Kleefeld On Webcomics #74: Interview with Derek Kirk Kim, Part 1

By Sean Kleefeld

Derek Kirk Kim came to prominence with his debut graphic novel, Same Difference and Other Stories. He’s worked on a variety of projects since then, and his latest two revolve around the story of Andy Go. He’s telling Andy’s stories through the webcomic TUNE and the YouTube series Mythomania. We were able to have a chat with Kim between chapters and seasons.

MTV Geek: I like to start interviews off with early experiences and influences. Since you were born in South Korea, I'm particularly interested in hearing what types of comics or cartoons may have an impact or resonated with you as a child.

Derek Kirk Kim: The earliest comics and cartoons I remember being obsessed with (and I always was as far back as I can remember) was Marine Boy, Star Blazers, Captain Harlock and the original Gundam. I didn't really remember anything about the story in these comics and cartoons as I experienced them when I was really young, maybe as early as 3-5 years old, but some of the images from these cartoons and comics and what was happening around the experience of watching or reading them is as vivid in my mind as my memories of real life. If anything, the images from these cartoons and comics are even more vivid because of the rich, saturated colors that were used in cartoons back then.

When I was older, I got more into comics specifically, and I became obsessed with Korean comics, and not just stuff translated from Japan (which I didn't realize at the time). None of those old Korean comics are translated into English so I can't tell you exactly what they were. But a couple I remember vividly are one about a boxer who fought in a "praying mantis style," and one about a superhero/wrestler named "Flag Man." If I remember correctly, his costume was the Korean flag. Now a days, most Korean comics are just imitations of manga stylistically, but back in the day, Korean comics, or manhwa, had their own very distinctive style and flavor that is now pretty much gone. Sad really.

MTVG: Well, you've got my interest piqued there now! I'm only really familiar with more-or-less contemporary manhwa; what exactly was different about that older material?

DKK: It was the art style. Just like manga has a "stock" style that bonds them, Korean comics did as well back in the 70's. There must've been a really popular artist who first drew in this style whom everyone else copied. I just tried google, but in English, nothing comes up of what I'm talking about. That's how thoroughly it's been eradicated! I remember there was one comic that was translated into English that was done in this style back in the 90's sometime. I believe they called it, "The Wild" here in the states. But I can't find anything on it from a cursory search on google.

MTVG: This...?

DKK: That's it! Man, you got some impressive googlin' skillz.

MTVG: Then moving to the U.S. at a young age, were you conscious of any shift in the style, tenor, etc. of American media compared to Korean?

DKK: Oh, for sure. They were worlds apart. Initially I didn't like American comics at all. I thought there were too many words per panel and the art ugly. It took me a long time to fully embrace them.

MTVG: That would've been in the early 1980s, right? I don't believe there was much, if any, manhwa being shipped to the States at that time.

DKK: Yeah, there wasn't even any manga around, let alone manhwa! These kids today, they don't know how good they have it. (laughs)

MTVG: At what point did you decide on art as a career? I've inferred that you pursued formal training rather aggressively; could you speak to your art education?

DKK: Well, I always wanted to write and draw comics as far back as I can remember. Until recently, I was very singularly focused my whole life. It's only recently that I fully embraced my desire to delve into other media like filmmaking. Now-a-days, I enjoy filmmaking more, as far as the process goes. I like moving around, being in different environments, and especially collaborating and working with other human beings. Just sitting alone in a room for 12 hours a day for the rest of my life while the world moves by doesn't have the appeal it did when I was kid. (laughs) What can I say, I was a weird kid. As far as mediums and the finished work goes though, I don't like films any more than comics. I love comics and film equally.

But what I said about making comics is actually very pertinent to TUNE. Andy Go being trapped in this cage forever (by his own doing), not being able to leave this one room, is pretty much a reflection of what it's like to a cartoonist! (laughs) Be careful what you wish for!

As far as formal training, yes, I went to the Academy of Art in San Francisco and majored in Illustration. I received a good education there as far as learning how to draw goes, but now I wish I had gone to a regular school so I could have gotten a more rounded education and been exposed to different subjects.

MTVG: The classes you did take wouldn't have focused on storytelling, right? Was that something you just tried to absorb from other material, or were you able to center your class projects around sequential art?

DKK: Yes, the storytelling aspect of sequential art was all self taught from reading, oh I dunno, a million comics or so.

MTVG: I think it's safe to say that your big splash in comics was with Same Difference and Other Stories. You were awarded a Xeric for it in 2002, got a Ignatz in 2003, and won both an Eisner and a Harvey for the Top Shelf edition in 2004. The story has seen global distribution and First Second put out a new American edition last year. Can you walk through your initial ideas and sketches for the book through the various publishing jumps to what is now being read around the world?

DKK: I have a weird relationship with Same Difference at this point in my career. I think it's the only one of my works that struck a chord to more than a couple thousand people. It was my 15 minutes, so to speak. It's weird, I had the feeling at the time that Same Difference was the beginning of something, not the peak. But now I realize it was the peak and I'm just going to be this super obscure cartoonist/filmmaker for the rest of my life. It used to frustrate me, but now I've just accepted it and I can relax and just do what I can I do.

Same Difference was great in that it kickstarted my professional career (as in being able to make a living solely doing art), but it sort of painted me into this corner as well. I get people saying things like, I need to "get back to my roots" or "TUNE sucks and it's surprising coming from the guy who did Same Difference." Stuff like that. Well, it's rare anyone outside of my site talks about my work these days to begin with, but I've read a few murmurings like that on the internet. The thing is, even before Same Difference, I was doing genre-infused work. I want to do everything and anything. But it's kind of hard to win over the same audience who only know and like you for one specific thing. For example, it's pretty obvious the majority of TUNE readers have no interest in Same Difference or know who I am even though I have all these books and awards and years in the comics biz under my belt. I feel like with each new work I do, (Good As Lily, Eternal Smile, TUNE, Mythomania) I have to win over another whole new audience because most of my readers don't follow me from work to work like a lot of other artists. It's tiring, and it can get me quite dejected at times. But who knows maybe this is all just in my head.

As far as the creative process of Same Difference… ahhh, I've talked about this a million times. People can google it. But I will say one thing, except for the ridiculously hyperbolic blurb on the flaps which I'm highly embarrassed by, I absolutely love the new edition from First Second Books. They did such an amazing job on it. I'm really proud of it and really proud to be part of the First Second family.

MTVG: Do you find that holds just between Same Difference and TUNE, which are about a decade apart, or does that seem to be the case among all your stories? What I mean is that Same Difference and TUNE were written about 10 years apart, so there's obviously going to be a number of changes in your tone and style if you only look at those two pieces, since you've grown as a person and a storyteller in that time. But do you have people who have read, say, Good as Lily or Eternal Smile and compare those as negatively to Same Difference?

DKK: Not as much with those works, but Gene (Yang) did get a LOT of that for Eternal Smile. Just about every review would size up Eternal Smile to American Born Chinese. I wish people would have reviewed it on its own terms. I thought it was unfair to Gene as they're totally different kinds of books. I guess it didn't help that it followed American Born Chinese, Gene's monster hit.

MTVG: Although you started serializing Healing Hand online, much of your work after Same Difference -- certainly the most widely touted of it -- went through more-or-less traditional publishing venues. So how did you come to the decision to run your latest project, TUNE, online?

DKK: Well, mainly I guess I just wanted to be more active in the internet community. There's such a long gestation period for each "graphic novel" that you tend to lose touch with your readers. I thought it would be a good way to satisfy the more impatient readers who don't want to wait a year or two see a glimpse of your next work. Plus I had such a good experience serializing Same Difference so I thought I would try it again. The reaction's been very different though. The final 79th page of Same Difference that was uploaded back in '02 or '03 pulled in about a million hits according to my website host at the time. TUNE is 337 pages (!) deep, and it can barely crack a thousand or two. So, I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have put it online. I don't know, it's all so confusing and mysterious. Or TUNE just sucks and I can't see it. The frustrating part is, personally, I think it's the best work I've ever done.

By the way, that's not to say I'm just out to pursue popularity or anything -- otherwise I wouldn't be doing the kind of idiosyncratic work that I do -- but the frustrating part stems from thinking you're doing something just as good as something you did before and being confused as to why it's not having the same impact. That's all. If Same Difference had had the same small audience as TUNE, none of this would even enter my mind. But I'm equally proud of both works creatively speaking, regardless of the readership.

MTVG: Before we go much further, let's take a moment for the benefit of readers who might not be familiar with TUNE; how would you describe the series?

DKK: It's a weird, unconventional series, I'm not gonna lie. But I hope in a good, fun way. At its core, it's about an art school drop out named Andy Go who gets trapped in a world where art doesn't exist. Creativity of any kind is outlawed in this alternate reality and it's about how this artist deals with it. Which of course, pokes at all kinds of philosophical ideas like the role art plays in our world. Is it important? What does it do for us exactly? What constitutes as "art"? But all this is wrapped in a funny, sci-fi adventure tortilla. Or whatever. If I had to give a hollywood style pitch, I would say it's a collision of Louie, Star Trek, Say Anything, and Red Dwarf. I'm pretty sure that has never been said in the history of everything.

MTVG: I'm not going to fact-check that, but I expect you're right. You know, I hadn't thought of the Red Dwarf analogy before, but I totally can't not see it now! I'm going to be waiting to see Andy attacked by giant mutant curry now! Ha!

DKK: Haha, maybe a giant jar of kimchee? Also, always exciting meeting another Red Dwarf fan! RD is sorely underappreciated in the states.

Tune in next Friday for the conclusion of our interview with Derek Kirk Kim!

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