me love it even more.
For me, or I guess I should honestly say, for someone in her forties, reading Same Difference was also very interesting for the brief glimpse back to the late 90s and early 2000s that it provided. Although the first words on the first page of Same Difference are "Spring, 2000" I somehow missed them the first time I read the book and spent most of the novel trying to pinpoint the era. I thought I had it until Simon and Nancy purchase two pints of Ben & Jerry's near the end of the book and the bill comes to $8.21. As someone who has been buying B&J's since I was in college over 20 years ago, the ever-rising cost of a pint is fresh in my mind and that is definitely a 2010 price, not a 2000, which got me to thinking. And searching the internet, which is where I found this great explanation From the Desk of Derek Kim in which he addresses the dated act of mailing letters that is a vital element to his story and how overwhelming it would be to have to update Same Difference for this new edition. Maybe it is because of my age or more likely it is Kim's superior storytelling skills, but I was sucked into the story from the first panel and anything dated that cropped up never felt like an anomaly or anachronistic.
Readers who liked Same Difference might also enjoy:
Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham
Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill
Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge