Kleefeld On Webcomics #75: Interview with Derek Kirk Kim, Part 2

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. Click here for Part One.

MTV Geek: You noted recently, to my surprise, that TUNE has basically been subsidized so far by First Second. It's a somewhat different model than most webcomics, and First second is one of the few publishers that seem to be actively pursuing it, having already done that with Friends with Boys and Zahra's Paradise. I don't recall seeing anything about that with TUNE originally, but was that in place right from the start?

Derek Kirk Kim:  Well, First Second always backed the online serialization. The only difference was that, unlike the other First Second web-first books, TUNE was being serialized at my site lowbright.com at first. But as the pages stacked up, I couldn't handle the bandwidth costs anymore on my barebones site, so First Second swooped in and made a site specifically for TUNE and handled any costs from then on. But First Second was behind the web serialization from the get-go, just not financially at first.

Also, when I say they "finance" the online serialization, what I mostly mean is they bought the first two books so I could use the advance they gave me to pay Les McClaine to draw the comic. Unless they buy the next book, there's no money to pay Les, or anyone else, for that matter, to draw the comic, and thus no comic. Les needs to eat and pay rent and can't draw Tune for free.

MTVG: How did you come to get Les on the project in the first place? He certainly works well on the series, but he's not an artist I would have naturally thought of for TUNE based on Middleman or Johnny Crossbones.

DKK: Well, first of all, he's a great artist. And second, I've like his work ever since his journal comic, Life with Leslie. And actually, if you look up that comic you'll see a clear correlation to the work he's doing on TUNE. It's got a scratcher quality not found in Middleman or Johnny Crossbones that you see in TUNE. And I always felt Les and I shared similar aesthetics in terms of what we like in cartooning so I thought it would make for a smooth transition when he took over.

And I got Les on TUNE the same way you get anyone -- paying him decently.

MTVG: One of the things that strikes me as interesting here is that it started as exclusively your work, but beginning in Chapter 11, you bring on Les McClaine as the artist. He does an excellent job keeping the style that you had set up, but I'm curious what prompted the decision to stop drawing it yourself? Was that an artistic choice or simply a necessity of restrictions on your time?

DKK: As I mentioned in a previous answer, I just can't stand drawing comics anymore. That's the simple truth. Being a cartoonist…. unlike a lot of other jobs, it's not just about skill. You have to have a very unique, specific sort of personality. You have to be the kind of person that doesn't mind sitting at a desk endlessly and not go batshit stir crazy while you ink a line you've already drawn 3 or 4 times. Times a million. Unless you've done it, you can't imagine the monotony. Really, you can't. It's not that I mind the work or the hours, there's nothing that makes me happier actually, it's the fact that, for me, my brain just rots while I'm drawing comics. There is no brain activity while I'm inking this brick or whatever that I've drawn a million times before. I need brain activity. When I'm drawing comics, hours feel like weeks. Drawing comics isn't for everyone, and it's definitely not for me. I tried to lie to myself about it for so long, but I finally couldn't run away from it anymore. That's actually why "Mythomania" is the title of my online TV show. Andy Go isn't meant to be a cartoonist, but he constantly lies to himself about it.

Now I use all those work hours on writing. When I'm writing, I feel engaged and alive. The hours fly by. It's what I was meant to do, I can feel it in my bones, in my soul. I wasn't meant to draw comics. I might have the skill, but I don't have the personality.

And personally, and I know there are people that disagree with me, but I think I'm a much better writer than I am an artist. I think I should be spending my time crafting stories, and not wasting it away drawing mediocre panels that suck up my whole life. If I kept to drawing comics, I wouldn't get out 1/10th of the stories that are inside me that I need to get out before I die.

MTVG: So that final realization came while you were in the midst of TUNE? That must have been a difficult struggle on your end.

DKK: Yeah. But since the story was broken up into books, there was a perfect place for me to stop and let another artist take over without it being jarring. And luckily I came to this realization before I got into the second book. The thing is I've known this for a long time, I just didn't want to admit it to myself. I still love doing single illustrations though, like the covers. And I do all the thumbnails for Les to draw off of, the character designs, all the lettering, ballooning and composing and pacing of the panels. So I still contribute quite a bit to the visual aspect of the book even if I'm not doing the actual artwork.

MTVG: My next question was actually going to be about how you guys split the workload. It sounds like your working relationship is closer to what I've seen in manga (and, I expect, manhwa) than American comics. Is that something you actively chose because of your Korean heritage, or did it just happen to work out that way?

DKK: It might be a tiny bit closer, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it's like the manga model. That would imply Les is merely an assistant which he certainly is not. I lay the groundwork, but Les does all the actual drawing and inking, whereas in the manga studio system, the main creator contributes a great deal to the final artwork along with his assistants. I would simply say I just happen to write with doodles and words whereas a regular writer only uses words. And here, I wouldn't say my Korean heritage plays any part.

MTVG: Speaking of Mythomania, can you talk about how that started? What prompted the idea to take Andy from one medium to another like that?

DKK: Well, basically, I was tired of the unrealistic portrayals of cartoonists, or "nerds" in general, in films and TV shows and wanted to throw my hat in the ring. I thought I could bring a higher level of realism to the subject matter having lived the life of a cartoonist myself for a long time.

Also, I must admit I had a slightly grander reason for starting a career in filmmaking. I don't know if you heard about it, but during the casting uproar over the Last Airbender's casting (whitewashing the film by casting white actors to play Asian characters), Gene Yang and I spearheaded a campaign to mobilize professionals in the pop culture industries to show their disapproval of the film's casting choices. That had a profound impact on me. And I thought, I should put my money where my mouth is. One way to combat this problem is letting Hollywood know when they're taking false steps, but I feel this must be in conjunction with more Asian American taking the matter into our own hands and produce something ourselves. That's always going to be the best and most accurate way to see a fair, realistic portrayal of Asian Americans.

And the reason I used the same cast from TUNE in Mythomania is simple. Why spend a lot of time, energy, and creative "stock" making up a whole new cast of characters when I've already got a bunch of aspiring artists in TUNE? Plus, it works perfectly with TUNE since TUNE works on the premise that parallel worlds exist. So in my mind, the world of Mythomania is simply an alternate reality of TUNE. Basically it explores what would have happened to Andy Go and his friends had Andy NOT taken the Praxian job, and simply lived a normal life.

Also, I just happened to be friends with Vivian Bang, a great actress currently co-starring in Sullivan and Son on TBS, and I thought it would be a waste not to utilize her skills! She signed on as soon as she read the script and then the rest of the show's great cast came together just as smoothly. I feel really lucky to be able to work with all of them. The process is so much more invigorating than the mostly solitary creative process of comics. At least for me. I know a lot of cartoonists are cartoonists because they like to work alone.

And recently, we raised enough money on Kickstarter (just barely, with only hours left to go!) to do another "season" (really just an hour-long episode broken up into parts for Youtube) and I'm super excited to get back to it. This season will focus on Tony, who is also in TUNE. People can look for it near the end of this year or early next year.

MTVG: Another thing you noted recently was that the site averages around 1500 regular viewers. That strikes me as surprisingly small, to the point where I would question if that's an accurtae capturing of your readership. For example, I can see that there are over 700 people who subscribe to the site's RSS feed through Google Reader alone. I'm curious, then, where that 1500 number comes from.

DKK: Ah, thank you for the exact numbers on the RSS feed! I was trying to find that number but I couldn't locate it on Google. My site statistics say an average of about 1000 readers who read directly on the site (you can see it here for example under "Daily Unique Visitors": http://tunecomic.com.ip5.org/), and I remember seeing something like 500 RSS subscribers a little while ago, so that's how I came up with 1,500. So I guess it's actually like 1,700. Still, pretty sad for a webcomic that's been running for 2 or 3 years and up to nearly 350 pages. Oh well, I love the readers that I do have though. Some of them are very enthusiastic on the comments. Thank you Tune readers if any of you are reading this!

MTVG: For what it's worth, I think you're still vastly underestimating your readership. Those traffic stats are being reported by Alexa, which is a third party analyzer and I've heard more than a few people complain that they have a tendency to grossly mis-represent site traffic, particularly on smaller sites. I might suggest contacting the company that's actually providing your hosting; they're going to have access to the most accurate data.

Also, those 731 RSS readers are only the ones using Google to read your comic, and wouldn't include other readers like Yahoo's or a smartphone app.

So I'm thinking you have more readers than you think!

DKK: Oh, actually, my server emails me regular statistical updates and they match the ones from the site I linked to. I just showed you that site because it's something I can link to.

Anyway, so it's possible there are more readers but it can't be that much more. We've got about 2,000 views on the last couple episode of Mythomania a year later now, so the numbers are pretty much in line with my normal audience. I'm pretty sure somebody sneezing shot with an iphone has at least ten times more views on average. (laughs) But like I said before, I don't care anymore. I don't have any expectations anymore going into season 2. That's something the first season taught me.

But thank you for the positive spin, I guess only the sales of the first book will be the final verdict. Who knows, perhaps TUNE will find a bigger audience in print.

By the way, this has got to be the first interview in which the interviewee is trying to convince the interviewer how unpopular his product is. (laughs). Oh well, whatever the readership or viewership, I'm proud of the work I've done and especially the work of the cast and crew of Mythomania.

MTVG:  First Second is looking to sell 8000-10000 copies of the first collected edition of TUNE before they finance any more of the series. The first question I have around this is: they've already backed the content of what would be a second volume, would they be looking a printing that as well regardless of the sales of volume one? Or do the sales of first book dictate both the publication of a second and a continuation of the web series?

DKK: Yeah, that's the main reason I'm feeling so dejected about the tiny online readership of Tune. Not because I care that much about mass popularity-- I just want enough readers to continue the series! That's all. But I can't help but worry when the online readership only makes up a fraction of what I need to make that happen. And on top of that you have to realize only a fraction of the online readers will actually buy the book.

The first two books only cover about half of the first story arc. There's so much more to this story. And I'm so antsy to show everyone the ending! I think people will be very surprised at the scope of this story. It's actually much, much bigger than a guy stuck in a cell. Andy, Yumi, Dash, and Mo end up really altering the course of Praxis, this world Andy is trapped in, by the end of the story. I hope I will get a chance to get there!

But regardless of how well the first one does, the second one is going to come out since First Second bought both at the same time. Well, there's a boring, convoluted backstory involving contracts and stuff, but that's the gist of it. But yeah, as far as I know, from what my editor told me, those are the numbers they need on Book 1 to greenlight Book 3. And of course, it's totally understandable. They stand to lose a lot of money.

MTVG: As we're sitting here at the end of Chapter 18, the story is obviously not finished. I'm sure you'd like to continue pursuing it as you have been, but should First Second discontinue their backing of it, would it be something you would look at other avenues for continuing? Either different business models or different outlets altogether?

DKK: I don't want to think about that right now. I want to blissfully ignorantly chug along like Jim Carey in the Truman Show before the world is ripped out from under him. Hopefully, I won't have to face reality! (laughs)

MTVG: I have to admit that I'm a little late to the game on Mythomania, but I'm looking forward to Season 2 now. And I'm even more eager to see TUNE continue. The first book isn't out until November, I believe. When is First Second likely to come back to you on a decision about continuing the story?

DKK: Well, Book 2 is scheduled for Fall of 2013, a year after the first book. So if further book do get greenlit, presumably, Book 3 would be released a year after that, the fourth book a year after that, so on and so forth. And thank you, I'm eager to see both continue as well!

MTVG: What about a resumption of the online comic? Any sense of when the next chapter might go live?

DKK: That I have no idea. It would all depend on when they buy third book. That could be anywhere from tomorrow or 10 years from now depending on the sales.

MTVG: Thanks very much for chatting with me, and thanks even more for sharing the adventures of Andy Go with everyone!

DKK: Thank you for all the great questions, Sean!

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