Gene Luen Yang: I recently had the opportunity to interview award-winning cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim. Derek’s one of my best friends, but even if he weren’t, even if he had stolen my girlfriend in high school, even if he had torn my copy of Transformers #1 (first printing) into tiny little pieces, even if he had driven to my house on Christmas morning for the sole purpose of punching me in the face, I would still be his fan. He is just that good.
GY: Hey Derek! You’ve been doing comics for well over a decade now. You’ve won all three major comics industry awards – the Eisner, the Harvey, and the Ignatz. Even so, some readers may not be familiar with your work. Can you tell us a little about yourself? How’d you first get interested in comics? What kind of stuff inspired you as a kid?
DKK: When I was kid, I loved playing with toys by myself. I wasn’t really into playing with toys the way a lot of other boys did — just smashing their action figures together into battles with other boys. I preferred to seclude myself in a room and throw my toys into epic adventures that would go on for hours or days. Storytelling was always a great thrill for me for some reason. I also loved comics growing up, so when I found I could draw, it was just natural for me to funnel my love of storytelling into comics form. At its core, writing stories is really just playing with toys in your head.
When I was little kid in Korea, it was mostly stuff from Japan – Astroboy, Mazinger Z, Gundam, stuff like that.
GY: Your 2003 graphic novel Same Difference is a Gen X coming of age story, and it’s really the book that put you on the map. First Second Books recently released a beautiful, definitive hardcover edition. Even more recently, Same Difference became the first graphic novel ever to be selected for World Book Night. How’d that come about? And how can folks participate in World Book Night?
DKK: I have no idea. I’m assuming First Second submitted it to the World Book Night folks? But it’s a real honor whichever way! I heard in England the first comic they picked for their version of World Book Night was a Judge Dredd graphic novel! They couldn’t be two more different kinds of comics. That’s really cool.
Anyone can sign up to be a book giver at the World Book Night website.
If selected, the giver will receive free copies of whichever book on the list they asked for. Then on April 23, 2014, they spread the book love by giving away those copies they received to whomever they want!
GY: Same Difference‘s protagonist is a Korean American named Simon who grew up with a white stepfather. In past interviews you’ve denied over and over that Simon is you, but come on. It’s a coincidence that you, too, are a Korean American with a white stepfather? More broadly, how do you construct your characters? How much do you draw from your own life?
DKK: Well, I’m no more my characters than say, Hemingway’s characters are Hemingway. Meaning, there are definite aspects of me that go into certain characters, but Simon’s not me since I’ve never stalked some poor dude in Pacifica. Just like Andy Go in Tune — people accuse him of being me too, but as far as I can remember, I’ve never traveled to another dimension.
And I’m not sure how I construct a character to be honest. It’s really different every time. Sometimes it’s simply to serve the plot, and other times a character is spun off from people I know.
GY: Many of your main characters, including those in Same Difference, are Asian American. Though you never address their cultural identities directly, there’s an “Asian American-ness” that pervades your stories. Speak to that. Is it a conscious choice?
DKK: Yup. But it’s sad that it should even have to a conscious choice. The default race for a central character shouldn’t have to be white.
GY: You’ve been working on a comics series called Tune for quite some time, the second volume of which just debuted from First Second. I’ve been reading nothing but rave reviews of it online. Congratulations! Tell us about it.
DKK: Have you ever seen the Goonies? I always loved that one scene in which the cheerleader character saves the rest of the Goonies from certain death by playing a piano. Usually it’s some kind of physical skill, like martial arts, or archery or something like that which “saves the day.” But she saved the day with an artistic skill! So I thought – what if there was a story which completely hinged on someone’s art ability. Not just as a little scene, but it being the entire crux of the story.
Andy Go is an art student trapped in a world without art. (And no, I’m not talking about America, haha) How does this effect him? How does he effect this world? That’s a big part of what Tune is all about.
GY: Tune pulls from a couple of different genres. In some scenes, it’s sci fi. In others, it’s rom com. Yet as a whole, it’s difficult to categorize. How did you navigate those spaces between genres?
DKK: I don’t think in genres. That’s probably why it’s such a mishmash.
Whether it’s writing or music, I’ve always liked things that don’t fit neatly into a box. That don’t belong to any “movement” or category, but exists in its own unique space. So it wasn’t conscious, I think Tune probably just came out of that natural proclivity of mine.
GY: Can you talk a bit about the alien civilization you’ve created for Tune?
DKK: Sure, as mentioned earlier, Praxis – the parallel dimension in which Andy is trapped – has no concept of art. Praxians outlawed any kind of artistic expression early in their civilization’s development and thus the very idea is completely alien to them now.
So when Andy’s eccentric jailer Dash discovers art through Andy, it disrupts her view of the world, and creates a chain reaction in the story which could lead to Andy’s escape!
GY: Andy Go, the protagonist, is an aspiring artist. And that’s what Tune is about, despite the sci fi setting and romantic subplot: being an artist. You’re exploring some pretty heady stuff. Most art that talks about art is unwaveringly positive about art, but you’re painting a more complex picture (pun intended). You present the importance of art, but you also allude to the isolation of the artist. Is this in response to something?
DKK: Oh yes. Tune in one aspect is an overly elaborate metaphor for what it’s like to be a full time cartoonist. Cut off from the rest of humanity in a room by yourself, just living in your own head. It’s not a healthy existence in my opinion.
GY:Is Andy’s love interest Yumi based on anyone in particular? (Yes, I’m prying.)
DKK: No, not really to be honest. At least not one person. But there are aspects of her that are definitely drawn from real life women I’ve had crushes on in the past. Like Yumi playing the Star Wars theme song on the accordion. Back in college I remember having a crush on another student who did that completely unexpectedly at a dinner once. That really exacerbated my crush on her, haha. And I thought it was such an cool little detail so I worked it into the book.
GY: Tune has a unique format. The panels aren’t laid out on a grid of any sort. They’re almost all the same size, but you vary the number and position of them on each page. How’d you arrive at such a unique way of composing pages?
DKK: It was inspired partially by the comics making method of Chester Brown (in my opinion, maybe the greatest cartoonist alive). He draws the panels individually first and only at the end composes the panels onto the page. Which to me sounds like a much smarter way to edit a story.
The conventional way of doing comics can sometimes lock you into a grid which is very hard to edit if you change your mind later on in the comics’ production. At least for me.
I was also always frustrated with having to draw around the word balloons. I felt I couldn’t really compose each panel to a satisfying illustrative composition with the speech bubbles in the actual picture frame. So I moved them outside of the panel borders as well.
Basically I just wanted to make the medium work for me, and not feel bullied by it. I didn’t want to be trapped into a method simply because it’s the way you’re “supposed” to do it.
GY: You wrote and drew the first volume of Tune, but for the second you brought in cartoonist Les McClaine to handle the visuals. Why did you choose to do that? And what was it like, working with Les?
DKK: It was fine. I still laid out all the panels in thumbnail form, so Les’ job was to make my chickenscratch pretty and readable, which he’s good at doing.
GY: You’re also working on a live action series for the web called Mythomania. One of the protagonists is named Andy Go. What the–?! Did you just run out of names? Or are Mythomania and Tune somehow connected?
DKK: The way I see it, Tune and Mythomania are simply parallel dimensions.
Or alternate timelines, you might say. I mean, Tune is all about parallel dimensions after all. Basically, Mythomania is the alternative universe in which Andy never took that job in the Praxian zoo, and just lived his life in the “normal” world with his friends navigating through life after college.
GY: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Derek! Where can folks find your stories?
DKK: Thank YOU for the interview, Gene! And congratulation on Boxers & Saints, and its recent National Book Award nomination!!
Folks can find my stories at lowbright.com, tunecomic.com and youtube.com/mythomaniashow. And of course info about my printed books (and a bunch more much better ones) can be found right here at firstsecondbooks.com.